In class today I taught “If I were Rothschild” by the great Sholom Aleichem–one of those writers everyone knows and nobody reads; or nobody reads carefully. I actually like the play Fiddler on the Roof… but I resent that it turned the precision and calibration of Tevye’s satire into a big, campy okey-doke that glances over the real contributions of the character in favor of a bland cheerfulness.
The story “If I were Rothschild” is a dramatic monologue, like all the Tevye stories, in which he explains his idiotic but delightful solutions to life’s most basic problems. Indeed, the central premise of the Tevye character seems to be that of a bumbling peasant from rural Ukraine, that is to say, precisely who Sholom Aleichem would have been if he hadn’t gotten his ass the hell out of the rural Ukrainian town of his birth.
Tevye’s first answer to the question of what he would do if he were Rothschild is: he would ensure that his wife have a three-ruble coin of a Thursday night so she would have what to cook for Shabbos the next day. My students passed over that thought until I pulled them back to it: that Tevye’s idea of thinking like a billionaire is to make sure his wife as a basic amount of grocery money so they do not starve. His next great achievement will be to buy his house ‘from cellar to chimney’–all three rooms! And marry off his daughters with dowries. That’s it.
What has just happened is actually rather extraordinary and is one of the great insights into Tevye’s character as well as into Sholom Aleichem’s literary genius: Tevye only sees what is in front of his nose. He has no imagination whatsoever. One could even call him selfish; self-centered. All he can think about is what he knows and he does not know nor want to know much. But if he is self-centered, he is just as much centered in what one might call a philosophical or Buddhist sense. He has achieved a kind of poor man’s nirvana in which he is connected with the world and content in it precisely because he is present only in his immediate surroundings and relationships.
If the story had stopped there it would be a bit of a leap to say as much as I have. But watch where he goes next. Still he has no imagination; still he can concentrate only on what is before him. But he is a milkman: he is thorough. For the reason he wants to own his own house and satisfy his wife’s nagging is: so he may have time to study and take in pupils (never mind that he does not know anything; like some deranged Socrates, Tevye is wise precisely because he does not know that he knows nothing). But pupils: his happiness requires relationships around town. So he begins to think about the town.
A new roof for the synagogue and for the bath-house, a hospital, a shelter for the destitute. From a scant few paragraphs of nonsense–wherein he imagines that it will be the height of wealthy generosity to bestow on his wife a three-ruble note so that she can buy raw ingredients to chop and bake and smoke and pickle for Shabbos, he has arrived at what most would recognize as sense: after all, has not many a rich man looked around his own town or city and seen to some improvements along these lines? And all for the common welfare.
But Tevye cannot stop talking, lest he die; so he begins to think about what might constitute the ‘common welfare’ and naturally casts his gaze outward to the Jews of surrounding towns and distant countries. Free education is the word of the day; and indeed when our own leaders have meetings, pointless though they may be, that does seem to be the order in which things beg to be thought of: making sure nobody starves (though they do); making sure infrastructure is maintained (though it isn’t); making sure insufficient education doesn’t doom the shocking majority to a perpetual infancy of the mind (though… well…). The story does not end here; if it did, it would be a pleasant romp showing that even a mental midget like Tevye can follow the logic of Marxist politics, building education on a solid basis of economic and social stability.
But then things take a turn; for Tevye realizes (again, taking one step at a time; again seeing the one thing right before his nose; but again, by dint of his very plodding mental exertions, enabling his nose to extend a great distance away) that the sorts of stability he is looking for will not be possible, for Jews at any rate, certainly for European Jews (and if the news is accurate, this is still the case) if periodic threats of violence threaten to upend Jewish society. And yet that is not how he phrases it; rather he is interested in removing the means–want, deprivation, political unrest–that caused the Cossacks and Poles to bring fire to Jewish settlements in the first place. Ever the positive.
But if for Jews, why not for the world? I think the subtext here as elsewhere is that Jews are not safe as long as it is possible for government upheaval to bring to power ‘a pharaoh who did not know Joseph,’ as it were. Such examples fill the history books and, for a man of Ukrainian birth would be especially near at hand.
But again: if it is for his good and the good of his brethren and sistren he does not let on; the more selfish motivation could persist side-by-side with another likelihood: that pondering the safety of his own peoples has raised in him a concomitant sympathy for other peoples; after all, he has solved the problems of his own people. Why stop there?
So he declares that he will use his money to stop war by giving countries what they really want: money. If people have more money they will not need to start wars.
An extraordinary thing has happened here in the space of a story that may be shorter than this blog-post has gotten to be. We have gone from the nonsense of a poor unimaginative person to the sense of a rich philanthropist-man-about-town to the Utopian, salvific nonsense of a Thomas More or Erasmus or Baal Shem Tov.
The subtle shift from the mundane to the all-encompassing is all the more accomplished for it being ‘from the mouths of babes.’ Why, I asked my students, do the rich and powerful of the world not do what Tevye, foolish as he is, claims he would do? There were varying answers but they boiled down to: self interest. We should hope to be as smart as Tevye if it means the bombs can be melted down into tractor-pulls and man can take an online course in war no more.