I. B. Singer and the Tragicomedy of the Jewish Spinozist
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter analyzes the Spinoza image in the work of Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–1991) in three stages. First, relying primarily on Singer's autobiographical writings, this chapter charts Singer's path from worship to wariness of Spinoza in Warsaw between the wars, the very period that witnessed a broad and ecumenical revival of the Amsterdam philosopher and a veritable explosion of his popularity within Yiddish literature. It then turns to an analysis of the two works in Singer's canon most pivotal to his use of Spinoza, “Der Shpinozist” (“The Spinoza of Market Street”) and Di familye mushkat (The Family Moskat). These two works reflect the range of the Spinoza theme in Singer, from the miniature scale of the short story to the multigenerational novel, and from gentle comedy to harsh post-Holocaust tragedy.
Mention the making of Spinoza into a modern Jewish culture hero and the author most likely to come to mind is Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like dybbuk possessions and love triangles, Spinoza casts a long shadow in Singer’s vast oeuvre. He figures most conspicuously in “The Spinoza of Market Street,” a widely acknowledged masterpiece of Singer’s short fiction that portrays a would-be Spinoza in early twentieth-century Jewish Warsaw. Yet the Amsterdam philosopher is also a mainstay of several of Singer’s novels and of his copious autobiographical writings (the lines between which are often deliberately blurred), where an at least temporary veneration of Spinoza and the Ethics often serves as a rite de passage in the protagonist’s journey from traditionalism to secularism. Reflecting on the emergence of Spinoza as an icon for nineteenth-and twentieth-century Jewish iconoclasts, historian David Biale writes, “One thinks of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s characters who obsessively read Spinoza, a practice that Singer borrowed from earlier Yiddish and Hebrew writers.”1 Others preceded (and succeeded) him, but it is Singer who, over time, has become the most readily invoked example for Spinoza’s rehabilitation from heretic to hero, as “the first modern Jew.”
In fact, the twinning of Singer with this rehabilitation is rife with irony. At one level, this is because Singer—unlike Berthold Auerbach, Israel Zangwill, Melech Ravitch, and others—never fictionalized or poeticized Spinoza himself, but Spinoza’s Jewish reception. In Singer’s writing, there is no return to the scene of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, no reconstruction of Spinoza’s Sephardic upbringing and estrangement from Judaism, no reprise of the excommunication.2 The setting for the Spinoza theme in his work is prewar and interwar Eastern Europe—specifically Warsaw and its environs—and, to a lesser extent, Singer’s later American home. The subject is the intimate link between the encounter with Spinoza’s rationalist and pantheist heresy and the peculiarities of East European Jewish enlightenment and secularization. Indeed, as Biale intimates, the whole basis for Singer’s appropriation of Spinoza is the earlier appropriation (and adulation) (p.156) of him by modern Jewish secularists. With a mixture of wry humor and occasional pathos, Singer dramatizes the overwrought nature of this appropriation, the intensity of the identification with Spinoza among many a talmudic prodigy turned secular intellectual. We might call Singer the great ironist of Jewish Spinozism. And yet, Singer is not only a satirist of the modern Jewish fixation with Spinoza. He is also a critic. The pinnacle of Spinoza’s system—the ideal of the amor dei intellectualis—could not provide satisfactory answers to what were, for Singer, the perennial truths of human existence: the power of the emotions, the problem of evil, the pangs of homelessness. Herein lies an even more fundamental paradox to the association of Singer with the Jewish cultural reclamation of the Amsterdam rebel—the fact that his appropriation is essentially an argument with Spinoza, a critique of the Enlightenment legacy of secular rationalism he embodied. But because of its repetitive character, it is a rebuke, even repudiation that only furthers the cause of rehabilitation, cementing the bond between Spinoza and the oyfgeklerte yid, the “enlightened Jew.”
This chapter will analyze the Spinoza image in Singer’s work in three stages.3 First, relying primarily on Singer’s autobiographical writings, I will chart Singer’s path from worship to wariness of Spinoza in Warsaw between the wars, the very period that witnessed a broad and ecumenical revival of the Amsterdam philosopher and a veritable explosion of his popularity within Yiddish literature.4 I will then turn to an analysis of the two works in Singer’s canon most pivotal to his use of Spinoza, “The Spinoza of Market Street” and The Family Moskat. Written in close proximity—“The Spinoza of Market Street” was originally titled “Der Shpinozist” and published in Di tsukunft [The Future] in 1944, while The Family Moskat [Di familye mushkat] was serialized in Der forverts [The Forward] from 1945 to 1948—these two works reflect the range of the Spinoza theme in Singer, from the miniature scale of the short story to the multigenerational novel, and from gentle comedy to harsh post-Holocaust tragedy.
