Logo - Link to Home Page

Short Story Classics




Sholem Aleichem


Tevye Strikes It Rich

by Sholem Aleichem


  If you’re meant to strike it rich, Pan Sholem Aleichem, you may as well stay home with your slippers on, because good luck will find you there too. The more it blows the better it goes, as King David says in his Psalms — and believe me, neither brains nor brawn has anything to do with it. And vice versa: if it’s not in the cards you can run back and forth till you’re blue in the face, it will do as much good as last winter’s snow. How does the saying go? Flogging a dead horse won’t make it run any faster. A man slaves, works himself to the bone, is ready to lie down and die — it shouldn’t happen to the worst enemy of the Jews. Suddenly, don’t ask me how or why, it rains gold on him from all sides. In a word, revakh vehatsoloh ya’amoyd layehudim, just like it says in the Bible! That’s too long a verse to translate, but the general gist of it is that as long as a Jew lives and breathes in this world and hasn’t more than one leg in the grave, he musn’t lose faith. Take it from my own experience — that is, from how the good Lord helped set me up in my present line of business. After all, if I sell butter and cheese and such stuff, do you think that’s because my grandmother’s grandmother was a milkman? But if I’m going to tell you the whole story, it’s worth hearing from beginning to end. If you don’t mind, then, I’ll sit myself down here beside you and let my horse chew on some grass. He’s only human too, don’t you think, or why else would God have made him a horse?
    Well, to make a long story short, it happened early one summer, around Shavuos time. But why should I lie to you? It might have been a week or two before Shavuos too, unless it was several weeks after. What I’m trying to tell you is that it took place exactly a dog’s age ago, nine or ten years to the day, if not a bit more or less. I was the same man then that I am now, only not at all like me; that is, I was Tevye then too, but not the Tevye you’re looking at. How does the saying go? It’s still the same lady, she’s just not so shady. Meaning that in those days — it should never happen to you! — I was such a miserable beggar that rags were too good for me. Believe me, I’m no millionaire today either. If from now until autumn the two of us earned a tenth of what it would take to make me half as rich as Brodsky, we wouldn’t be doing half badly. Still, compared to what I was then, I’ve become a real tycoon. I’ve got my own horse and wagon; I’ve got two cows that give milk, bless them, and a third cow waiting to calve; forgive me for boasting, but we’re swimming in cheese, cream, and butter. Not that we don’t work for it, mind you; you won’t find any slackers at my place. My wife milks the cows; the girls carry the cans and churn butter; and I, as you see, go to the market every morning and from there to all the summer dachas in Boiberik. I stop to chat with this person, with that one; there isn’t a rich Jew I don’t know there. When you talk with such people, you know, you begin to feel that you’re someone yourself and not such a one-armed tailor any more. And I’m not even talking about Sabbaths. On Sabbaths, I tell you, I’m king, I have all the time in the world. Why, I can even pick up a Jewish book then if I want: the Bible, Psalms, Rashi, Targum, Perek, you name it … I tell you, if you could only see me then, you’d say, “He’s really some fine fellow, that Tevye!”
    To get to the point, though … where were we? Oh, yes: in those days, with God’s help, I was poor as a devil. No Jew should starve as I did! Not counting suppers, my wife and kids went hungry three times a day. I worked like a dog dragging logs by the wagonful from the forest to the train station for — I’m embarrassed even to tell you — half a ruble a day … and not even every day, either. You try feeding a house full of little mouths on that, to say nothing of a horse who’s moved in with you and can’t be put off with some verse from the Bible, because he expects to eat and no buts! So what does the good Lord do? I tell you, it’s not for nothing that they say He’s a zon umefarneys lakoyl, that He runs this world of His with more brains than you or I could. He sees me eating my heart out for a slice of bread and says, “Now, Tevye, are you really trying to tell me that the world has come to an end? Eh, what a damn fool you are! In no time I’m going to show you what God can do when He wants. About face, march!” As we say on Yom Kippur, mi yorum umi yishofeyl—leave it to Him to decide who goes on foot and who gets to ride. The main thing is confidence. A Jew must never, never give up hope. How does he go on hoping, you ask, when he’s already died a thousand deaths? But that’s the whole point of being a Jew in this world! What does it say in the prayer book? Atoh bekhartonu! We’re God’s chosen people; it’s no wonder the whole world envies us … You don’t know what I’m talking about? Why, I’m talking about myself, about the miracle God helped me to. Be patient and you’ll hear all about it.
