A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from March 17, 2009
“When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick”

"When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick” is a line from the 1964 Broadway musical (and 1971 movie) Fiddler on the Roof. The line is often given as a Yiddish proverb or a Russian proverb and sometimes is given: “When a Jew eats a chicken, one of them is sick.”

The proverb illustrates the plight of the poor man who can hardly afford to eat chicken. Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) possibly popularized the proverb in his Yiddish writings. The saying is cited in English since at least 1900.


Wikiquote: Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof is the 1971 film version of the stage musical, based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem. Tevye the Milkman is a Jewish peasant in pre-Revolutionary Russia, coping with the day-to-day problems of “shtetl” life, his Jewish traditions, his family (wife and daughters), and state-sanctioned pogroms.

Directed by Norman Jewison. Written by Sholom Aleichem and Joseph Stein.
(...)
Tevye: As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.
Mendel: Where does the book say that?
Tevye: Well, it doesn’t say that exactly, but somewhere there is something about a chicken. Good Sabbath!

Wikipedia: Sholem Aleichem
Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish: שלום־עליכם, Russian: Шолом-Алейхем, Ukrainian: Шолом-Алейхем; March 2 [O.S. February 18] 1859 – May 13, 1916) was the pen name of Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich, the popular humorist and Russian (geographically, Ukrainian) Jewish author of Yiddish literature, including novels, short stories, and plays. He did much to promote Yiddish writers, and was the first to pen children’s literature in Yiddish.

His work has been widely translated. The 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, loosely based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about his character Tevye the Milkman, was the first commercially successful English-language play about Eastern European Jewish life.

Chronicling America
24 November 1900, New Haven (CT) Morning Journal and Courier, “Wise Sayings of the Jews,” pt. 2, pg. 11, col. 2:
“When a poor man eats a chicken he is sick or the chicken.”

8 July 1905, Tacoma (WA) Daily News, “Jewish Encyclopedia (New York American),” pg. 19, col. 6:
“If a poor man eats a chicken, either he is sick or the chicken is sick.”

29 August 1905, Pittsburg (PA) Press, “Talmudic Proverbs,” pg. 3, col. 2:
“If a poor man eats a chicken, either he is sick or the chicken is sick.”

Google Books
The Wisdom of Israel: an anthology
By Lewis Browne
New York, NY: Modern Library
1945
Pg. 640:
If a poor man eats a chicken, either he is sick or the chicken was sick.

Google Books
Yiddish Proverbs
By Hanan J. Ayalti
Published by Schocken Books
1949
Pg. 33:
When a poor man gets to eat a chicken, one of them is sick.

Google Books
A Treasury of Yiddish Stories
By Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg
Illustrated by Ben Shahn
New York, NY: Viking Press
1954
Pg. 27:
(One finds the same wry mockery of their own sufferings in the Jewish proverb: “If a poor man eats chicken, one of them is sick.")
Pg. 611:
When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.

Google Books
Fiddler on the Roof
By Jerry Bock, Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick, Sholem Aleichem
Edition: 4
Published by Limelight Editions
1964
Reprint. Originally published: New York : Crown Publishers, [1965], c1964.
Pg. 31:
TEVYE As the Good Book says, “When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.”
MENDEL Where does the Book say that?
TEVYE Well, it doesn’t say that exactly, but somewhere there is something about a chicken. Good Sabbath!

Google News Archive
14 November 1974, Virgin Islands Daily News, “Step Inte The World Of Foreign Cusine” by Marcia O. Burg, pg. 10, col. 1:
In one of Sholom Aleichem’s stories, Tevye the milkman says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick

Fortunately in America, things haven’t reached quite that stage, and a poor man and a chicken can still come together in reasonable health.

Google Books
The Book of Jewish Food:
An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York

By Claudia Roden
New York, NY: Knopf
1996
Pg. 128:
That explains the saying “If a Jewish farmer eats chicken, one of them is sick,” and accounts for the special fondness for giblets.

Google Books
The Chicken Book
By Page Smith and Charles Daniel
Published by University of Georgia Press
2000
Pg. 139:
It reminds one of: “When a poor Jew kills a chicken, one of them is sick.” For “poor Jew” other groups often substitute “poor Pole,” or “poor Irishman,” etc.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Tuesday, March 17, 2009 • Permalink