I used to carry around Spinoza’s Ethics wherever I went.5
It is perhaps a further irony that Singer came under the spell of Spinoza not in worldly, cosmopolitan Warsaw, his home for nearly ten years of his youth and then for much of his twenties and early thirties, but in the secluded shtetl of Bilgoray (Bilgoraj) in southeastern Poland. In 1917 Isaac (p.157) and his mother Bathsheba, fleeing the extreme hardships and shortages of wartime Warsaw, returned to her hometown. He spent four years in this traditional Jewish town, separated from both his father Pinhos Menahem, a Hasidic rabbi exacting in his faith and religious discipline, and hostile to anything smacking of secular modernity, and his elder brother Israel Joshua, an artist-novelist who was already an “enlightened” heretic. While Bilgoray was a bastion of “old Jewishness,” it was not immune from “the new winds” of modern Jewish politics and culture, and it was in the context of his compulsive reading of “original works in Yiddish” and “translations of European writers” that Singer discovered “Stupnicki’s book on Spinoza.”6
One can safely assume that few readers of Singer’s In My Father’s Court in translation today have ever heard of this book or, for that matter, Stupnicki. Shaul Stupnicki (1876–1942) was a well-known Yiddish journalist in Poland and a prominent supporter of the Folkspartei, the movement and political party, inspired by the Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, that sought national-cultural autonomy for Jews in Eastern Europe. His greatest legacy was as one of the leading intellectuals of the Warsaw ghetto, where he contributed to Emmanuel Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabes archive.7 Yet in the history of Spinoza’s Jewish reception, he also looms large. In 1917—the same year Singer moved to Bilgoray—Stupnicki published Borukh Shpinoza: Zayn filozofye, bibel-kritik, shtatslere un zayn badaytung in der antviklung fun mentshlikhen denken [Baruch Spinoza: His Philosophy, Biblical Criticism, Political Theory, and Import for the Development of Human Thought]. The Yiddish library on Spinoza as of 1917 was still extremely modest. It consisted mostly of a smattering of articles, the first of which had appeared in a St. Petersburg weekly in 1886; a translation of Berthold Auerbach’s Spinoza novel by the Lithuanian-born playwright Bernard Gorin; and a slender primer on Spinoza’s life and philosophy by the American Yiddish journalist and socialist Philip Krantz (Jacob Rombro).8 Stupnicki’s volume was something new, a book of over one hundred sixty pages that was the first attempt at a scholarly and comprehensive introduction to Spinoza in Yiddish. “For the first time,” Stupnicki wrote in his introduction, “the Jewish reader has in hand the complete Spinoza, his philosophy, his biblical criticism, his political theory.”9 Acknowledging that for many, Spinoza’s teachings—in particular his biblical criticism—would be “new and startling,” the author maintained that “the Jewish reader is, by now, sufficiently grown up” to cope with the challenge to his inherited beliefs.
“The Spinoza book created a turmoil in my brain,” Singer writes. The biblical criticism that Stupnicki felt necessary to caution against seems barely to have attracted notice. It was instead the pantheist philosophy of the Ethics and Spinoza’s God that instantly absorbed him:
(p.158) His concept that God is a substance with infinite attributes, that divinity itself must be true to its laws, that there is no free will, no absolute morality and purpose—fascinated and bewildered me. As I read this book, I felt intoxicated, inspired as I never had been before. It seemed to me that the truths I had been seeking since childhood had at last become apparent. Everything was God—Warsaw, Bilgoray, the spider in the attic, the water in the well, the clouds in the sky, and the book on my knees. … I too was a modus, which explained my indecision, my restlessness, my passionate nature, my doubts and fears.10
This was Singer’s “Spinoza moment,” and for all the singularity of its description in his memoirs, it shares the features of many a similar first encounter with the Amsterdam philosopher in the modern Jewish experience: the sense of wondrous discovery, the feeling of having serendipitously stumbled upon the long elusive truth, the intuition of the oneness of all being. The notion that even his “tangled thoughts were divine” seemed to untangle everything, to invest his turbulent, wandering thoughts with necessity and thus stability. “I was exalted,” he concludes; “everything seemed good.”