    Vayehi hayoym, as the Bible says: one fine summer day in the middle of the night, I’m driving home through the forest after having dumped my load of logs. I feel like my head is in the ground, there’s a black desert growing in my heart; it’s all my poor horse can do to drag his feet along behind him. “It serves you right, you schlimazel,” I say to him, “for belonging to someone like me! If you’re going to insist on being Tevye’s horse, it’s time you knew what it tastes like to fast the whole length of a summer’s day.” It was so quiet you could hear every crack of the whip whistle through the woods. The sun began to set; the day was done for. The shadows of the trees were as long as the exile of the Jews. And with the darkness a terrible feeling crept into my heart. All sorts of thoughts ran in and out of my head. The faces of long-dead people passed before me. And when I thought of coming home — God help me! The little house would be pitch-dark. My naked, barefoot kids would peek out to see if their schlemiel of a father hadn’t brought them some bread, maybe even a freshly baked roll. And my old lady would grumble like a good Jewish mother: “A lot he needed children — and seven of them at that! God punish me for saying so, but my mistake was not to have taken them all and thrown them into the river.” How do you think it made me feel to hear her say such things? A man is only flesh and blood, after all; you can’t fill a stomach with words. No, a stomach needs herring to fill it; herring won’t go down without tea; tea can’t be drunk without sugar; and sugar, my friend, costs a fortune. And my wife! “My guts,” says my wife, “can do without bread in the morning, but without a glass of tea I’m a stretcher case. That baby’s sucked the glue from my bones all night long!”
    Well, one can’t stop being a Jew in this world: it was time for the evening prayer. (Not that the evening was about to go anywhere, but a Jew prays when he must, not when he wants to.) Some fine prayer it turned out to be! Right in the middle of the shimenesre, the eighteen benedictions, a devil gets into my crazy horse and he decides to go for a pleasure jaunt. I had to run after the wagon and grab the reins while shouting “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” at the top of my voice — and to make matters worse I’d really felt like praying for a change, for once in my life I was sure it would make me feel better …
    In a word, there I was running behind the wagon and singing the shimenesre like a cantor in a synagogue. Mekhalkeyl khayim, bekhesed, Who provideth life with His bounty — it better be all of life, do You hear me?… Umekayeym emunosoy lisheyney of or, Who keep-eth faith with them who slumber in earth — who slumber in earth? With my troubles I was six feet underground already! And to think of those rich Yehupetz Jews sitting all summer long in their dachas in Boiberik, eating and drinking and swimming in luxury! Master of the Universe, what have I done to deserve all this? Am I or am I not a Jew like any other? Help!.. Re’ey-no be’onyeynu, See us in our affliction — take a good look at us poor folk slaving away and do something about it, because if You don’t, just who do You think will?… Refo’eynu veneyrofey, Heal our wounds and make us whole — please concentrate on the healing because the wounds we already have … Boreykh oleynu, Bless the fruits of this year — kindly arrange a good harvest of corn, wheat, and barley, although what good it will do me is more than I can say: does it make any difference to my horse, I ask You, if the oats I can’t afford to buy him are expensive or cheap?
    But God doesn’t tell a man what He thinks, and a Jew had better believe that He knows what He’s up to. Velamalshinim al tehi tikvoh, May the slanderers have no hope — those are all the big shots who say there is no God: what wouldn’t I give to see the look on their faces when they line up for Judgment Day! They’ll pay with back interest for everything they’ve done, because God has a long memory, one doesn’t play around with Him. No, what He wants is for us to be good, to beseech and cry out to Him … Ov harakhamon, Merciful, loving Father!.. Shma koyleynu—You better listen to what we tell You!.. Khus verakheym oleynu—pay a little attention to my wife and children, the poor things are hungry!.. Retsey—take decent care of Your people again, as once You did long ago in the days of our Temple, when the priests and the Levites sacrificed before You …
    All of a sudden — whoaaa! My horse stopped short in his tracks. I rushed through what was left of the prayer, opened my eyes, and looked around me. Two weird figures, dressed for a masquerade, were approaching from the forest. “Robbers!” I thought at first, then caught myself. Tevye, I said, what an idiot you are! Do you mean to tell me that after traveling through this forest by day and by night for so many years, today is the day for robbers? And bravely smacking my horse on the rear as though it were no affair of mine, I cried, “Giddyap!”
    “Hey, a fellow Jew!” one of the two terrors called out to me in a woman’s voice, waving a scarf at me. “Don’t run away, mister. Wait a second. We won’t do you any harm.”
