Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Tevye in the City


I recently read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (inspired by the wonderful book by Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof – they’re available now free from the Yiddish Book Center), and I was startled by several features. Tevye is a much more forward-looking figure than he appears in Fiddler on the Roof, which chose to emphasise the cultural divide between him and his daughters.

One thing that really caught my attention was that Tevye, before he got to marrying off his daughters, the travails of which are the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, lost all his savings in some vague financial schemes. The description is priceless, how his distant cousin Menachem Mendel

let me understand how he makes three rubles out of one, and from three — ten. First of all, he said, you invest a hundred rubles and then you order ten somethings — I’ve already forgotten what they’re called — to be bought for you; then you wait a few days until its price goes up. Then you send off a telegram somewhere with an order to sell, and with the money, to buy twice as much; then the price goes up again and you dispatch another telegram; this goes on until the hundred becomes two hundred, the two hundred — four hundred — eight, the eight — sixteen hundred, real “miracles and wonders”! There are people, he said, in Yehupetz, who just recently walked around barefoot, they were brokers, messengers, servants, today they live in their own brick houses, their wives complain of stomach ailments and go abroad for treatment. (Trans. Joseph Simon)

(Much of the imagery of the song “If I were a Rich Man” comes from this story.) As ever, finance was an extractive industry, fuelled by a steady stream of gullibility and greed, in varying proportions.

Anyway, this all reminded me, obliquely, that Tevye had an exact contemporary, who has recently been experiencing some great success on the small screen, having been updated and moved into modern London, namely Sherlock Holmes. I don’t mean to draw any comparison between the figures, but it seems to me that Tevye might do equally well in modern London. (Mad magazine moved him into the American suburbs in the 1970s, which was an obvious idea, but in some ways more foreign.) I could see him drudging away in a small hedge fund, trying to do the right thing, never getting to see his family, suffering with computer breakdowns, losing money through honest dealing, accepting the ups and downs of London real estate with his idiosyncratic proverbs, like

All life ends in death. We’ll all be dead some day, Golda. A man is like a carpenter: a carpenter lives and lives and dies, and a man lives and dies.

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