If the Stupnicki book was what lit the flame and converted the teenage Singer for a time into a young Spinozist and devotee of the Ethics, it was not his first exposure to the philosophy of Spinoza. One of the arguments, apparently, that raged in the Singer household between Israel Joshua and his parents concerned Spinoza’s heresy. As he describes elsewhere in his autobiographical writings, Isaac first learned of Spinoza from his elder brother.11 His father, meanwhile, countered that “Spinoza’s name should be blotted out,” though he curiously mitigated his heresy by adding “Spinoza had contributed nothing” that was not already recognized by the Hasidic masters.12 “There was an interpretation by the famous Baal Shem,” Singer writes, paraphrasing his father, “who also identified the world with the Godhead. True, the Baal Shem had lived after Spinoza, but my father argued that Spinoza had drawn from ancient sources, which no Spinoza disciple could deny.”13
Pinhos Menahem’s “ancient sources” were the teachings of Jewish mysticism, and from Singer’s closing comment it is clear he thought this nexus between Spinozism and Kabbalah was irrefutable. Much of A Little Boy in Search of God, one of his later memoirs, is devoted to his youthful discovery of—and enthrallment with—the “cabala books in my father’s bookcase.” His father cautioned that “you couldn’t take to the cabala before you reached thirty” or “[o]ne could drift into heresy.” Isaac Bashevis ignored these warnings and read these works furtively—his first experience of literature as forbidden (p.159) fruit. Their crux, as Singer perceived it, was pantheism: the “concept that everything is God and God is everything; that the stone in the street, the mouse in its hole, the fly on the wall, and the shoes on my feet were all fashioned from the Divinity.”14 In one volume in particular, The Pillar of Service by the eighteenth-century Hasidic kabbalist Reb Baruch Kossover (d. 1779), Isaac claimed to find proofs for the existence of God akin to the “arguments I found later in Spinoza’s Ethics.” “My later interest in Spinoza,” the older I. B. Singer reminisced, “stemmed from studying the cabala.”15
With this admission, Singer stands in a chain of tradition stretching back to Salomon Maimon, the eighteenth-century thinker who was, arguably, the first Jewish Spinozist. In his classic Autobiography, Maimon had similarly transposed the Lurianic myth of creation to a Spinozist key: “[T]he Cabbalah is nothing but an expanded Spinozism,” he famously explained, “in which not only is the origin of the world explained by the limitation of the divine being, but also the origin of every kind of being, and its relation to the rest, are derived from a separate attribute of God.”16 Moreover, when Maimon finally came to read Spinoza for the first time after fleeing Poland for Berlin, he claimed that “his system had already been suggested to me by the Cabbalistic writings.”17 Singer never alludes to Maimon as a precursor. Perhaps he was genuinely unaware of the echoes of the earlier Autobiography in his own self-fashioning, but they are striking. Like Maimon, Singer not only highlights the similarities between Spinozism and the Kabbalah. He also implies that his early study of the Kabbalah gave him a grasp of Spinozism even before he read Spinoza.
What is clear is that, for Singer, the allure of Spinozism lay in its demonstration of a total immanence of God that could be found, in more cryptic form, in the Kabbalah. The Spinoza whom Singer would come to adore was clearly the “God-intoxicated man” of Novalis and the German Romantics. Indeed, though his father would undoubtedly have seen red if he knew his son Isaac was reading secular literature of any kind, not to mention the “horrible heresies” of the Amsterdam philosopher, the Spinoza admired by Singer was, in a way, also a testament to the strength of this paternal legacy—with its heightened spirituality and Hasidic ecstasy—even in its defiance.
Yet Singer could not entirely commit to this religious Spinoza. The other Spinoza—the atheist and materialist par excellence hated by orthodox theologians and heralded by radical secularists—hovered close by. It was as if Spinoza stood at a crossroads, where one path led homeward, back toward the secret pantheism of Kabbalah, while the other drifted in the direction of the modern evolutionary philosophies of Malthus and Darwin. (p.160) Recalling his discovery of Malthus—again, through a pamphlet supplied by Israel Joshua—Singer writes that he “proved in a way that couldn’t be clearer that countless creatures were born to die, for otherwise the world would fill with so many creatures that everyone would starve to death or simply be crushed.”18 Darwin, he added, “went even further and maintained the continuous struggle for food or sex is the origin of all species.” In these thinkers, Singer found a fundamentally pessimistic outlook. The notion of a “natural selection” governed by no higher metaphysical plan or purpose appeared to render both individual strivings and suffering meaningless. And the young Isaac, trying to digest such ideas while still in his early teens, was gripped by the thought that the seeds of this godless philosophy lay in the God of Spinoza:
