The character of Tevye first appeared in Sholem-Aleichem’s 1894 story,
“Tevye Strikes It Rich,” and it is in this story that he becomes Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the milkman, or, more literally, Tevye the milky one): after “he delivers some wealthy women lost in the woods back to their dacha, he is rewarded with the astonishing sum of thirty-seven rubles and a cow” (Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders, pg. 13).
Already sounding like the Tevye we all know and love today, that first version of Tevye exclaims that, “Just like it says in the Bible … 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 mustn’t lose faith.” Further into the story, he has the type of conversation with his wife, Golde, that modern audiences love to laugh over but are, actually, quite serious in Tevye’s world:
“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 take 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.