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Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman

How did a village dairyman become the most famous character in a culture that prides itself on literacy and refinement? Why did a traditional father emerge as the hero of a work that highlights the momentum of modernity? When the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem created Tevye in 1895 he modestly showed how a Russian Jew could deal with challenges like poverty, inequality, and religious doubt. By the time Sholem Aleichem wrote the ninth and last episode of the Tevye stories in 1916, his spokesman had become a Samson in reverse, holding together a disintegrating Jewry and a toppling civilization.

Through the lens of these seminal Jewish stories, this online course will examine the strains of Jewish life and modern experience. Tevye is a comical Rashi who navigates between quotations and their homespun application; he is the first Jewish stand-up comic in a comedy with an exceptionally serious purpose. Since Tevye is known nowadays through his adaptation in Fiddler on the Roof—the musical that enchants audiences from Topeka to Tokyo—the course also explores the difference between kosher and kosher-style, or what happens when a Jewish work goes universal.

In our thinking about tradition and freedom from the vantage of the nineteenth century’s most entertaining and clear-eyed father, we will be guided by Tikvah’s Distinguished Senior Fellow Ruth Wisse, recently retired from her position as Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University.

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