Spinoza attributed to God merely the capacity to extend and to think. The anguish of people and animals did not concern Spinoza’s God even in the slightest. He had no feelings at all concerning justice or freedom. The Baal Shem and the murderer were of equal importance to Him. Everything was preordained, and no change whatsoever could affect Spinoza’s God or the things that were part of Him. … This philosophy exuded a chill, though still I felt that it might contain more truth (bitter truth) than the cabala. If God were indeed full of mercy and benevolence, He wouldn’t have allowed starvation, plagues, and pogroms. Spinoza’s God merely fortified the contentions of Malthus.19
Interestingly, if, in my reading, his pious father Pinhos Menahem was the invisible (and ironic) inspiration behind Singer’s mystical Spinoza, his freethinking elder brother—who had introduced Isaac to the Spinozan heresy in the first place—became, for a time at least, synonymous with Spinoza the cold rationalist, the Spinoza who seemed only a step from Malthus and Darwin. “All existence is nature, and nature knows of no pity,” Singer quotes Isaac Joshua as having said in response to his moral anguish over the killing of animals for meat.20 Or, as he argued to his mother amid the harsh deprivations of the First World War, “There is no Almighty. Man is an animal like all other animals.”21
Out of this tug-of-war came Singer’s own stab at a “refined Spinozism.” His starting point was Spinoza’s sixth definition in the first part of the Ethics, “On God,” which states: “By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.”22 This sentence has long bedeviled Spinoza scholars: Did the seventeenth-century philosopher mean to say that there were other, infinite attributes of God beyond Thought and Extension?23 Whatever the answer to this age-old ambiguity, Singer, in admittedly idiosyncratic fashion, pounced on it:
(p.161) Since according to Spinoza substance contained an endless number of attributes, this left some room for fantasy. I even toyed with the notion of changing some of Spinoza’s axioms and definitions and bringing out a new Ethics. You could easily say that time was one of God’s attributes, too, as well as purpose, creativeness, and growth.24 I had read somewhere about Lobachevski’s non-Euclidean geometry, and I wanted to create a non-Spinozan pantheism, or whatever it might be called. I was ready to make will a divine attribute, too. This kind of revisionist Spinozism would come very close to the cabala.25
That this “revisionist Spinozism” was indeed central to Singer’s thinking in late adolescence is clear from his account of his first stab at becoming a published writer. In 1923, while staying, temporarily, with Israel Joshua and his wife, in-laws, and newborn son in a small flat just outside Warsaw—desperate to find work and avoid having to return to his parents then living in Galicia—Singer wrote his very first manuscript on Spinoza and the Kabbalah. Blithely unaware of any previous scholarship on this topic, Singer composed a little book on the subject in a mere two weeks. His main argument was that “Spinoza had not enriched and expanded the idea of the Kabbalah with his philosophy”; on the contrary, “he had narrowed them, stripped them of their magnificent stature,” such that “Spinozism [was] nothing more than an abridged and shriveled Kabbalah.”26 One is immediately arrested by the inversion of Maimon’s formulation of the relationship between Spinozism and the Kabbalah in his Autobiography, though once again this link goes unacknowledged. Maimon called the Kabbalah “an expanded Spinozism,” suggesting that the pruning of the mythological excesses of Lurianic acosmism as part of its translation into Spinozan rationalism was a positive development in the history of thought. Singer, on the other hand, laments the compression of Jewish mysticism in Spinozism, its yielding of “an abridged and shriveled Kabbalah.”
Pressed by his brother to travel to Warsaw to do something productive, the younger Singer resolved to see if he could get his work published. Arriving by train, still dressed in his long gaberdine coat and sporting sidelocks, he went first to the Warsaw Synagogue on Tlomackie Street. Its elderly secretary, Hayim Yehiel Bernstein (1845–1928), was a noted authority on the Jewish calendar as well as an expert on Spinoza and Jewish philosophy in general. Singer thought Bernstein might recommend a suitable forum for his study of Spinoza and the Kabbalah. But the meeting with the wizened scholar—echoes of which would find their way into Singer’s later fiction, including The Family Moskat—did not go as hoped. After allowing Singer to expound at length on “Spinoza, the Kabbalah, similarities, influences,” the secretary deflected all his requests for guidance. The help he could offer (p.162) amounted to “gornisht, absolut gornisht.” And so, after helping the nearly blind Bernstein leave his office and cross the street, Singer—tired and hungry, and suddenly seized by a loathing of his brochure and of philosophizing in a broader sense—walked into the nearest courtyard, opened the garbage can, and threw away his manuscript.27
Some twenty years later in the mid-1940s, I. B. Singer, now living in New York, would write a few articles explaining Spinoza’s philosophy for the readers of Der Forverts.28 Around the same time, he was also beginning to make use of Spinoza—or the ghost of Spinoza—as a fictional theme in his writing.29 By then, the one-time romance had largely faded.
Did you begin to move away from Spinoza before you came to this country or later?