    It’s a ghost for sure! I told myself. But a moment later I thought, what kind of monkey business is this, Tevye? Since when are you so afraid of ghouls and goblins? So I pulled up my horse and took a good look at the two. They really did look like women. One was older and had a silk kerchief on her head, while the other was young and wore a wig. Both were beet-red and sweating buckets.
    “Well, well, well, good evening,” I said to them as loudly as I could to show that I wasn’t a bit afraid. “How can I be of service to you? If you’re looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pangs, a week’s supply of heartache, or a head full of scrambled brains. Anyone for some chilblains, assorted aches and pains, worries to turn your hair gray?”
    “Calm down, calm down,” they said to me. “Just listen to him run on! Say a good word to a Jew and you get a mouthful of bad ones in return. We don’t want to buy anything. We only wanted to ask whether you happened to know the way to Boiberik.”
    “The way to Boiberik?” I did my best to laugh. “You might as well ask whether I know my name is Tevye.”
    “You say your name is Tevye?” they said. “We’re very pleased to meet you, Reb Tevye. We wish you’d explain to us, though, what the joke is all about. We’re strangers around here; we come from Yehupetz and have a summer place in Boiberik. The two of us went out this morning for a little walk, and we’ve been going around in circles ever since without finding our way out of these woods. A little while ago we heard someone singing. At first we thought, who knows, maybe it’s a highwayman. But as soon as we came closer and saw that you were, thank goodness, a Jew, you can imagine how much better we felt. Do you follow us?”
    “A highwayman?” I said. “That’s a good one! Did you ever hear the story of the Jewish highwayman who fell on somebody in the forest and begged him for a pinch of snuff? If you’d like, I’d be only too glad to tell it to you.”
    “The story,” they say, “can wait. We’d rather you showed us the way to Boiberik first.”
    “The way to Boiberik?” I say. “You’re standing on it right now. This is the way to Boiberik whether you want to go to Boiberik or not.”
    “But if this is the way to Boiberik,” they say, “why didn’t you say it was the way to Boiberik before?”
    “I didn’t say it was the way to Boiberik,” I say, “because you didn’t ask me if it was the way to Boiberik.”
    “Well,” they say, “if it is the way to Boiberik, would you possibly happen to know by any chance just how long a way to Boiberik it is?”
    “To Boiberik,” I say, “it’s not a long way at all. Only a few miles. About two or three. Maybe four. Unless it’s five.”
    “Five miles?” screamed both women at once, wringing their hands and all but bursting into tears. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying? Only five miles!”
    “Well,” I said, “what would you like me to do about it? If it were up to me, I’d make it a little shorter. But there are worse fates than yours, let me tell you. How would you like to be stuck in a wagon creeping up a muddy hill with the Sabbath only an hour away? The rain whips straight in your face, your hands are numb, your heart is too weak to beat another stroke, and suddenly … bang! Your front axle’s gone and snapped.”
    “You’re talking like a half-wit,” said one of the two women. “I swear, you’re off your trolley. What are you telling us fairy tales from the Arabian Nights for? We haven’t the strength to take another step. Except for a cup of coffee with a butter roll for breakfast, we haven’t had a bite of food all day — and you expect us to stand here listening to your stories?”
    “That,” I said, “is a different story. How does the saying go? It’s no fun dancing on an empty stomach. And you don’t have to tell me what hunger tastes like; that’s something I happen to know. Why, it’s not at all unlikely that I haven’t seen a cup of coffee and a butter roll for over a year …” The words weren’t out of my mouth when I saw a cup of hot coffee with cream and a fresh butter roll right before my eyes, not to mention what else was on the table. You dummy, I said to myself, a person might think you were raised on coffee and rolls! I suppose plain bread and herring would make you sick? But just to spite me, my imagination kept insisting on coffee and rolls. I could smell the coffee, I could taste the roll on my tongue — my God, how fresh, how delicious it was …
    “Do you know what, Reb Tevye?” the two women said to me. “We’ve got a brilliant idea. As long as we’re standing here chitting, why don’t we hop into your wagon and give you a chance to take us back to Boiberik yourself? How about it?”
    “I’m sorry,” I say, “but you’re spitting into the wind. You’re going to Boiberik and I’m coming from Boiberik. How do you suppose I can go both ways at once?”
    “That’s easy,” they say. “We’re surprised you haven’t thought of it already. If you were a scholar, you’d have realized right away: you simply turn your wagon around and head back in the other direction … Don’t get so nervous, Reb Tevye. We should only have to suffer the rest of our lives as much as getting us home safely, God willing, will cost you.”
