Saturday, September 22, 2007

Five essential works about Judaism

Ruth Wisse, whose Jews and Power has just been published by Schocken, teaches Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard. She selected a five best list of essential works about Judaism for Opinion Journal.

One title on the list:
Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem (1894-1914)

No one did more than the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) to forge the connection between Jewishness and comedy, and no character does it better than Tevye the Dairyman. In Aleichem's Tevye stories, set in Russia and collected in various forms over the years, the monologues of this first stand-up Jewish comedian treat many of the crises that Jews experienced in confronting modernity. A traditional father of many daughters (whittled down to three in the musical adaptation "Fiddler on the Roof"), Tevye must face both their challenges to his paternal authority and the dangers posed by the czarist regime. He does so with a philosophical humor that many readers attribute to Jewishness itself. "What does it say in the prayer book? We're God's chosen people; it's no wonder the whole world envies us." Whenever I teach this work, filled with specifically Jewish quotations and expressions, students of other minorities -- especially those from religious families -- recognize Tevye's predicaments, and they appreciate the moral balance he strives to maintain between metaphysical confidence and the disillusioning evidence presented by daily life.
Read more about Wisse's list.

--Marshal Zeringue