Tevye's Daughters is a collection of short stories by Solomon Yakov Rabinowitz (1859 - 1916) under the pen name of Sholom Aleichem1 written between 1895 and 1915. Some of those short stories achieved fame since they served as the basis for the famous musical and movie Fiddler on the Roof. The stories were originally written in Yiddish and they take place in western Ukraine, around the typical Jewish towns or settlements also known as shtetls (Boyberik, Anatevka and Masepovka). Aleichem's main character, dairyman Tevye, is based on a real dairyman Aleichem met while on vacation in that region2. The short stories are written from the perspective of Tevye, as if he was telling Aleichem a story or writing him a letter. In most cases the stories are about some mishap in Tevye's life - some are funny and others are quite serious. There are many different compilations entitled Tevye's Daughters - some encompass all of the stories with 'Tevye' and some concentrate on the stories about his 'daughters' only.
Bittersweet - Yiddish Literature in East Europe 1890-1910.
Most of Aleichem's short stories feature fictitious characters experiencing a very real environment, like the tsarist regime in its last days, the growing antisemitism and the beginnings of the revolution in Russia. While the specific criticism is clearly apparent, it is often not written down explicitly in the text. This makes it possible to transpose some situations to current days, or to one's own personal experience. One aspect of Aleichem's storytelling style that might appear intriguing to new readers of Yiddish literature is the contrasting of humour with very serious subjects like discrimination, poverty, political arbitrariness, suicide or hunger - without sounding pathetic. In the words of Max Brod:
Where he [Aleichem] destroys he also builds, where he stings he also caresses.
Most readers find the stories deeply touching. This is anchored in the Jewish storytelling tradition. In the same sense one will also find the typical Jewish discourse, where a pious man argues directly with God. Another aspect that might seem somewhat confusing, is that the story is not consistent over the whole compilation. For example, in the first stories Tevye appears to have seven daughters. However, the seventh daughter is never mentioned in later stories. One has to keep in mind that these short stories were written over a period of almost 20 years, and that they were not conceived as 'chapters' of one big novel.
The core of the compilation, Tevye's Daughters, consists of seven short stories. The first and the last stories, From Drayman to Dairyman (1895) and Get Thee Out (1914) set the frame around the main plot. In the first story a rather good-humoured Tevye describes how, by luck, he became a dairyman. In the last story Tevye is an old and bitter man: after many tragic events he, and all other Jews of that region, are forced to leave Boyberik (the village where he lives, close to Anatevka) and Tevye emigrates (it is not clear whether he emigrates to the United States or to Palestine).
The main part focusses on the marriages of Tevye's daughters3. The remaining five short stories, or chapters, are dedicated to one daughter, or, more correctly, one daughter's marriage: Modern Children (Tzeitel - 1899), Hodel (1904), Chava (1906), Shprintze (1907) and Tevye goes to Palestine (Beilke - 1909). The fifth short story deviates slightly from the one-daughter-one-story structure. In this story a succession of events taking place around Beilke's marriage is described. The sixth daughter Teibel is only mentioned in a short passage in Shprintze. It is worth noting how Tevye's life becomes increasingly doleful from story to story.
Tzeitel is about to marry Lasar-Wolf, a rich but already old butcher, by arrangement of her father, all in accordance with Jewish tradition. However, she is in love with Motl Kamisol, a poor tailor's apprentice. Motl convinces her father to let them marry. After Tevye tricks his superstitious wife Golde (by simulating a presaging dream) and gets her consent, Tzeitel marries Motl.
Hodel's story begins as Tevye, on his way home, meets Pertchik. After some chit-chat Tevye finds out how well educated the otherwise poor young man is. Pertchik is often invited to visit Tevye and gives his daughters lessons. Eventually Tevye finds out that something is going on between Hodel and Pertchik. He is shocked to find out that they have married secretly. He accepts the facts (after all, he likes Pertchik) and ends up convincing his wife that all is fine. Things get a bit more dramatic because Pertchik is a revolutionary. He is exiled to Siberia and after a while Hodel follows him. The departure of Hodel is very hard for Tevye, because he knows he is never going to see his daughter again.