    My God, I thought, they’re talking Chinese; I can’t make head or tail of it. And for the second time that evening I thought of ghosts, witches, things that go bump in the night. You dunce, I told myself, what are you standing there for like a tree stump? Jump back into your wagon, give the horse a crack of your whip, and get away while the getting is good! Well, don’t ask me what got into me, but when I opened my mouth again I said, “Hop aboard!”
    They didn’t have to be asked twice. I climbed in after them, gave my cap a tug, let the horse have the whip, and one, two, three — we’re off! Did I say off? Off to no place fast! My horse is stuck to the ground, a cannon shot wouldn’t budge him. Well, I said to myself, that’s what you get for stopping in the middle of nowhere to gab with a pair of females. It’s just your luck that you couldn’t think of anything better to do.
    Just picture it if you can: the woods all around, the eerie stillness, night coming on — and here I am with these two apparitions pretending to be women … My blood began to whistle like a teakettle. I remembered a story I once had heard about a coachman who was driving by himself through the woods when he spied a sack of oats lying on the path. Well, a sack of oats is a sack of oats, so down from the wagon he jumps, shoulders the sack, barely manages to heave it into his wagon without breaking his back, and drives off as happy as you please. A mile or two later he turns around to look at his sack … did someone say sack? What sack? Instead of a sack there’s a billy goat with a beard. He reaches out to touch it and it sticks out a tongue a yard long at him, laughs like a hyena, and vanishes into thin air …
    “Well, what are you waiting for?” the two women asked me.
    “What am I waiting for?” I say. “You can see for yourselves what I’m waiting for. My horse is happy where he is. He’s not in a frisky mood.”
    “Then use your whip,” they say to me. “What do you think it’s
    “Thank you for your advice,” I say to them. “It’s very kind of you to offer it. The problem is that my four-legged friend is not afraid of such things. He’s as used to getting whipped as I’m used to getting gypped.” I tried to sound casual, but I was burning with a ninety-nine-year fever.
    Well, why bore you? I let that poor horse have it. I whipped him as long as I whipped him hard, until finally he picked up his heels and we began to move through the woods. And as we did a new thought occurred to me. Ah, Tevye, I said to myself, are you ever a numbskull! Once a beggar, always a beggar, that’s the story of your life. Just imagine: here God hands you an opportunity that comes a man’s way once in a hundred years, and you forget to clinch the deal in advance, so that you don’t even know what’s in it for you! Any way you look at it — as a favor or a duty, as a service or an obligation, as an act of human kindness or something even worse than that — it’s certainly no crime to make a little profit on the side. When a soup bone is stuck in somebody’s face, who doesn’t give it a lick? Stop your horse right now, you imbecile, and spell it out for them in capital letters: “Look, ladies, if it’s worth such-and-such to you to get home, it’s worth such-and-such to me to take you; if it isn’t, I’m afraid we’ll have to part ways.” On second thought, though, I thought again: Tevye, you’re an imbecile to call yourself an imbecile! Supposing they promised you the moon, what good would it do you? Don’t you know that you can skin the bear in the forest, but you can’t sell its hide there?
    “Why don’t you go a little faster?” the two women asked, poking me from behind.
    “What’s the matter?” I said, “are you in some sort of hurry? You should know that haste makes waste.” From the corner of my eye I stole a look at my passengers. They were women, all right, no doubt of it: one wearing a silk kerchief and the other a wig. They sat there looking at each other and whispering back and forth.
    “Is it still a long way off?” one of them asked me.
    “No longer off than we are from there,” I said. “Up ahead there’s an uphill and a downhill. After that there’s another uphill and a downhill. After that comes the real uphill and the downhill, and after that it’s straight as the crow flies to Boiberik …”
    “The man’s some kind of nut for sure!” whispered one of the women to the other.
    “I told you he was bad news,” says the second.
    “He’s all we needed,” says the first.
    “He’s crazy as a loon,” says the second.
    I certainly must be crazy, I thought, to let these two characters treat me like this. “Excuse me,” I said to them, “but where would you ladies like to be dumped?”
    “Dumped!” they say. “What kind of language is that? You can go dump yourself if you like!”
    “Oh, that’s just coachman’s talk,” I say. “In ordinary parlance we would say, ‘When we get to Boiberik safe and sound, with God’s help, where do I drop mesdames off?’ ”
    “If that’s what it means,” they say, “you can drop us off at the green dacha by the pond at the far end of the woods. Do you know where it is?”
