Critic Lawrence Alexander has pointed out that Isaac Bashevis Singer “almost always writes as a Jew, to Jews, for Jews: and yet he is heard by everybody.” Other critics have concurred that it is through Singer’s very specific focus on the vanished world of Chassidic Jewry in the shtetls (small Eastern European Jewish communities) of Warsaw, Poland, before World War II, the world of his childhood and young adulthood, that Singer’s fiction draws its universal appeal. Furthermore, critics generally agree that it is through the skillful translations of Singer’s Yiddish stories into English that they successfully maintain the power of his own native language. Given this, many readers will not be familiar with the specific elements of Jewish culture, religion and history referred to in Singer’s stories. An explanation of some of these references in Singer’s short story “The Spinoza of Market Street” will enhance the appreciation of the reader unfamiliar with these references.
A key element of this story is Dr. Fischelson’s lifelong devotion to the study of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the leading figure in the philosophy of seventeenth-century rationalism. In order to fully appreciate Singer’s story, it is helpful to have some knowledge of Spinoza’s relationship to Judaism and the Jewish community in which he lived. Spinoza’s non-conformist ideas about religion led to his excommunication by the Jewish authorities in Amsterdam in 1656, for which he was temporarily banished from his native city. While a prolific writer, all but one of Spinoza’s philosophical texts were published posthumously, largely because the controversial nature of his ideas prevented publication during his lifetime. His masterpiece, Ethica (Ethics) was completed in 1675, two years before his death from tuberculosis. Acting against local authority, Spinoza’s friends arranged for several of his works to be published after his death.
Dr. Fischelson, in Singer’s story, is, like Spinoza, censured by his the Jewish community for his unorthodox ideas (based on his study of Spinoza). Dr. Fischelson had been head librarian of the Warsaw synagogue, but ”because of his heretical ideas he came into conflict with the rabbi and had had to resign his post as librarian.” The members of the Jewish community on Market Street, where he lives in a garret apartment, regard him with suspicion, considering him a “heretic” or a “convert” (to Christianity). Black Dobbe, his uneducated neighbor, even associates him with superstitions such as black magic: ”This man made her think of witches, of black mirrors and corpses wandering around at night and terrifying women.” Dr. Fischelson, however, while clearly a skeptic in the spirit of modern philosophy, considers himself, as he tells Black Dobbe, “A Jew like any other Jew.”
Dr. Fischelson’s character also shares some similarities with that of the author. Like that of Singer, Dr. Fischelson’s community is one of Chassidic Judaism. Chassidism (a variation of the term ”Hasidic”) was a movement begun in twelfth-century Germany, which stressed the mystical elements of Jewish theology.
Like Singer, Dr. Fischelson’s father was a rabbi. Like Singer, Dr. Fischelson had attended a ”yeshiva,” an institute of rabbinical training. Like Singer, Dr. Fischelson’s interests took him in a direction other than that of religious study—for Singer, into literature, for Dr. Fischelson into modern philosophy. Singer has cited his reading of Spinoza as a young man as having had a profound influence on his ideas about Judaism. As Dr. Fischelson has come under censure from the Jewish community for his modern perspectives, so Singer has been criticized by Jewish religious authorities for his literary works, which portray Jewish characters in a less-than-flattering light and express doubt in Jewish theology. While Dr. Fischelson attempts to live a life in accordance with Spinoza’s rationalist philosophy, he also preoccupies himself with contemplation of the cosmic. A few steps up from his garret room, Dr. Fischelson has a telescope, through which he looks out at the night sky. Fischelson’s telescope is in part a reference to the fact the Spinoza, unrelated to his philosophical achievements, was a very skilled professional lens crafter, who at times made his living grinding lenses for microscopes, spectacles, and telescopes. For Dr. Fischelson, contemplation of the cosmic is associated with the rationalist philosophy that removes him from the stream of life represented by the lively Jewish community of Market Street below his window. In contemplating the stars and the planets, Dr. Fischelson remains intellectually removed from human companionship, and regards Market Street disdainfully as if it were the depths of Hell.
While Dr. Fischelson’s alienation from his Jewish community is in some ways due to his modern ideas, it is in other ways in reaction against the modernization of Jewish culture: “He began to despise everything associated with the modern Jew…” His perspective on the Hebrew language, for example, is staunchly traditional. Hebrew is the language in which Jewish theological texts are written. But, while Dr. Fischelson “still read a Hebrew magazine occasionally .. . he felt contempt for modern Hebrew which had no roots in the Bible or the Mishnah.” The ”Bible,” refers to the central Jewish theological text, made up of the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Together, they make up the Torah. The Mishna refers to the oral commentary on the Torah that was first written down in a comprehensive volume over a period of about two hundred years, culminating in the third century A.D Later commentary on the Mishna was collected in a text called the Gemara. The Mishna and Gemara together make up the Talmud. Dr. Fischelson also has contempt for the Zionism of “the modern Jew.” Zionism was a movement begun in the nineteenth century that advocated the relocation of members of the Jewish Diaspora to Palestine. Palestine at the time was under British rule, and many European Jews moved there during the first half of the twentieth century, although Israel as a Jewish nation was not founded until 1948.
