Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories

Tevye The Dairyman
The Railroad Stories

By Sholem Aleichem

Book Review

By Richard E. Noble

In the Jewish community Sholem (Rabinovich) Aleichem is considered a classic. His character, Tevye the Dairyman, is the very same character we encounter in that wonderful musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” It is this group of stories by Sholem Aleichem on which the musical play is based.

I have enjoyed the music and the play, Fiddler on the Roof, for years. It just recently occurred to me that this great tale immortalized in the play must have had an author. I then discovered Sholem Aleichem.

Sholem Aleichem is a pseudonym used by the author to protect himself and his job as “crown rabbi,” a state appointed clerical position for a Jewish community in the Russian Ukraine. In Yiddish it translates to “Hello There.”

I must say that the story of Tevye the Dairyman and his wife and daughters may be the most impressive bit of fiction story writing that I have ever read. I have been trying to think of some great American writers to compare this man to, but no one comes to mind. This author stands out as a one of a kind.

The manner in which the author presents hope and despair simultaneously is only equaled by his ability to provoke laugher and tears also simultaneously.

I suppose some might be turned off by the “ethnic” nature of the stories but the stories were, in fact, written originally in Yiddish and were directed to a Jewish audience. Only via the efforts of the translator, Hillel Halkin, are we, the general audience, provided the privilege of enjoying this joyous celebration of the tragedy of life – in specific, the quite unique life of the historical Jewish community.

The “Jewish Experience,” as it is often called, is an unfortunate experience that is mimicked over and over for every generation of Jew and millions of non-Jew around the world. It is, of course, the all too familiar story of bigotry, prejudice, persecution and perseverance.

How the author incorporates, God, religion, politics, wealth, poverty and the day to day trials and tribulations of the everyday existence of a poor, struggling family man is an accomplishment certainly deserving of classical praise. All this and it is very, very funny too. Writers around the world dream of having this capacity. This kind of writing is what writing is all about. Enough said.

This is two books in one. In “The Railroad Stories” we go from the sublime to the prejudice. We leave the wonderful universal character of Tevye and we go commuting on the railroad. These stories display openly every imaginable type of prejudice existing at the time. Every main character is a “Jew.” There are tall Jews, short Jew, pompous ass Jews, well-off Jews … Jew after Jew after Jew. But then, of course, this is a book written by a Jew in Yiddish for consumption by other Jews. But I doubt that in today’s world this attitude would be considered acceptable even within the Jewish community.

We see the stereotypical conniving, manipulative male Jewish character, and their overbearing and demanding wives – often referred to as “cows,” their obnoxious children, useless relatives and so on. We are continually faced with the dumb goy, the brick-headed Russian, and the obnoxious, hypocritical Christians.

But if the modern, reader can get past all of this and understand the history of it all, it becomes a cleaver study in the evolution of divergent cultures.

The narrator introduces the reader to each new train car passenger and then the passenger narrates his tale. Difficult for an editor to punctuate but easy to read.
Being my age, I associate the style and attitude of each narrator with older stand-up Jewish comedians like Alan King and then Molly Goldberg. But Alan and Molly are ethnic but universal. They are heavy on style or even sarcasm but avoid the roughness of Sholem Aleichem in these railroad tales.

Many of the stories are truly hilarious – but there is always that underriding crudeness and bigotry. I don’t know what the younger audience would think of these type stories today. I’m left with very mixed emotions.

Tevye the Dairyman I give five stars. I would give it more if there were more available to award. The Railroad Stories get only three stars. I liked them but … but they are difficult. Clearly the other is attempting to bond with the Jew of his era and local. The bonding is obvious and the author makes his case clear in the last story. This is a book directed at “third class” Jews.

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