    “Do I know where it is?” I say. “Why, I know my way around Boiberik the way you do around your own home! I wish I had a thousand rubles for every log I’ve carried there. Just last summer, in fact, I brought a couple of loads of wood to the very dacha you’re talking about. There was a rich Jew from Yehupetz living there, a real millionaire. He must have been worth a hundred grand, if not twice that.”
    “He’s still living there,” said both women at once, whispering and laughing to each other.
    “Well,” I said, “seeing as the ride you’ve taken was no short haul, and as you may have some connection with him, would it be too much for me to request of you, if you don’t mind my asking, to put in a good word for me with him? Maybe he’s got an opening, a position of some sort. Really, anything would do … You never know how things will turn out. I know a young man named Yisro’eyl, for instance, who comes from a town not far from here. He’s a real nothing, believe me, a zero with a hole in it. So what happens to him? Somehow, don’t ask me how or why, he lands this swell job, and today he’s a big shot clearing twenty rubles a week, or maybe it’s forty, who knows … Some people have all the luck! Do you by any chance happen to know what happened to our slaughterer’s son-in-law, all because he picked himself up one fine day and went to Yehupetz? The first few years there, I admit, he really suffered; in fact, he damn near starved to death. Today, though, I only wish I were in his shoes and could send home the money he does. Of course, he’d like his wife and kids to join him, but he can’t get them a residence permit. I ask you, what kind of life is it for a man to live all alone like that? I swear, I wouldn’t wish it on a dog!.. Well, bless my soul, will you look at what we have here: here’s your pond and there’s your green dacha!”
    And with that I swung my wagon right through the gate and drove like nobody’s business clear up to the porch of the house. Don’t ask me to describe the excitement when the people there saw us pull up. What a racket! Happy days!
    “Oy, Grandma!”
    “Oy, Mama!”
    “Oy, Auntie, Auntie!”
    “Thank God they’re back!”
    “Mazel tov!”
    “Good lord, where have you been?”
    “We’ve been out of our minds with worry all day long!”
    “We had search parties out looking for you everywhere!”
    “The things we thought happened to you, it’s too horrible for words: highwaymen or maybe a wolf! So tell us, what happened?”
    “What happened? What happened shouldn’t have happened to a soul. We lost our way in the woods and blundered about for miles. Suddenly, along comes a Jew. What, what kind of a Jew? A Jew, a schlimazel, with a wagon and a horse. Don’t think we had an easy time with him either, but here we are!”
    “Incredible! It sounds like a bad dream. How could you have gone out in the woods without a guide? What an adventure, what an adventure. Thank God you’re home safe!”
    In no time lamps were brought out, the table was set, and there began to appear on it hot samovars flowing with tea, bowls of sugar, jars of jam, plates full of pastry and all kinds of baked goods, followed by the fanciest dishes: soup brimming with fat, roast meats, a whole goose, the best wines and salad greens. I stood a ways off and thought, so this, God bless them, is how these Yehupetz tycoons eat and drink. Why, it’s enough to make the Devil jealous! I’d pawn my last pair of socks if it would help to make me a rich Jew like them … You can imagine what went through my mind. The crumbs that fell from that table alone would have been enough to feed my kids for a week, with enough left over for the Sabbath. Oh, my dear Lord, I thought: they say You’re a long-suffering God, a good God, a great God; they say You’re merciful and fair; perhaps You can explain to me, then, why it is that some folk have everything and others have nothing twice over? Why does one Jew get to eat butter rolls while another gets to eat dirt? A moment later, though, I said to myself, ach, what a fool you are, Tevye, I swear! Do you really think He needs your advice on how to run the world? If this is how things are, it’s how they were meant to be; the proof of it is that if they were meant to be different, they would be. It may seem to you that they ought to have been meant to be different … but it’s just for that you’re a Jew in this world! A Jew must have confidence and faith. He must believe, first, that there is a God, and second, that if there is, and if it’s all the same to Him, and if it isn’t putting Him to too much trouble, He can make things a little better for the likes of you …
    “Wait a minute,” I heard someone say. “What happened to the coachman? Has the schlimazel left already?”
    “God forbid!” I called out from where I was. “Do you mean to suggest that I’d simply walk off without so much as saying goodbye? Good evening, it’s a pleasure to meet you all! Enjoy your meal; I can’t imagine why you shouldn’t.”
    “Come in out of the dark,” says one of them to me, “and let’s have a look at you. Perhaps you’d like a little brandy?”