What had begun as a trickle prior to and during the First World War became a flood in its wake. In 1923 the first Yiddish translation of the Treatise appeared in print—nearly four decades before Spinoza’s devastating secular critique of religion (and Judaism in particular) was finally translated into Hebrew.31 That same year, two separate presses—one in Warsaw and one in Chicago—published William Nathanson’s pioneering Yiddish rendition of the Ethics; by 1927 the Warsaw imprint was already in its third edition.32 Stupnicki’s groundbreaking effort to create a Yiddish-language vissenshaft on Spinoza was taken to new heights by the New York–based Yiddish philosopher Jacob Shatzky. His Spinoza un zayn svivoh [Spinoza and His Environment], published in 1927 (along with 1932, one of the two major Spinoza jubilee years of the interwar period)—a work consciously modeled on the magisterial fin-de-siècle Spinoza biographies of Jakob Freudenthal and K. O. Meinsma—was reviewed in practically every Yiddish newspaper and journal of significance.33 To this day, it remains the most significant exemplar of a Yiddish scholarly account of the life and times of the Amsterdam philosopher. Meanwhile, at the same time that Hebraists in Palestine were claiming Spinoza for secular Zionism, Yiddish socialists—from Bundist social democrats to Soviet Trotskyists and even Stalinists—were busy appropriating Spinoza as as a precursor of Marxist liberation and dialectical materialism.34 In 1932 Leo Finkelstein delivered a tribute, in Yiddish, (p.163) at the international Spinoza congress held in The Hague to commemorate the three-hundredth birthday of the philosopher—the first instance in which Yiddish was ever publicly represented at one of these multilingual symposia.35 Yet the highlight of the Spinoza renaissance in Yiddish between the wars was, without question, the Spinoza bukh of 1932. Edited by Shatzky and published by the Jewish division of the short-lived Spinoza Institute of America, the Spinoza bukh was an anthology of Yiddish essays on topics ranging from Spinoza and Kant to Spinoza and Marx, and from the problem of free will in philosophy from Spinoza to Bergson to the relationship between Spinoza’s thought and Judaism.36 The collection—however uneven in the quality of its articles—was a landmark, proof positive that the competition between Yiddish and Hebrew (which produced no similar Spinoza Festschrift in 1932) now extended to the representation of Spinoza as well. Hebrew clearly had enjoyed a considerable head start, but Yiddish was now catching up, and in some cases even surpassing its rival.37
The Yiddish Spinoza renaissance spanned countries and even continents. But Warsaw, where the nineteen-year-old Singer arrived in 1923, was certainly one of its main centers. And the poet and editor Melekh Ravitch (1893–1976), who quickly took Singer under his wing, was one of its main champions. Many Yiddish poets—from H. Leyvick to Abraham Sutzkever—would in time write verse about Spinoza.38 Ravitch (né Zekharye Chone Bergner), originally of Galicia, was the first, and arguably the most ardent. In 1919 the first edition of his famed Spinoza cycle of poems appeared.39 Written from 1916 to 1918, while Ravitch was a foot soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, the four-part poem (much like the Societas Spinozana founded by Carl Gebhardt shortly thereafter) images the rationalist Spinoza as, in essence, the answer to the blood-soaked passions of the Great War. The first section—Der mentsh—portrays Spinoza from birth to death, devoting special attention to his excommunication. The second—Dos verk—muses on Spinoza’s metaphysics and biblical criticism. The third and fourth sections—Di shpin [The Spider] and Ktoyres [Incense], respectively—contain meditations on everything from Spinoza’s stoic example to his role as a kind of eternal flame for the poet throughout his wanderings.40
Ravitch’s Shpinoza is a fascinating paradox: a lyrical poem, characterized by vivid, even graphic imagery and a striving for emotional effect that is at the same time a paean to the most rationalist element of Spinoza’s system. The geometrical method—the very aspect of Spinoza’s Ethics that nearly all his admirers, since the German Romantics, had scotched—is here the subject of the deepest reverence. In the “Geometrical Form of the Ethics,” one (p.164) of three poems devoted to the Ethics in the section Dos verk, Ravitch traces his infatuation with the Amsterdam philosopher to the precise definitions and strict deductions of his masterwork:
- It was not your deep loneliness,
- nor the endless sorrow in your face,
- nor even your infinite tranquility
- that built the high airy bridge
- of the silent night watches of my soul
- in your land, Spinoza …
- And what my soul plumbed down to bedrock
- was often no more than a simple axiom
- a formula, an adjective or proof
- a parable with a ruler, a parable with a drawn line,
- or your eternal parable about the sum of the angles of the triangle.41
The notion that the emotions could be pinned down with the exactitude of “the sum of the angles of the triangle” was, for Ravitch, neither a pipe dream nor a type of crude reductionism, but a source of consolation in the face of chaos and immense suffering. In Spinoza, Ravitch—like the “young Spinozist” Moses Hess nearly a century earlier—found a new millennial prophet to succeed Moses (his “tablets turned to dust”) and Jesus (the “crucified one” who was “just a dead image”).42 In the necessitarianism and non-sectarianism of the Ethics, he saw a foundation stone for rebuilding on the ruins left by war.
