YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  TEVYE THE MILKMAN                                                

TEVYE THE MILKMAN1, by Sholom Aleichem

(Yiddish: Teyve der milkhiger)

“Of the many characters with which the genius of Sholom Aleichem (pen name of the late Sholorn Rabinowitz) enriched Yiddish literature, none is more human, lovable and amusing than Tevya the Milkman, the kindly, whimsical, and naively shrewd Ukrainian Jewish peasant, celebrated for his Biblical and Talmudical malapropisms which are, paradoxically, so marvelously apropos.

Tevya belongs to the company of Samuel Weller, Wilkins Micawber, and other worthies who have added to the gaiety of the nations. His adventures form the subject of several stories, and the present play is a dramatization of one of them."1

According to the show's playbill, "Tevye der milkhiger" is a comedy-drama in three acts and five scenes by Sholom Aleichem. It opened on 29 August 1926 at the Yiddish Art Theatre, 12th Street and Second Avenue, NYC. You can read the listing of the rest of the staffing at the bottom of this page.

The cast included (in alphabetical order): Bina Abramowitz, Celia Adler, Izidore Casher. Bernard Gailing, Berta Gerstin, Wolf Goldfaden, Michael Rosenberg, Leah Rosenzweig, Maurice Schwartz, I. Segalov, Pincus (Philip) Sherman, Morris Silberkasten and Leah Toppel.


photo: Maurice Schwartz as "Tevye der milkhiger (Tevye the Milkman)".

From Martin Boris' unpublished biography of Maurice Schwartz, "Once Upon a Kingdom":

“I send you, through my friend Jacob Saperstein, a play which I have composed from several works written by me twenty years ago,” wrote Sholom Aleichem to Jacob Adler. “You will find only a simple Jew, the father of five daughters, an honest, clean, wholesome and greatly suffering character who, with all his misfortunes, will make the public laugh from beginning to end.” (Rosenfeld 322-323)

Of course, the playwright was describing his Teyve the Milkman, offering it to Adler around the turn of the century. But The Eagle declined the gift, as it had no romantic part for him. The play with which Maurice Schwartz opened the 1919-1920 season at the Irving Place Theatre was the one Adler had refused. With Sholom Aleichem dead for three years, Schwartz bought the production rights from his widow. A condition imposed by her was that Isaac Dov Berkowitz, married to her daughter, work on the stage adaptation. Berkowitz, a highly regarded writer in his own right, had come to New York with the Sholom Aleichems, remaining there until 1928, then settling in Palestine.

The play worked on by Berkowitz and Schwartz, opened to superb reviews in the Yiddish press on August 29th, and enchanted packed houses for 16 straight weeks. Schwartz felt redeemed, his artistic yearnings justified. He’d survived the profound loss of Jacob Ben-Ami, idol of the intellectuals, and the other less-worshipped defectors. And for once in many months, Max and Stella weren’t on his back with their prating lectures about money—the lack of it, the loss of it, the absolute need to show a profit. More important to Schwartz, "Mrs. Sholom Aleichem was very happy. She’d been afraid that Tevye, Sholom Aleichem’s favorite work, wouldn’t make a glorious impression. [When it did] she exclaimed, "Thank you so much. You’ve removed a stone from my heart, from my family’s hearts" (Schwartz 10 Dec. 1941).

So, here is the synopsis of Sholom Aleichem's "Tevye der Milkhiger". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:



Golda (Bina Abramowitz), Tevya's ever-apprehensive spouse, is churning butter on the porch, while Tevya (Maurice Schwartz) is away in the city with his dairy products, She is interrupted by the arrival of her elder daughter, Zeitel (Bertha Gerstin), who is married and lives in a nearby town. Zeitel tells her mother about her sickly husband and smart children, and is in turn enlightened about the affairs of her folks. Golda complains that her younger daughter, Chave (Celia Adler), associates with a young Christian, Fedya (Izidore Casher), son of Mikita Galagan (Wolf Goldfaden), former village clerk; worse yet, she occasionally chats with Otietz Alexai (Morris Silberkasten), the local Greek Catholic priest. She trembles lest Tevya gets to know about it; yet he alone is to blame, because he insists on having his daughter learned like himself, forgetting his own maxim that "When a hen begins to crow, its time to send her to the butcher." Presently Chave emerges from the house and relieves her mother of the work, at the same time teasing her, good naturedly, about her superstitious fears. Tevya returns home and gives Chave a book he got for her in the city. When Golda protests against giving Chave so many books, he parries with a Talrnudical malapropism. Supper is served on the porch, and Tevya and his wife engage in pleasant skirmishes, during which he fires many a Biblical rocket. Otietz appears, and at the sight of him Chave trembles, while Golda expresses disgust in many an aside for which Chave rebukes her. After some preliminary maneuvers, during which Tevya again discharges his favorite rockets, the priest tells them that the daughter of one of their Jewish neighbors has, thanks to his efforts, turned Christian, and is about to marry a gentile. Tevya greets the news with an ironic remark, whereupon Otietz asks him how he would feel under similar circumstances. Tevya replies that he would rather die, or see his daughter dead, then go through such an experience. Chave suddenly faints, and in the excitement that follows, the priest walks away smiling.