Chava has a Christian friend, Khvedko, who shares her love for literature. Quite suddenly Tevye learns that she had married him. A marriage outside of the religion, for Tevye, was a very serious matter. According to the Jewish tradition, he declares her dead and forbids anyone of the family to have contact with her. Secretly, he still cares for Chava and learns at second-hand how she is doing. On one occasion both meet on the street, but Tevye forces himself to ignore her.
Shprintze's story begins as Tevye helps a wealthy widow with her son, Aarontchik, whom she thinks is a lazy ne'er-do-well. Aarontchik and Shprintze end up falling in love, and a marriage is arranged. Everything seems to work out fine this time. However, Aarontchik's family is against that marriage (Tevye is too poor). In a conversation with Tevye they try to undo the arrangement by offering Tevye money. Infuriated and humiliated Tevye throws their money at them. A week or so later, on his way home from deliveries, he sees a commotion at a pond nearby their home. Tevye comments to Sholom Aleichem as he tells the story:
When someone dies he usually dies with his eyes closed. A drowned person's eyes are wide open.
Shprintze had committed suicide.
Beilke and Others
In the first part of this story Tevye briefly sums up what has happened so far and adds, en passant, that his wife, Golde, has passed away. He remembers that Shprintze is dead, and that Chava also, to him, is dead. Tzeitel and Motl are busy raising their own family. Then he concentrates on Beilke, Tevye's last daughter. Teibel is mentioned in the previous story about Shprintze, but she has no story of her own. She is also not mentioned in this story. It's as if Sholom Aleichem forgot she existed. Beilke is left to take care of Tevye. He refers to Beilke as:
A woman of valour... She had always been devoted to me, but since Golde died I became the apple of her eye.
In a way, Beilke represents a return to tradition. The town matchmaker finds a match for Beilke. The matchmaker describes him:
He is a contractor, this Padhatzur, he builds houses and factories and bridges. He was in Japan during the war and made a fortune4.
Beilke was no more eager to marry him than she was to lie down and die. The more he showered her with gifts, with gold watches and rings and diamonds, the more distasteful he became to her.
Tevye tried to tell Beilke she didn't have to marry Padhatzur, that money isn't everything; 'just look at your sister Hodel, who is still happy as a pauper'. Beilke responds:
In those days people were concerned about the world and forgot about themselves. Now that the world is back to where it was, people think about themselves and forget about the world.
This quote has a double meaning. First, it explains why Beilke marries Padhatzur: she puts the world (or the rational view) in front of her personal (or emotional) needs. It also provides irony in that we know that all is not right with the world.
As one might guess, Padhatzur is not a great match for Beilke. He tells all those in his circle of connections that Beilke comes from a rich family. Due to this he needs a way to get Tevye out of town. He buys Tevye a ticket to Palestine (hence the title of the story). When Tevye leaves, Beilke cries, 'because you are leaving on my account, and there is nothing I can do to stop it'.
Get Thee Out!
In the last story Get Thee Out Tevye's miseries continue. He never gets to Palestine. Motl dies, and Tevye returns to support Tzeitel and his grandchildren. Padhatzur loses all his money and he and Beilke move to America where both work in a stocking factory. In the end Tevye is forced to leave his home because of an official 'ethnic cleansing' measure of the government. Finally, Tevye is confronted with Chava again; she appears in the room, while he is packing his things, and close to tears she can only bring herself to say one word, 'Father'. Tevye asks Sholom Aleichem what he would have done: take his daughter in his arms, or turn away once more? We're never told which choice Tevye made.
There are many different ways to interpret Aleichem's work, resulting in different nuances of the moral messages that the stories convey. One extreme example is the matter of inter-religious marriage, which is not clear-cut. Aleichem also seems to play with the meaning of the character's names, which is a common feature in Eastern literature. Lasar Wolf, the butcher, for example, is compared to a wolf. Motl Kamisol, the poor tailor, is named after an outdated piece of military clothing. Chava is Hebrew for life, and is also the original Hebrew name for Eve, the first woman. And so on. On the one hand this might lead to further, deeper interpretations, on the other hand, this might be a lot less intentional than it seems: Jewish surnames in that particular time were often derived by the non-Jewish local authorities - often in a derrogatory way - from the individual's profession.
Tevye's Daughters gives food for thought and discussion, but it does not give clear moral messages in terms of good and bad. Instead, one is reminded of the constant struggle between one's own views; in Tevye's case, to stick to religious rules, or to allow a more progressive view. Good and bad depends on each particular situation.