    “A little brandy?” I say. “Who can refuse a little brandy? God may be God, but brandy is brandy. Cheers!” And I emptied the glass in one gulp. “God should only help you to stay rich and happy,” I said, “because since Jews can’t help being Jews, someone else had better help them.”
    “What name do you go by?” asked the man of the house, a fine-looking Jew with a skullcap. “Where do you hail from? Where do you live now? What’s your work? Do you have a wife? Children? How many?”
    “How many children?” I say. “Forgive me for boasting, but if each child of mine were worth a million rubles, as my Golde tries convincing me they are, I’d be richer than anyone in Yehupetz. The only trouble is that poor isn’t rich and a mountain’s no ditch. How does it say in the prayer book? Hamavdil beyn koydesh lekhoyl—some make hay while others toil. There are people who have money and I have daughters. And you know what they say about that: better a house full of boarders than a house full of daughters! Only why complain when we have God for our Father? He looks after everyone — that is, He sits up there and looks at us slaving away down here … What’s my work? For lack of any better suggestions, I break my back dragging logs. As it says in the Talmud, bemokoym she’eyn ish, a herring too is a fish. Really, there’d be no problem if it weren’t for having to eat. Do you know what my grandmother used to say? What a shame it is we have mouths, because if we didn’t we’d never go hungry … But you’ll have to excuse me for carrying on like this. You can’t expect straight talk from a crooked brain — and especially not when I’ve gone and drunk brandy on an empty stomach.”
    “Bring the Jew something to eat!” ordered the man of the house, and right away the table was laid again with food I never dreamed existed: fish, and cold cuts, and roasts, and fowl, and more gizzards and chicken livers than you could count.
    “What will you have?” I was asked. “Come on, wash up and sit down.”
    “A sick man is asked,” I answered, “a healthy one is served. Still, thank you anyway … a little brandy, with pleasure … but to sit down and make a meal of it, when back home my wife and children, they should only be healthy and well … so you see, if you don’t mind, I’ll …”
    What can I tell you? They seemed to have gotten the hint, because before I knew it my wagon was being loaded with goodies: here some rolls, there some fish, a pot roast, a quarter of a chicken, tea, sugar, a cup of chicken fat, a jar of jam …
    “Here’s a gift to take home to your wife and children,” they said. “And now please tell us how much we owe you for your trouble.”
    “To tell you the truth,” I said, “who am I to tell you what you owe me? You pay me what you think it was worth. What’s a few kopecks more or less between us? I’ll still be the same Tevye when we’re done.”
    “No,” they say, “we want you to tell us, Reb Tevye. You needn’t be afraid. We won’t chop your head off.”
    Now what? I asked myself. I was really in a pretty pickle. It would be a crime to ask for one ruble when they might agree to two. On the other hand, if I asked for two they might think I was mad. Two rubles for one little wagon ride?
    “Three rubles!” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. Everyone began to laugh so hard that I could have crawled into a hole in the ground.
    “Please forgive me,” I said, “if I’ve said the wrong thing. Even a horse, which has four legs, stumbles now and then, so why not a man with one tongue …”
    The laughter grew even louder. I thought they’d all split their sides.
    “Stop laughing now, all of you!” ordered the man of the house. He pulled a large wallet from his pocket and out of it he fished — how much do you think? I swear you’ll never guess — a ten-ruble note, all red as fire, as I hope to die! And do you know what else he says to me? “This,” he says, “is from me. Now children, let’s see what each of you can dig out of your pockets.”
    What can I possibly tell you? Five- and three- and one-ruble notes flew onto the table. I was shaking so hard that I thought I was going to faint.
    “Well, what are you waiting for?” says the man of the house to me. “Take your money from the table and have a good trip home.”
    “God reward you a hundred times over,” I said. “May He bring you good luck and happiness for the rest of your lives.” I couldn’t scoop up that money (who could even count it?) and stuff it into my pockets fast enough. “Good night,” I said. “You should all be happy and well — you, and your children, and their children after them, and all their friends and relations.”