Evening of the same day. Chave is sitting alone on the bench near the porch. Zeitel approaches and cautiously questions her as to the meaning of the priest's mysterious remarks. Chave resents this questioning and Zeitel goes back to the house. Presently Fedya appears and gives her a book by by Maxim Gorki. He is annoyed by her low spirits and unresponsiveness and makes an attempt to leave her, but she holds him back. She speaks apprehensively of the step she is about to take a step which would mean a complete break with her past life, and to which her father would never become reconciled. Fedya minimizes her fears, yet, asked how he would feel in her place, he admits that the very thought of it has never occurred to him. He drowns her lingering scruples in a flood of endearing words, and paints a glowing picture of their future happiness together. Hearing Tevya's footsteps he slinks away-not, however, without being noticed by the latter. Tevya questions his daughter, and she confesses she was chatting with Fedya, who had brought her a book. This somewhat reassures her father, who worships books; nevertheless, he deprecates her associations with the young Gentile. Chave reminds that he himself always says that all men are brothers and should love one another. He admits it, but maintains that even the Torah makes an exception in the case of Amalek. He adds that though his neighbors profess their friendship, they would have a stone or two for him in the event of an anti-Jewish outbreak. When, at his request, she promises to do nothing that would bring disgrace, and even death to him, he feels completely reassured.



Tevya and Golda, dressed in their best, for it is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, are standing in front of the priest's house, where they have come in search of their missing daughter. Otietz appears in response to their calls, and Tevya demands his child. The priest answers evasively. They fall at his feet and kiss his hands, only to be rebuked for thus prostrating themselves before a mere man. When Tevya attempts to enter the house, Otietz blocks his way, and brusquely orders him away, calling him an "unclean Jew."

As the two pass out of the gate, they come upon Mikita, Fedya's father, and implore him to reveal their daughter's whereabouts. He feigns ignorance, and they depart. He seats himself on the porch of the parsonage, where he is soon joined by the burgess, the sheriff, and a bailiff.

photo: Maurice Schwartz, as Tevye der milkhiger.

The burgess maintains Mikita did wrong in not telling Tevya, an old neighbor, that their children were in love, and that, since his son was a Greek Catholic, Tevya's daughter must embrace that faith. Mikita reports that if he had done so, Tevya would have spirited away his daughter. They adjourn to Mikita's for refreshments. Presently Chave and Fedya, in wedding apparel, emerge from the parsonage, and sit down on the porch. Chave is full of remorse, and Fedya vainly tries to cheer her up. The wedding guests arrive, with music. A procession is formed, and the young couple are led to the church. 


Evening of the same day. Golda lights the lamp in her now desolate house and chants the Jewish woman's traditional prayer at the end of the Sabbath. Zeitel arrives. She tells her mother Tevya had been twice to her town during the day in search of Chave and tries to comfort her. Tevya enters and proceeds to observe the rite which marks the passing of the Sabbath. The ceremony over, he tells them that, inasmuch as Chave has abjured the Jewish faith, they must regard her as dead and mourn her in the prescribed manner by removing their shoes and sitting on the ground for one hour.


