In Fiddler on the Roof, the people of Anatevka are depicted as stereotypical shtetl residents: their “prosperity was spiritual rather than material” (Maurice Samuel as quoted in Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders, page 55) and they were “forever frozen in utter piety and utter poverty” (Lucy Dawidowicz, The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, page 6). Eva Hoffman’s historically accurate book, titled Shtetl, confirms that this stylized idea of shtetl life wasn’t totally off the mark:
Until the later stirrings of socialism, prosperity was unabashedly respected in the shtetl, and the nuances of neighbors’ wealth were closely watched and widely known. For a traditional Jewish man, the injunction to make a living and provide for his family was as compelling as the duty to pray.
Divisions between the rich and the poor were clearly perceived and important, and yet they were to some extent subsumed under another system of values — religion. A religiously learned man was prized above the wealthy, simple man; piety was the greatest adornment and merit. (pages 96-97)
Many times throughout Fiddler, we hear Tevye and his family complain about how poor they are:
- TEVYE to GOD: It’s enough you pick on me, Tevye, bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty. What have you got against my horse?
- GOLDE to TZEITEL: A poor girl without a dowry can’t be so particular. You want hair, marry a monkey.
- TEVYE to GOD: You made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either. So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?
- The entire song “If I Were A Rich Man”
- PERCHIK: In this world, it’s the rich who are the criminals. Someday, their wealth will be ours.
TEVYE: That would be nice. If they would agree, I would agree.
- TEVYE to PERCHIK: I am a very poor man. Food for lessons? … Of course, we don’t eat like kings, but we don’t starve, either.
- TZEITEL to MOTEL: And I’m only the daughter of a poor milkman.
- TEVYE (after Perchik congratulates Tzeitel on “getting a rich husband”): Again with the rich! What’s wrong with being rich?
PERCHIK: It is no reason to marry. Money is the world’s curse.
TEVYE: May the Lord smite me with it! And may I never recover!
And yet, as Alisa Solomon writes in Wonder of Wonders, “… while they may be poor, Golde has her shabbos pearls, Motel gets his sewing machine, [and] Tevye owns his house (and even, anachronistically, his land)” (page 289). Lazar Wolf, the butcher, has his “own house, a good store, a servant” (Fiddler on the Roof), and even Mordcha, the innkeeper, owns his bar.