by Spencer Fields, dramaturg
Before there was Fiddler on the Roof there was the collection of short stories by Sholom Aleichem called Tevye the Dairyman. These stories were highly popular which led their to being adapted into the musical we know and love today. That being said there are some significant differences between Fiddler on the Roof and Tevye the Dairyman that I came across while I was preparing research for the actors about the source text for this musical. One major difference that shocked me was that Aleichem wrote the character Yente, the matchmaker, as a man named Ephraim. I was quite surprised to find this as Yente has become such a well-known name in Yiddish English to mean a woman who is a bit of a gossip or a busy body. The use of this word doesn’t date back to Aleichem, as I expected, or even Fiddler. The origin of Yente’s meaning dates back to Yiddish Theatre in the 1920s and a series of comedic sketches that were written about a woman who was the town’s busybody (for more info about the origin of Yente check out this website).
While Fiddler does not explore the lives of the youngest daughters, Bielke and Schprintze, Aleichem writes as much about them as he does the older sisters. Bielke marries a rich man, finally fulfilling Tevye and Golde’s dream, but this man treats her poorly. Bielke’s husband eventually loses all their money due in part to persecution and in part due to bad trading, forcing them to immigrate to the United States to avoid their debt collectors. Schprintze meanwhile falls in love with a boy in Anatevka but his mother doesn’t approve of the marriage. The boy falls in love with Shprintze, too, and wants to marry her. Tevye approves of the marriage and all seems to be going forward until the mother moves her family, including Schprintze’s love interest, away without any notice. In despair of her situation and having lost her love, Schprintze commits suicide.
Another difference, and perhaps a happier change present in Aleichem’s version, is that Hodel and Perchik are able to have a small marriage in Anatevka before he leaves town. Shortly after this wedding they still leave for exile in Siberia due to Perchik’s political actions and likely his membership in the Jewish Labour Bund. Perchik also changes his name, which means “little pepper” in Russian, to the same word in Yiddish to demonstrate Jewish pride and a rejection of Russian influence. After years in exile, Bielke’s husband pays for Hodel and Perchik to move to Japan, where they run a business Bielke’s husband owns. Aleichem never mentions them after this and it is anyone’s guess how Bielke’s husband’s business failure affects their life or where they go from Japan.
Another similarity between the two texts is that Chava still elopes with Fyedka. However, Tevye finds this out from a Russian priest, not Golde, who reassures him that he is taking care of her. The priest does not allow Tevye to see his daughter and new husband despite Tevye’s best efforts to convince him otherwise. Much like in Fiddler, Tevye then shuns Chava even though she tries to communicate with him.
While in Fiddler, Motel and Golde go with the family to America, in Tevye the Dairyman both Motel and Golde die, leaving Tzietel and Tevye to take care of Tzietel’s children. In the final scene of the novel, as Tzeitel and Tevye prepare to flee the pogroms around them for America, Tevye finds Chava together with Tzeitel at the house. Aleichem leaves it up to the reader to decide if Tevye and Chava have a reunion, or if his shunning of Chava continues in perhaps one of the most touching parts of the novel.
While there are differences between the novel and the musical, the emotional core of both texts is still the same. This is a story about a family that faces many trials and difficulties, but one that remains at the heart of it, a family that cares deeply for one another despite the obstacles that are placed in their way.