Ravitch viewed Spinoza as a figure of total rupture. Contrary to East European Hebraists like Rubin, who aimed to “Judaize” Spinoza by linking him to a subterranean tradition of Jewish pantheism, or like Klausner, who wished to declare an end to the conflict between Spinoza and Judaism with a general “amnesty,” Ravitch—at least the young Ravitch—rejected the path of reconciliation.43 Spinoza’s break from his “own blood,” however painful, had been entirely mutual: Spinoza craved freedom from the “five cells [i.e., books]” of the Torah and the start of a “new life” as Benedictus, not Borukh; the whole of Amsterdam Jewry, meanwhile—as described in two poems devoted to the herem—drove him out with a barrage of insults and curses (“D’Espinoza, fool, meshugener, Borukh, accursed, throw him to the mad dogs/Benedictus, treyf skull, thief, die, gehenm [hell], beat him, skin him, tie him up’).44 The narrowing of this breach, the masking of Spinoza’s innovation as tradition—a tack taken even by radical maskilim like Rubin in the effort to reclaim him—was not for Ravitch. It was the uncompromising Spinoza whom Ravitch adored, for, within Yiddish poetry, Ravitch too hoped to be a groundbreaker, with the Amsterdam philosopher as his lodestar:
- (p.165) Perhaps I am destined to be a candle
- for my generation,
- a trailblazer, at a crossroads,
- on the endless path to God—
- but you are the light of my light
- the torch of my own night.45
Ravitch moved to Warsaw in 1921 and rapidly became one of the leading members of the Yiddish Warsaw avant-garde. With Spinoza as his guiding light, Ravitch was determined to bury the old and usher in the new, only in poetry—Yiddish poetry—and not in philosophy. In 1922 he, along with fellow twentysomething radicals Peretz Markish and Uri Zvi Greenberg, founded a journal, Di Khalyastre [The Gang], expressly devoted to the promotion of a revolutionary poetics in Yiddish.46 Not the religious and regional particulars of Jewish Eastern Europe, but the dominant European aesthetic movements of the day, from proletarianism to futurism to expressionism, would take center stage. For a time, it included among its contributors Israel Joshua Singer. The periodical was defunct after only two years, but the label Khalyastre endured as a byword for a defiantly modernist and antireligious impulse in twentieth-century Yiddish writing.47 In its wake, Ravitch went on to found and edit Literarishe bleter [Literary Pages], one of the most prominent Yiddish literary journals in interwar Poland. He also became secretary of the famed Yiddish Writers’ Union on Tlomackie 13, before leaving Warsaw for good in 1934 for a decade of worldwide travel.
If I have gone on about Ravitch at more length than seems warranted, it is not only because he, more than anyone else in the world of Yiddish literature, furnished Singer with the ideal type of the Jewish Spinozist. It is also because of his personal influence on the late adolescent who arrived in Jewish Warsaw as a would-be Yiddish writer. Early on, Ravitch took on the role of Singer’s guide and guardian, greeting him with free temporary accommodations, providing him with some much needed polish, and, in general, introducing him to the world of Yiddish literary Warsaw. In A Little Boy in Search of God, Singer writes of the discussions they had in Ravitch’s garret apartment, in which his host would proclaim his “absolute faith” in a “world of justice that could come today or tomorrow” and would contain neither Jew nor Gentile, but “only a single united mankind.”48 One can safely assume that these discussions at some point touched on the philosopher from Amsterdam. And Singer’s first low-paying job in Warsaw would be as a proofreader for the Literarishe bleter of which Ravitch (as well as, for a time, Israel Joshua) was editor. Yet Bashevis would ultimately reject the Spinoza worship of Ravitch, just as he turned his back on the utopian radicalism and (p.166) socialism of Di Khalyastre and its successor, the Literarishe bleter.49 While it is impossible to pinpoint the precise moment of this reversal—Singer himself in one of his later interviews mentioned only that it came “before” he left Warsaw for New York in 1935—it would appear that a crucial role in this change of heart was played by another Warsaw Yiddish and Hebrew writer: the poet and essayist Aaron Zeitlin (1898–1973).
Zeitlin was a son of Hillel Zeitlin, whom we first encountered in chapter 5 as the author of a turn-of-the-century Hebrew critical study of Spinoza written from the perspective of a Jewish secularist and Zionist. By the 1920s the elder Zeitlin was no longer either. He had “returned” to a pious, if still idiosyncratic version of the Hasidic spirituality and halakhic observance of his youth. As Singer described him, “[t]he father, Hillel Zeitlin, who was learned in philosophy and a cabalist, had come to the early conclusion that a modern Jewishness (whether in nationalistic or socialistic form) that lacked religion was a paradox and absurdity.”50 Not only did he castigate the “radical, atheistic atmosphere” of Yiddish literature between the wars (it was actually Zeitlin who coined the label “di Khalyastre,” originally as an epithet); he also opposed the more appreciative stance vis-à-vis traditional religion of writers and poets like I. L. Peretz and H. N. Bialik, whose work—even if often saturated with nostalgia for the shtetl—hinged, nevertheless, on a cultural nationalist understanding of Jewishness. Within interwar Warsaw, a circle formed around Zeitlin that in many ways functioned as a counterpoint to the Yiddish PEN Club.51 “He rarely entered the Writers’ Union,” Singer would later write, “but his home was itself a kind of writers’ union. … His house was always filled with writers, some just starting out, as well as with other remarkable personages. Every young man who lifted a pen sooner or later called on Hillel Zeitlin.” Moreover, despite his newfound orthodoxy, he “had patience for all: for kabbalists seeking clues about the Messiah and the End of Days and for scoffers who came to debate the existence of God.”52
