After attending a marvellous production of Fiddler on the Roof at the University of Sydney some years ago, I was given the book on which the musical is based. Enthralled, I bought more tales by Sholem Aleichem, the pen name of Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916). Inevitably I soon realised that his tales about Tevye, his family, and their compatriots were much more darkly comic than anything depicted on the stage.

Arguably the greatest Jewish writer of all time, Sholem Aleichem came from a village in the Ukraine very similar to the one abandoned in Fiddler by Tevye when his loved ones face mortal danger. Since my father’s family of origin fled to America from a shtetl in that part of the world for the same reasons, I’ve had an intense personal interest in this fiction. Thanks to my Dad’s upbringing, my mother learned a lot of Yiddish. It is Tevye the dairyman’s spoken language – the tongue most frequently linked with shtetl life.

Re-reading tales that dramatise what it means to flee with other Jews from village to village, I have again been deeply moved. Fifty years of Australian life, alas, have shown me how little is known about Jewish manners and mores by the usual Aussie Catholic; so I cannot recommend these books more highly. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Apostles, after all, found new life in a part of the world that attracted many Jews who fled, as they did, from peril. Herod’s avatars exist.

Through monologues, Sholem Aleichem illuminates the feel of daily life for people struggling to retain everything that they have lost or are likely to lose. Like most Eastern European Jews, they regularly talk non-stop. Particularly informative are the snippets from religious sources sprinkled into Tevye’s characteristic Yiddish utterances. Habitually he objects to the unjust suffering allowed by God, whom he regularly addresses. Biblical citations are his milk and butter.

One of my favourite stories in the Tevye the Dairyman volume, ‘Today’s Children’, is about the fortunes of Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsytal. In Hillel Halkin’s translation it begins as follows:

“Say what you will, Pan Sholem Aleichem, bonim gedalti veroymamti first  you have them, then you break your back for them, make every sacrifice, put yourself through the mill . . . and for what? So that maybe, you think, if you’ve managed to get ahead a bit in life, you can help them get somewhere too.

A huge difficulty for Tsytal is that her mother, Golde, is overjoyed by the prospect of her marriage to a rich widower, the local butcher Layzer Wolf, no longer young. His immediate material circumstances are richly detailed in a paragraph (e.g. he has TWO samovars!). Sobbing after running to her father, Tsytal confesses that she wants to marry a young tailor, Motl. It is he who asks Tevye’s permission for marriage after saving money for a year so that he has something to offer the young woman who has secretly agreed to be his wife. They love each other.

Of course Motl is unlikely ever to amass the fortune of a Layzer Wolf; but it is obvious that Tevye cannot stand the wealthy butcher, whose egomaniacal sharpness of speech has the same effect on us that it has had on him. It is equally obvious that he likes honest, hard-working Motl, the son of a cantor. Because cantors sing at religious services, Aleichem’s usual audience knows what this simple fact means about the transmission of faith.

No matter how he sometimes strikes people, Tevye himself is a religious man – just as Sholem Aleichem clearly was. Wanting his beautiful child to be happy, this tender-hearted father forgoes the privilege of exercising his authority by ‘arranging’ her marriage to a dangerous predator. “After all,” says Tevye, “why pretend: what do most Jewish children have in the bank when they marry? If everyone acted sensibly, there wouldn’t be a Jewish wedding in the world.”

This reflection is the second in a series about Growing Up that will describe fiction from different parts of the world. For most of her life, starting in Year 3, Susan Reibel Moore has taught Reading, Writing and literature.

Dr Susan Moore has been an inveterate reader all her life. Her PhD on Henry James (University of Sydney 1972) was revised and eventually published as a book in the University of Queensland Press Scholars’...