    I had already turned to go when the older woman with the silk kerchief stopped me and said, “One minute, Reb Tevye. There’s a special present I’d like to give you that you can come pick up in the morning. I have the strangest cow; it was once a wonderful beast, it gave twenty-four glasses of milk every day. Someone must have put a hex on it, though, because now you can’t milk it at all — that is, you can milk it all you want, you just can’t get any milk from it …”
    “I wish you a long life,” I said, “and one you won’t wish was any shorter. We’ll not only milk your milk cow, we’ll milk it for milk. My wife, God bless her, is such a wizard around the house that she can bake a noodle pudding from thin air, make soup from a fingernail, whip up a Sabbath meal from an empty cupboard, and put hungry children to sleep with a box on the ear … Well, please don’t hold it against me if I’ve run on a little too long. And now good night to you all and be well,” I said, turning to go to the yard where my wagon was parked … good grief! With my luck one always has to expect a disaster, but this was an out-and-out misfortune. I looked this way, I looked that way—vehayeled eynenu: there wasn’t a horse in sight.
    This time, Tevye, I thought, you’re really in a fix! And I remembered a charming story I once read in a book about a gang of goblins who played a prank on a Jew, a pious Hasid, by luring him to a castle outside of town where they wined and dined him and suddenly disappeared, leaving a naked woman behind them. The woman turned into a tigress, the tigress turned into a cat, and the cat turned into a rattlesnake … Between you and me, Tevye, I said to myself, how do you know they’re not pulling a fast one on you?
    “What are you mumbling and grumbling about?” someone asked me.
    “What am I mumbling about?” I said. “Believe me, it’s not for my health. In fact, I have a slight problem. My horse—”
    “Your horse,” he says, “is in the stable. You only have to go there and look for it.”
    I went to the stable and looked for him. I swear I’m not a Jew if the old fellow wasn’t standing there as proud as punch among the tycoon’s thoroughbreds, chewing away at his oats for all he was worth.
    “I’m sorry to break up the party,” I said to him, “but it’s time to go home, old boy. Why make a hog of yourself? Before you know it, you’ll have taken one bite too many …”
    In the end it was all I could do to wheedle him out of there and into his harness. Away home we flew on top of the world, singing Yom Kippur songs as tipsily as you please. You wouldn’t have recognized my nag; he ran like the wind without so much as a mention of the whip and looked like he’d been reupholstered. When we finally got home late at night, I joyously woke up my wife.
    “Mazel tov, Golde,” I said to her. “I’ve got good news.”
    “A black mazel tov yourself,” she says to me. “Tell me, my fine breadwinner, what’s the happy occasion? Has my goldfingers been to a wedding or a circumcision?”
    “To something better than a wedding and a circumcision combined,” I say. “In a minute, my wife, I’m going to show you a treasure. But first go wake up the girls. Why shouldn’t they also enjoy some Yehupetz cuisine …”
    “Either you’re delirious, or else you’re temporarily deranged, or else you’ve taken leave of your senses, or else you’re totally insane. All I can say is, you’re talking just like a madman, God help us!” says my wife. When it comes to her tongue, she’s a pretty average Jewish housewife.
    “And you’re talking just like a woman!” I answered. “King Solomon wasn’t joking when he said that out of a thousand females you won’t find one with her head screwed on right. It’s a lucky thing that polygamy has gone out of fashion.” And with that I went to the wagon and began unpacking all the dishes I’d been given and setting them out on the table. When that gang of mine saw those rolls and smelled that meat, they fell on it like a pack of wolves. Their hands shook so that they could hardly get a grip on it. I stood there with tears in my eyes, listening to their jaws work away like a plague of starving locusts.
    “So tell me,” says my woman when she’s done, “who’s been sharing their frugal repast with you, and since when do you have such good friends?”
    “Don’t worry, Golde,” I say. “You’ll hear about it all in good time. First put the samovar on, so that we can sit down and drink a glass of tea in style. Generally speaking, you only live once, am I right? So it’s a good thing that we now have a cow of our own that gives twenty-four glasses of milk every day; in fact, I’m planning to go fetch her in the morning. And now, Golde,” I said to her, pulling out my wad of bills, “be a sport and guess how much I have here.”
    You should have seen her turn pale as a ghost. She was so flabbergasted that she couldn’t say a word.
    “God be with you, Golde, my darling,” I said. “You needn’t look so frightened. Are you worried that I stole it somewhere? Feh, you should be ashamed of yourself! How long haven’t you been married to me that you should think such thoughts of your Tevye? This is kosher money, you sillyhead, earned fair and square by my own wits and hard work. The fact is that I’ve just saved two people from great danger. If it weren’t for me, God only knows what would have become of them …”
    In a word, I told her the whole story from beginning to end, the entire rigamarole. When I was through we counted all the money, then counted it again, then counted it once more to be sure. Whichever way we counted, it came to exactly thirty-seven rubles even.
    My wife began to cry.