Isaac’s introduction to the open house of Hillel Zeitlin came as a result of an acquaintance struck with his son Aaron. Only six years Singer’s senior, the younger Zeitlin was already an accomplished poet when the two first met by chance in the Writers’ Union on 13 Tlomackie in 1924. Aaron shared his father’s mystical sensibility as well as contempt for the revolutionary politics and infatuation with various isms of the Yiddish avant-garde. Like many postwar intellectuals, he was also fascinated with spiritualism and occultism.53 “Both Zeitlin and I were deeply interested in psychic research,” Singer later recalled. “We often sat for hours then—and years later too—conversing. We both believed in God, in demons, evil spirits, in all kinds of ghosts and phantoms.”54
The acquaintance between the younger Singer and the younger Zeitlin quickly turned into a deep friendship that eventually culminated in a literary (p.167) collaboration. In 1932 they cofounded Globus, a Yiddish journal that was determined to shun the leftism of Yiddish literature and its politicization in a broader sense.55 The periodical survived for only three years, and its significance in the history of Yiddish literature is largely a product of its serialization of Bashevis’s debut novel, Der sotn in Goray [Satan in Goray].56 A dark portrait of a seventeenth-century Polish shtetl decimated first by the 1648–49 Chmielnitski massacres, then plunged into even greater devastation by the false hopes raised by the seventeenth-century messianic movement of Shabbetai Zevi, the novel—blending “history” with frank description of supernatural phenomena and personae—was an implicit condemnation of what Bashevis would later brand the “literary Sabbateanism” of the interwar period, with its determination to cast aside the yoke of the past and its dreams of a utopian future. We will have to consider the relevance of Singer’s early literary fascination with the Sabbatean heresy to his later introduction of the Spinoza theme in his writing. But for our purposes here, what is most important about Globus is that it became a forum for Zeitlin to profile—and attack—the Spinoza craze that crested in the tercentenary year of 1932.
Zeitlin’s “Perushim oyf toyres-Spinoza” [Comments on the Teachings of Spinoza] was, loosely speaking, a review of the Spinoza bukh of 1932, but as the author himself admitted, it was “a review of ideas, not simply a book review.”57 After initially offering mild praise for the inclusion of such a volume in the still slight library of Yiddish literature, Zeitlin issued a critique as blistering of appropriations of Spinoza, whether for Judaism or Marxism, as of the ideas of Spinoza himself. While Zeitlin’s bill of indictment was long, his main charge was that Spinoza’s philosophy was utterly inadequate to the problem of human suffering—“the Job-experience of modern man.” This inadequacy stemmed from its very character as philosophy, at least as a philosophizing about the nature of God. For such philosophy, especially when driven to the extremes of Spinozism, ultimately reduced God to the affectless causa sui of the natural order and all human suffering to the infinite chain of causes of deductive reasoning. The contrast with Ravitch could not be starker. Ravitch viewed the more geometrico as the most suitable response to the chaos and carnage of war. Zeitlin saw this same method as the ultimate tragedy of Spinoza—that he had no answer to human tragedy save necessity. “Who knows?,” Zeitlin asked. “Perhaps it is sheer madness that so many minds have sought and continue to seek consolation precisely from the lonely man from Amsterdam?”58 In place of Spinoza’s God, Zeitlin called for a return to the living, personal, suffering, responsive, choosing, indeed highly anthropomorphized God of the Bible and the Kabbalah—the God who answered Job out of the whirlwind, and even in chiding consoled him. And in place of the philosophical pursuit of intellectual perfection (p.168) (shlemus)—reflected in the Spinozan ideal of the amor dei intellectualis—he envisioned a human encounter with God that would be intimate, at times angry and argumentative, but always impassioned. For it was through feeling and suffering, not through contemplative reason, that man came closest to God. With a closing flourish that deliberately mimicked the trinitarian formula, Zeitlin wrote: “Let us overthrow the God of the philosophers in the name of the three: in the name of suffering, in the name of will, and in the name of faith.”59
To what degree his relationship with Zeitlin spurred Singer to spurn the Spinoza enthusiasm of his youth is impossible to determine with any certainty. No doubt, his own attraction to mystical, supernatural forces played a part in this break. Nevertheless, the similarity between the views expressed by Zeitlin regarding Spinoza, and Singer’s later reflections on the philosopher in his memoirs, is striking. Zeitlin stresses, as Singer later would, free will as the crux of Judaism and the key issue dividing it from Spinozism.60 He also explicitly distinguishes between the “mystical” and the “rationalist” Spinoza, arguing that while the first ascribes to God infinite attributes, the latter limits human apprehension to two, thought and extension.61 Given that Zeitlin was already a forceful voice and a recognized poet by the time Singer met him, it is certainly plausible that he exercised great influence on Singer’s developing opinions of the Amsterdam heretic. Indeed, it is even possible that Singer, in his memoirs, retrojected ideas about Spinoza formed at a later period—and perhaps under Zeitlin’s guidance—onto his adolescent musings.
