Tevye The Dairyman and Motl The Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem

Tevye The DairymanTevye the Dairyman: “In honor of my dear, beloved friend Reb Sholem Aleichem, may God grant you health and prosperity together with your wife and children, and may you have great fulfillment whatever you do and wherever you go.  Amen. Selah!”

Actually, I read this book for Cirtnecce’s Classic Club Spin, choosing to join her to check off a book on my own Classics Club list.  I was expecting a light, enjoyable read and Aleichem lived up to my expectations, with a lively and appealing look in at a Jewish-Russian family and their lives and struggles told through the narration of Tevye, the father.  Tevye is an honest and pious Dairyman who strives to make a living for himself, his wife, Golde and his seven beautiful daughters.  But children who are not good children (in Tevye’s eyes), can be challenging at the least, and a poor dairyman’s life is not always easy.  Tevye will tell his stories and you can’t help but listen.

The Fiddler

The Fiddler (1913) Marc Chagall – The title “Fiddler on the Roof” borrowed the name from this painting depicting a shtetl similar to Chagall’s childhood home in Russia
~ source Wikiart

This novel is a collection of a succession of stories within Tevye’s life. While Tevye relates the tales to the silent author in a loosely connected fashion, the reader is able to follow each strand of the fabric to gain an understanding of how Tevye’s life develops and how he handles each triumph and challenge with a humorous yet earnest outlook.

Wedding in Ukraine

Wedding in Ukraine (1892) Ivan Aivazovsky
source Wikiart

We first learn of Tevye’s good fortune as he rescues two women who are lost on a walk and returns them to their rich families in Boiberik.  The families reward Tevye with many shekels and a milk cow with which to increase his dairy business.  But Tevye’s windfall does not last as he then gives his extra money to a relative to invest in the stock market but when he discovers his relative is a swindler, all is lost!  The next chapters are taken up with stories of Tevye’s daughters.  Clearly, he loves all his children dearly but they refuse to act in a manner familiar to his generation, giving up everything for love.  As Tevye says: I have nourished and brought up children — you labor for your children’s sake, knock your head on the wall, and as Isaiah says: They have rebelled against me — they say they know better …..(however) like as a father pitieth his children —- a father remains a father.”

Tevye doesn’t help matters either.  With his natural trust of human nature and his willingness to help those in need, he often waves what he would consider unacceptable young men in front of his daughter’s noses and then is innocently horrified when they become a couple.  And so each of his daughters choose their own lives, some to their benefit and one culminating in tragedy.


Cowherd (1883) Camille Pissarro
~ source Wikiart

Tevye’s innocence in his dealings with people and his willingness to rely on God in every circumstance might be viewed as naiveté, but I found his outlook charming and even wise.  If one expects the best of people, they may just give you their best.

This book has been adapted into the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”.  How they created that title, I have no idea, as Tevye neither fiddles nor is found on a roof, but the musical is excellent and highly recommended.

Portrait of the Ukrainian Boy

Portrait of the Ukrainian Boy – Nikolai Ge
~ source Wikiart

Motl the Cantor’s Son

Motl the Cantor’s Son: “I’ll bet you whatever you want that no one on earth is as happy with the warm sunny days after Passover as I, Peysi the cantor’s son Motl, and the neighbor’s calf Meni.”

And with that sentence we get a taste of Motl’s character, his lightness and vibrance and positivity in the face of whatever life may bring whether it’s sunny days or stormy ones, laughter or weeping.

Ukrainian Peasant House

Ukrainian Peasant House (1880) Ilya Repin
~ source Wikiart

At the beginning of the story, Motl’s father has just passed away and the family, including Motl’s mother and brother, wonder what is to become of them.  Motl, however, takes life in stride and almost begins to relish being an “orphan” as in his childish eyes, it appears to come with privileges.  We are treated to stories of marriages, the families attempts to earn a living, and finally the Russian pogroms, where the family has to flee the only home they have known to begin a new life in America.  What is a pogrom?  I will let Motl tell you.  At first, he didn’t know either:

“What is it?” I say.  “A fair?”

“Some fair!  They shatter windows!  They smash furniture!  They rip pillows!  Feathers fly like snow!”

“What for?”

“What for?!  Because!  A pogrom isn’t just on houses.  They destroy shops!  They throw the merchandise out onto the streets, they break everything up, scatter everything, pour kerosene over it all, and set it on fire.”

“Go on!  Really?”

“Do you think I’m making it up?  Afterward, when there’s nothing left to wreck, they go from house to house with axes, iron rods, and sticks while the police follow behind.  They sing and whistle and shout, ‘Hey, fellows, let’s beat up the Jews!’  And they beat and kill and murder, stab with knives.”


“What do you mean who?  Jews!”


“What a question!  It’s a pogrom!”

Fortunately, the family reaches New York and we can share some of Motl and his families experiences there, however while still writing the novel, Aleichem died at the age of 57 of tuberculosis and diabetes. Motl remained unfinished.

