Tevye And The Jewish Spirit

Tevye And The Jewish Spirit
Will Gotkin
August 19, 2010

Sholem Aleichem’s character, Tevye, from his classic work Tevye the Dairyman, is a beloved figure in Jewish literature. This novel was originally written in Yiddish. It has since been translated into numerous languages and adapted into several theatrical productions and films, the most famous of which is the American play, Fiddler on the Roof. Each version of the Aleichem’s story is told slightly differently. As a result Tevye is portrayed in a slightly different light in each adaptation. However, he is universally known as a man staunchly committed to Jewish tradition. Through analyzing this character in Tevye the Dairyman one can see that Tevye is committed to certain Jewish values. From studying Tevye’s actions and words we can learn a few things about Jewish values and see how he embodies some of them.

Like the Jewish people as a nation, Tevye is the epitome of a survivor. Tevye is a poor man who suffers much hardship. His tzaaros includes suffering financial set-backs, being duped by a con-artist, losing one daughter to intermarriage, another daughter to the communist revolution in Russia, and losing his home to an anti-Semitic Czarist decree. However, through all of this he retains his youthful optimism, faith, and sense of humor.

It is noteworthy that throughout the book Tevye has spontaneous talks with G-d. In Judaism, the term for casually conversing with Hashem in personal prayer is called hisbodedus. Private communication with Hashem in addition to the thrice daily prescribed prayer services is a great way to build bitachon (trust) and emunah (faith) in Hashem. As one friend pointed out to me, Tevye’s running dialogue with Hashem actually made Hashem a character in the narrative. When we talk to Hashem from our hearts, we make Him more a part of the daily narrative of our everyday life. Many people feel uncomfortable speaking with Hashem or asking Hashem for things. Many feel they are unworthy, but in reality when we speak to Hashem we help to make ourselves vessels to receive the brachos He wishes to bestow upon each and every one of us. That is why taking a little time each day to praise and thank Hashem and to engage in self reflection and teshuva (repentance) each day is so important. It also leads to inner peace and happiness.

There are more ways that Tevey personifies Jewish values. Tevye is a man of modest means, he is forced to labor during almost all of his waking hours delivering dairy products to wealthy Jews who lead lives of leisure of which he can only dream. However, his fantasy is not to become wealthy so he can show off, but so that he can give his children a better life, devote more time to studying his precious Torah books, and give back to the community in the form of tzedeka.

Tevye also expresses a sense of humor that enables him to get through the toughest of situations. He responds to his troubles with sayings like “Who can know the mind of G-d?” and “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” He has strong emunah and recognizes that everything in his life comes from Hashem – his lows as well as his highs. This unshakable faith in Hashem enables him face life’s challenges with vigor. The stories in the book take place over the course of many years. In the book Tevye ages considerably, but his youthful optimism, sense of humor, and faith in Hashem never wavers. Tevye is not perfect, but neither are we. However, the character of Tevye is a testament to the Jewish spirit. Like Tevye, we should all learn to trust in Hashem and involve Him in all of our daily acts. In the true spirit of Judaism, this will assist us increasing our awareness of Hashem’s involvement in the world.

Will Gotkin is a contributing writer for Gather The Jews.

1 reply
  1. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Editor’s Note:

    The two characteristics that most resonate with me are:

    1) Our ability to survive

    I think one of those songs by Rhianna or Beyonce says it best: adversity only makes you tougher in the end. Yes, it’s hard to get back up from the ground, but we, as a people, have to do it. We will emerge hardened from the furnace.

    2) The ability to laugh.

    I think Oscar Wilde said something to the effect of: “Don’t take life too seriously; you’ll never get out alive.” If Tevye could laugh at his misfortunes, then surely I can laugh at some of my (far lesser) misfortunes and keep them in perspective.

    Thanks for this insight Will.


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