Some years later. Golda is dead, so is the husband of Zeitel, who, with her two children, is now living with her father. Tevya, greatly aged, enters and bids his daughter get ready the dairy things which he is to take to the city. Meanwhile he chants some psalms. He is interrupted by the arrival of the burgess, the sheriff, and the bailiff, who inform him that it has been decreed that he and his family leave the village. (Jews were not permitted to live in villages under the Czarist regime). Their report is soon officially confirmed by a police official and the village clerk, who bring the written order, which Tevva is asked to sign. The order decrees their expulsion within twenty-four hours. Tevya rebukes Zeitel for crying and tells her to pack up their personal belongings, while he himself goes out to sell his other effects. Chave suddenly appears. She tells her astonished sister that she has remained a Jewess at heart, fasted on the Day of Atonement, and visited their mother's grave on the anniversary of her death; that she realizes her mistake, which brought her only disappointment and unhappiness, and is now determined to go back to her family and people. Fedya rushes in and vainly endeavors to persuade her to go back to him. Hearing Tevya approach, Chave and Fedya retreat to the kitchen while Zeitel resumes her packing. Tevya informs her of his decision to immigrate to Palestine, then proceeds to pack his treasured books. Otietz enters, pretending he has come to buy something. It soon turns out that he has come to redeem Tevya's soul. He tells Tevya that if he would only be reasonable and turn turn Christian, he would not only be permitted to remain m the village, but with his bright Jewish mind would soon become burgess. Tevya spurns his advances. "When I came to you for my child, you said 'Away, unclean Jew!' And now I say to you, 'Away unclean priest!" Otietz leaves in confusion, and Tevya exults in his triumph. Zeitel diplomatically praises her father's skill in argumentation, then cautiously hints she has some news about Chave. Tevye refuses to listen to her, remarking that the branch that's broken off must die. Zeitel persists ill telling him all, including Chave's refusal of Fedya's pleas. Tevya wavers when, suddenly, Chave comes out of the kitchen. She declares her determination to go with them in exile, adding that, "Whither you go, I will go." The Biblical allusion melts Tevya's heart, and he takes to his bosom the returned prodigal daughter.


Tevye der milkhiger, the movie ("Tevya", 1939)

The play eventually became a movie, simply named "Tevya", was in Yiddish and was released in 1939. It started Schwartz as Tevya, Miriem Riselle as Chave, Paula Lubelski as Zeitel, Leon Liebgold as Fedya. Others in the cast included Vicki and Betty Marcus, Julius Adler, Daniel Makarenko, Helen Grossman, Morris Strassberg, Al Harris, Louis Weisberg and Boaz Young. Music by Sholom Secunda.

Courtesy of the National Center of Jewish Film, here is a short clip of the film.



Lomir essen (Let's Eat)....

So it's August or September in 1926 and you want to grab a bite before or after the show, which is being staged at the Yiddish Art Theatre, which is located on 12th Street and Second Avenue in Lower Manhattan. Where can you eat? Well, based at least in part on the aforementioned playbill, might I make a few suggestions? Maybe some entertainment after the show, e.g. the cymbalist Joseph Moskowitz, at the Little Roumanian Rendezvous??


ad, right: Haimowitz's Oriental Roumanian Restaurant and Broilings, 106 Forsyth St., b. Grand and Broom Sts.  Ad states: Due to the hundreds of friends and patrons who last year didn't make their reservations in the associated time... Haimowitz's Oriental Roumanian Restaurant and Broilings... This year make special preparations to satisfy your guest... Pearl's Mansion, 98 Forsyth Street (music, special revue of songstresses, and a dance hall for everyone... Entertainment and Dancing every evening!


More on the Yiddish Art Theatre at the time of the production: Executive Staff: Martin Schwartz and Meyer Golub, Managers; Lewis Kasten and Joseph Grossman, Treasurers; Leon Hoffman, Yiddish Press Representative. Nat Dorfman and Ben Holtzman, English Publicity. Stage Staff: Joseph Schwartzberg and Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Managers. Technical Staff: Mark Lawson, Andy Van Walken and Julius Screiber, Technicians; Julius Levy, Master Carpenter; David Gold, Master Electrician; Sam Wolinsky, Master of Properties. Art Department: Boruch Aronson, Mark Lawson, Robert Van Rosen, Joseph Cutler, Zuni Maud, Jack Soble and Benjamin Isaacson. Maurice Schwartz, Director. Louis N. Jaffe, Lessor. Anbord Theatre Corp., Lessees.


1 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "Tevye der milkhiger", 1926. Courtesy of YIVO.







Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Copyright © Museum of the Yiddish Theatre.  All rights reserved.