Tevye is Sholem Aleichem’s most beloved character and the Tevye stories his most widely acclaimed literary works. A good deal of their reputation today derives, of course, from the popularity of “Fiddler on Roof,” the American Broadway and Hollywood bowdlerizations of those stories, which critics and scholars understandably differentiate sharply from Sholem Aleichem’s literary creation. Yet for all their differences, both “Fiddler”’s popularity and the attraction of the Tevye stories share a common source: the function and nature of Tevye as a character.
The literary scholar Dan Miron has argued that Tevye is not the sweet and innocent figure he is often assumed to be (not least by Tevye himself).* He is, to begin with, a “deeply conventional, limited, and flawed” individual. Moreover, he is scandalously neglectful of his family, adding to their and his own woes through his poor judgement or his passivity. In fact, Miron observes that Tevye is never so strikingly cheerful as when he is talking about the miseries of Jews in Russia, for he breathes easier when he can submerge his own guilty conscience in the general travails of his people.
Miron dismantles Tevye, but says that, despite Tevye’s considerable moral and personal failings, we are nevertheless seduced by him because of his power as a talker, because of the literary performance he spins out and in which he stars. Yet here I am not convinced by Miron, who writes:
Were we to live with a Tevye-like person, we would reject him as impossible. Had he tried, as he must, to impress us with his stories and clever quibbling, we would flee him as a pest. Who would want to listen to a Tevye? Fortunately, we do not have to endure Tevye in real life. That’s why we can love and look up to him—he is safely ensconced in a book. The same loquacity that in real life would turn us off acquires in the book the exciting quality of flowing honey, of which we cannot have enough.
It can’t just be the talk. Not every loquacious, self-involved raconteur in literature casts the spell that Tevye does in these stories. In fact, it is the desire to “flee” Tevye that is part of the character’s spell.
The secret to Tevye’s popularity is actually found in Miron’s explication of another of Sholem Aleichem’s characters, the orphan boy Motl from Motl the Cantor’s Son. As Miron has argued, the intense charm and force of the little boy Motl is that he witnesses the dissolution of traditional Eastern European Jewish life with a child’s glee, free of any guilt or burdensome nostalgia.
Motl is put forward to say, in his childish way, that the demise of the traditional eastern European Jewish civilization is not only unavoidable but also welcome; that it is high time for the shtetl culture to leave the historical stage for something else, no matter how primitive and crass, as long as it is alive and healthy; that being an orphan is, under certain circumstances, preferable to being burdened with a moribund ancestry.
The Tevye stories accomplish the same thing, but from the side of the father. If Motl is the child happily cut loose from parental authority, from the authority of tradition itself, then Tevye is the figure for that authority who allows us to be Motl. That is, in Tevye, Sholem Aleichem gives us a patriarch we have permission to disobey, and ultimately even to abandon. We are allowed to abandon Tevye, but without rancor or bitterness, and even with a sweet sense of affection. But never so much affection that we would choose to stay with him forever. He is the perfect figure of tradition for readers who have left tradition behind. That is Tevye’s secret.
In this sense, the film and stage versions that have carried an Americanized Tevye as far away as Japan are surprisingly faithful to the original stories. “Fiddler on the Roof” told American Jews that they had justifiably left the shtetl behind while simultaneously reassuring them that they were still faithful to it, that they were both free of the claims of tradition yet also the bearers of tradition, or at least whatever parts of tradition were worth preserving, in the new world. It turns out that this happy absolution is so powerful and so universally desired that it has made “Fiddler on the Roof” into an international hit.
*See Miron’s introduction to Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son, translated by Aliza Shevrin (Penguin, 2009), and the more extensive discussion in Miron’s From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking (Stanford, 2010).