Dr. Fischelson, an adherent to modern philosophy, who also considers himself a Jew, but who is disdainful of ideas associated with modern Jewry, seems disturbed in part by the co-existence of modern, secular Jewish culture with traditional Jewish religious practice. When he looks down on Market Street, he is disturbed by the existence of Jewish religious observance side by side with the material indulgences of his Jewish community. Dr. Fischelson observes the pious study of Judaism, as “through the window of a Chassidic study house across the way, Dr. Fischelson could see boys with long sidelocks swaying over holy volumes, grimacing and studying aloud in sing-song voices.” The ”swaying” of the boys in prayer refers to the Jewish practice of “davening,” a swaying back and forth while standing in prayer. The “long sidelocks” are the long curls of hair worn by Chassidic men, in accordance with traditional Jewish law.
Yet, alongside this image of piety, Dr. Fischelson observes the pleasure-seeking masses, surrounded by the physical sensations of alcohol, food, music, and sex:
“Butchers, porters, and fruit dealers were drinking beer in the tavern below. Vapor drifted from the tavern’s open door like steam from a bathhouse, and there was the sound of loud music. Outside of the tavern, streetwalkers snatched at drunken soldiers and at workers on their way home from the factories.”
To Dr. Fischelson, such activities represent the vices of people destined for Hell:
“Some of the men carried bundles of wood on their shoulders, reminding Dr. Fischelson of the wicked who are condemned to kindle their own fires in Hell.”
But, most of all, it is the intermingling of the “sacred” with the “profane” that disturbs the old philosopher:
“Husky record players poured out their raspings through open windows. The liturgy of the high holidays alternated with vulgar vaudeville songs”.
Vaudeville was a form of live, on-stage variety show, popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including musical numbers, comedic acts, brief dramatic sketches and other light entertainments. It tends to be associated with the popular entertainment of the most unsophisticated masses of the population. The “high holidays,” on the other hand, are the most holy days of the Jewish religious calendar. Yet, while Dr. Fischelson seems disdainful of the intrusion of the “profane” life on Market Street with the “sacred” observance of religious law, he himself does not participate in religious observance, as it is noted that he does not attend prayer.
Dr. Fischelson’s alienation from the Jewish community, both its “sacred” and its “secular” elements, is resolved, however, through his marriage to Black Dobbe. Dr. Fischelson is brought back into the fold of Jewish religious observance through his traditional wedding in the synagogue, officiated by the rabbi. The community from which he has been outcast for so long spontaneously comes together for the ceremony. While it is clear that there is a certain perverse interest on the part of these observers, there is also a sense of community expressed through their efforts to dress up and obtain delicacies for the sake of the celebration:
“Although Dr. Fischelson had insisted that the wedding be a small, quiet one, a host of guests assembled in the rabbi’s rooms. The baker’s apprentices who generally went about barefoot, and in their underwear, with paper bags on the tops of their heads, now put on light-colored suits, straw hats, yellow shoes, gaudy ties, and they brought with them huge cakes and pans filled with cookies. They had even managed to find a bottle of vodka although liquor was forbidden in wartime.”
This description brings into the ”sacred” space of the rabbi’s chambers the “profane” material luxuries that Dr. Fischelson had so disdained: particularly, food and alcohol. The description of the wedding focuses on several specific elements of Jewish wedding ritual. The wedding ceremony itself “proceeded according to law,” meaning that the traditional Jewish religious laws of marriage were observed. It is reported that “several porters” had to be brought in from the street to make up the ”quorum”; this refers to the Jewish law that at least ten men must be present for prayer. These same porters also served to support the “canopy”—the “hupah” that is a square cloth supported on four poles, under which the bride and groom stand during the wedding ceremony. Next, “Dobbe walked around him seven times as custom required”; in a Jewish wedding the bride circles the groom seven times. Finally, “according to custom, was the smashing of the glass . . . “; in the Jewish wedding tradition, a glass is placed on the floor and the groom smashes it by stepping on it with his foot. After the ceremony, Dobbe’s former employer wishes Dr. Fischelson, “Mazel tov” a Yiddish phrase uttered on holidays and special occasions.
The wedding ceremony alleviates Dr. Fischelson’s alienation from his community through their participation in the celebration, as well as alleviating his alienation from Judaism through his participation in the traditional religious ritual officiated by the rabbi. It is the ‘’miracle” of the passionate consummation of his marriage to Black Dobbe, however, which ultimately draws Dr. Fischelson down from his removed, cosmic contemplation of the world from a rational perspective, and integrates him back into full participation in both physical and spiritual life. When he awakens in the night to observe the sky from his telescope, Dr. Fischelson, for the first time, sees himself as “a part of this,” as integrated into the “divine substance” of the cosmos: “Yes, the divine substance was extended and had neither beginning nor end; it was absolute, indivisible, eternal, without duration, infinite in its attributes. Its waves and bubbles danced in the universal cauldron, seething with change, following the unbroken chain of causes and effects, and he, Dr. Fischelson, with his unavoidable fate, was part of this.”
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “The Spinoza of Market Street,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.