Ukrainian Landscape with Huts

Ukrainian Landscape with Huts (1901) Vladimir Makovsky
~ source Wikiart

Aleichem’s brilliance is exemplified by this ability to blend both tragedy and comedy in his narrative and with it, the amount of humanity infused into the stories.  How can one both laugh at and with both Tevye and Motl while feeling the anguish of their persecution and struggles?  And, especially in the case of Motl, how can one experience through his eyes the Russian pogroms, or Anti-Semetic riots (which at best displaced Jewish people and at worse, caused their deaths) with a innocent wonder and a hope for the future? It was a  simpler time where people were often unaware of the scope of the atrocities and were therefore able to focus on their own troubles.  While they perhaps were sometimes naive in their views, their naiveté seemed to allow them to handle their challenges better and have more positive expectations for their future prospects.

Sholem Aleichem (שלום עליכם), a variant of “shalom aleichem” which means “[may] peace [be] upon you,” is the pen name for Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. Growing up in part of the Russian Empire (which is now the Ukraine), Rabinovich experienced his family sink into poverty, his mother’s death, lost his entire fortune in a stock speculation, had many daughters (and a couple of sons) and witnessed first hand the Russian pogroms causing his family to flee Russia for New York City. All Tevye’s and Motl’s stories are highly personal, and they are a blend of their characters and Aleichem himself, a rebererant echo of a man with a highly intriguing life.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Tevye, the philosopher, a simple man but often with, almost unknowingly, great wisdom:

“We know what it says in the Bible: The silver is mine and the gold is mine — money is worthless!  The main thing is the person — that is, if he’s really a person.  So what was rankling me?  It was the dream that had vanished.  I wanted, oh how I wanted, to be a rich man, if only for a little while!  But what good did it do me?  It is written: Regardless of thy will, thou livest —- you live in spite of yourself, and in spite of yourself you wear out your boots. ‘You, Tevye,’ says God, ‘have to keep your mind on butter and cheese, not in dreams.’  and what of hope and faith?  On the contrary, the more troubles you have, the more faith you must have, and the poorer you are, the more hope you must have.  Do you want any more proof? …… Be well and have a good life!”


19 thoughts on “Tevye The Dairyman and Motl The Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this! I do get mixed up what comes from Fiddler on the Roof & what comes from Aleichem more directly. There’s a sadness to the musical, of course, but the actual stories seem even darker. But still funny!

    It’s tempting to get hold of the new translation and reread them.

    • I haven’t seen Fiddler in so long but I do remember enjoying it. It was nice to read Aleichem’s stories with only a hazy remembrance of it in my head. It is so unique that Aleichem can present tragedy with humour in it. With Tevye there is a poignancy as he moves towards the end of his life, but with Motl, life is just beginning. I hope you re-read the stories. They’re delightful!

  2. it’s a narrow field of literature, that sort of narration that hovers between two emotional extremes, in this case sadness and delight… Ray Bradbury used to have the same kind of quality in his work, where the reader was caught between satire and horror, and never was sure which condition the story was aiming at… these stories sound entrancing and have that variation of quality that draws the reader in… great paintings!

    • A very narrow field, I imagine, that requires much talent for such an unusual balance. I can see how Aleichem does it with Motl as children see tragedy differently and can be more lighthearted about it until they mature. However with Tevye, it is indeed a brilliant writer who can get that balance of humour and tragedy.

      Thanks! Once again, the paintings were fun to find!

    • I’m glad I’ve now heard of a couple of bloggers who have read it. I don’t think it’s that well-known but it’s so worth reading! I will check out your review.

  3. This sounds quite fun to read! I’ve always felt there was more to the story than the musical was able to show, as good as it is. Thanks for sharing!

    • It was strangely light-hearted given the subject matter. While the musical is good, it’s probably the old story: the book is better!

  4. I watched the movie of the musical again recently and would love to read this. The idea of the “Fiddler on the roof” came from Marc Chagall’s paintings, which were used as design inspiration for the show.

    • Thanks so much for the information, Laurie! I had no idea! I know some of Chagall’s works but I hadn’t read far enough to make a connection. I’ll place the painting in this review. Thanks again for the heads up!

  5. I’ve not seen the stage musical or the movie, but I prefer to read the source material first anyways and you make a very good case for checking it out. Great review!

  6. They explain in the movie what the title “Fiddler on the Roof” means — that they’re trying to balance their traditions with the changing reality around them, and that kind of balance is the kind required if you’re going to try fiddling while standing on a roof.

    I didn’t know it was based on a book, though!

    • Interesting ….. having now read the book I still don’t see the connection clearly. Tevye’s faith is what carried him through. He was holding tightly to his traditions and I believe he was the “hero” because he didn’t try to “balance.” However that’s just my take on it. I hope you’ll get the chance to read it one day!

  7. I’m late on account of my blog feed software was out of commission for a while, but I’m so glad you enjoyed these stories. I have only read the Tevye stories, so I really need to get to Motl too. Like Reese, I found the Tevye stories to be on the dark side; I really appreciate Tevye’s faith but it’s so sad with that one daughter…you know what, now that my own kids are more that age, I should read the stories again. I wonder if they will read differently to me.

    • Don’t you love when technology messes up? I think you’d really like Motl. Aleichem does such a wonderful job of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. On one hand, Motl isn’t so dark, but only because of the child’s perspective. But I definitely didn’t feel as weighed down after I read it as I did with Tevye.

      Glad to see you back again!

  8. I love Fiddler and enjoyed the one Tevye book I read – “Tevya and his Daughters”, I think? Thanks for letting us get a look at this one…I’ll have to track down a copy.

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