The protagonist of this story has devoted his life to the study of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), particularly his major work, Ethics. Although Spinoza finished writing Ethics in 1675, it was never published during his lifetime, in part due to its controversial nature and the censure of religious authorities. Spinoza is one of the great modern philosophers, associated with Rationalism. As a Jew, Spinoza’s skepticism regarding religion, God, and Judaism was highly controversial within the Jewish community. He was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656 for his radical departure from Jewish doctrine. Unrelated to his philosophical works, Spinoza worked as a lens maker, adept at grinding lenses for telescopes, eyeglasses and microscopes. Dr. Fischelson’s telescope in the story is clearly a reference to this connection with Spinoza.
Jewish Daily Forward
The Jewish Daily Forward was founded in New York City in 1897, eventually becoming the leading Yiddish language newspaper in the United States. Singer was a staff writer for the Forward from his arrival in the United States in 1935 until his death in 1991. Many of his novels were originally published in serial form in the Forward, as were his short stories.
Yiddish Language and Literature
The Yiddish language, associated with populations of the Jewish Diaspora, is rooted in Hebrew and Aramaic, later acquiring the influence of Germanic and Slavic languages. Before World War II, there were approximately eleven million Yiddish speakers, but this number was virtually diminished by half as a result of those who were killed in the Holocaust. Yiddish literature first appeared in the United States as a result of massive migrations of Jews to New York City in the 1880s. Yiddish theater also made its way into U.S. culture in the 1880s, its greatest achievements developing in the 1920s.
World War I
This story takes place in the summer months of 1914, on the eve of the Great War (now referred to as World War I), and its events unfold against the backdrop of the build-up of the war. Dr. Fischelson first hears of the impending war when he goes out to buy food, and learns that ”in Serbia somewhere, an Austrian Prince had been shot and the Austrians had delivered an ultimatum to the Serbs.” This refers to the event which is considered to have initiated World War I. On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist movement, aiming to “liberate” South Slavs from Austria-Hungary, assassinated the heir to the Austrian empire, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and his wife while they were visiting Serbia on a military inspection. In Singer’s short story, a shopkeeper warns Dr. Fischelson that they are on the brink of a “small war.” This statement is ironic, given that it was not at all a “small” war which ensued, but a World War.
Many of Singer’s stories take place in the Jewish shtetl of Warsaw, Poland. Poland’s defeat in the Russo-Polish War of 1831 resulted in the military occupation of Poland by Russia, ruled by the Tsar. A revolt against Russian rule in 1864 was crushed, solidifying the Poles submission to occupation. A later wave of rebellion between 1905- 1907 is mentioned in Singer’s story, when Black Dobbe tells Dr. Fischelson ”of the battles between the underworld and the revolutionaries in 1905.” According to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Warsaw at the turn of the century “contained the largest urban concentration of Jews in the world.” Most of this population perished or emigrated as a result of the Holocaust during World War II.
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.