    “What are you crying like a fool for?” I asked her.
    “How can I help crying,” she says, “if the tears keep coming? When the heart is full it runs out at the eyes. God help me if something didn’t tell me that you were about to come with good news. You know, I can’t remember when I last saw my Grandma Tsaytl, may she rest in peace, in a dream — but just before you came, I dreamed that I saw a big milk can filled to the brim, and Grandma Tsaytl was carrying it underneath her apron to keep the Evil Eye from seeing it, and all the children were shouting, ‘Look, Mama, look …’ ”
    “Don’t go smacking your lips before you’ve tasted the pudding, Golde, my darling,” I said to her. “I’m sure Grandma Tsaytl is enjoying her stay in Paradise, but that doesn’t make her an expert on what’s happening down here. Still, if God went through the trouble of getting us a milk cow, it stands to reason He’ll see to it that the milk cow will give milk … What I wanted to ask you, though, Golde my dear, is what should we do with all the money?”
    “It’s funny you ask me that, Tevye,” she says, “because that’s just what I was going to ask you.”
    “Well, if you were going to ask me anyway,” I say, “suppose I ask you. What do you think we should do with so much capital?”
    We thought. And the harder we thought, the dizzier we became planning one business venture after another. What didn’t we deal in that night? First we bought a pair of horses and quickly sold them for a windfall; then with the profit we opened a grocery store in Boiberik, sold out all the stock, and opened a dry-goods store; after that we invested in some woodland, found a buyer for it, and came out a few more rubles ahead; next we bought up the tax concession for Anatevka, farmed it out again, and with the income started a bank …
    “You’re completely out of your mind!” my wife suddenly shouted at me. “Do you want to throw away our hard-earned savings by lending money to good-for-nothings and end up with only your whip again?”
    “So what do you suggest?” I said. “That it’s better to go bankrupt trading in grain? Do you have any idea of the fortunes that are being lost right this minute on the wheat market? If you don’t believe me, go to Odessa and see for yourself.”
    “What do I care about Odessa?” she says. “My greatgrandparents didn’t live there and neither will my greatgrandchildren, and neither will I, as long as I have legs not to take me there.”
    “So what do you want?” I ask her.
    “What do I want?” she says. “I want you to talk sense and stop acting like a moron.”
    “Well, well,” I said, “look who’s the wise one now! Apparently there’s nothing that money can’t buy, even brains. I might have known this would happen.”
    To make a long story short, after quarreling and making up a few more times, we decided to buy, in addition to the beast I was to pick up in the morning, a milk cow that gave milk …
    It might occur to you to ask why we decided to buy a cow when we could just as well have bought a horse. But why buy a horse, I ask you, when we could just as well have bought a cow? We live close to Boiberik, which is where all the rich Yehupetz Jews come to spend the summer in their dachas. And you know those Yehupetz Jews — nothing’s too good for them. They expect to have everything served up on a silver platter: wood, meat, eggs, poultry, onions, pepper, parsley … so why shouldn’t I be the man to walk into their parlor with cheese, cream, and butter? They like to eat well, they have money to burn, you can make a fat living from them as long as they think they’re getting the best — and believe me, fresh produce like mine they can’t even get in Yehupetz. The two of us, my friend, should only have good luck in our lives for every time I’ve been stopped by the best sort of people, Gentiles even, who beg to be my customers. “We’ve heard, Tevye,” they say to me, “that you’re an honest fellow, even if you are a rat-Jew …” I ask you, do you ever get such a compliment from Jews? My worst enemy should have to lie sick in bed for as long as it would take me to wait for one! No, our Jews like to keep their praises to themselves, which is more than I can say about their noses. The minute they see that I’ve bought another cow, or that I have a new cart, they begin to rack their brains: “Where is it all coming from? Can our Tevye be passing out phony banknotes? Or perhaps he’s making moonshine in some still?” Ha, ha, ha. All I can say is: keep wondering until your heads break, my friends, and enjoy it …
    Believe it or not, you’re practically the first person to have heard this story, the whole where, what, and when of it. And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve run on a little too long and there’s a business to attend to. How does the Bible put it? Koyl oyreyv lemineyhu, it’s a wise bird that feathers its own nest. So you’d better be off to your writing, and I to my milk cans and jugs …
    There’s just one request I have, Pan: please don’t stick me in any of your books. And if that’s too much to ask, do me a favor and at least leave my name out.
    And oh yes, by the way: don’t forget to take care and be well!
    (1894, 1897)



| Home |