But Singer would become best known not for his essayistic reflections on Spinoza and Judaism but for his fashioning of the Spinoza-obsessed secular Jewish intellectual into a recurring type in his fiction. In this respect he would prove a true original.
I recalled Spinoza’s words to the effect that everything could become a passion. I had resolved beforehand to become a narrator of human passion rather than of a placid lifestyle.62
Spinozism was the first heresy to intrigue and, for a time, win over the young Bashevis. A little over two decades after tossing his “Spinoza and the Kabbalah” essay into a garbage bin on Tlomackie Street in Warsaw, Singer would revisit this early enthusiasm in his famous short story “The (p.169) Spinoza of Market Street,” published in Yiddish in 1944 under the title “Der Shpinozist.” Yet it was a different Jewish heresy that first ignited his literary imagination. From 1932 to 1944—a period interrupted by his wrenching, albeit in retrospect lifesaving move to New York in 1935—Singer wrote, in addition to his acclaimed novel Satan in Goray, several stories and another serialized novel dedicated to the messianic movements of Shabbetai Zvi and his “successor” Jacob Frank.63 Critics have commonly explained these works—Satan in Goray especially—as thinly veiled warnings about the secular messianisms of the 1920s and 1930s, from fascism to communism, and an added jab at the Jewish attraction to the latter.64 Yet there was more to Singer’s fascination with this heresy than mere contemporary critique. Singer was drawn to the very same aspect of Sabbatean theology that Gershom Scholem would immortalize in the title of his groundbreaking 1937 essay “Redemption through Sin.”65 This was the idea that the road to redemption lay not in the time-honored posture of patiently waiting for God to act, in submission to the yoke of the Law as interpreted and enforced by the rabbinic and lay leadership of the community, in the careful control and sublimation of the passions, but in just the opposite—in giving vent to desire, in sinning with full intent. Where Singer differed markedly from Scholem was in his willingness to ascribe ultimate agency to Satan and his entourage in luring Jews to succumb to this heresy. Several of his early stories are actually narrated by “the Primeval Snake, the Evil One, Satan,” who, through his chosen human agents, manipulates the God-fearing into believing “that there was no such thing as a sin” and that “it is preferable for a man to commit a sin with fervor, than a good deed without enthusiasm.”66
Dating back to Heinrich Graetz’s history, the rationalist Spinoza and irrationalist Shabbetai Zvi had often been bracketed together in Jewish consciousness as contemporary, though so strikingly different precursors of the modern revolt against rabbinic authority and the Judaism of the “ghetto.”67 Of both the Spinozan and Sabbatean heresies, it could be said, at the very least, “that there was no such thing as a sin.” Yet, for Singer, it would appear that the difference between them far exceeded any superficial resemblance. In his writings Spinozism is in fact far more evocative of rabbinic Judaism than Sabbateanism. Each in its own way seeks a bridling of the passions: rabbinic Judaism on the basis of the revealed Law and communal coercion, Spinozism through reliance on pure and autonomous reason. It is the very ideal (or illusion) that rational enlightenment, as symbolized by Spinoza’s Ethics, might inoculate us against the storm and stress of the passions that Singer would question in his fiction. This questioning begins with “The Spinoza of Market Street.”
Above everyone there hovers an image of what he should be. As long as he is not that, he will not be in full peace with himself.68
At least with regard to the title, “The Spinoza of Market Street” is one of the rare cases where the translation is an improvement on the original.69 The Yiddish version, as already mentioned, is called simply “Der Shpinozist” [The Spinozist]. But the hero of the short story—Dr. Nahum Fischelson—is not simply a student and follower of the Amsterdam philosopher. He is a copyist, who has striven to emulate his exemplar in every way possible. Like Spinoza, Fischelson—“a short, hunched man with a grayish beard”—is a lifelong bachelor and recluse.70 Like Spinoza—at least in his years in The Hague at the home of the Van den Spycks—Fischelson lives in a garret apartment on Market Street in Warsaw. After earning a doctorate in philosophy in Zurich and returning to Warsaw, he had been made the head librarian at the Warsaw synagogue. To say that he was “excommunicated” would be too strong; nevertheless, he “had wanted to be as independent as Spinoza himself” and was thus forced to step down because of his “heretical ideas.” Ever since, he has subsisted on a small subsidy provided by the Berlin Jewish community thanks to the intervention of a sympathetic member—just like Spinoza, who was supported for a time by a pension from one of his patrons and close friends, the Dutch republican Jan de Witt. His main task, still unconsummated after years of work, is to compose a commentary on the Ethics. More fundamentally, his ambition is to live a life based on sober reason alone.
What Singer does with brilliant effect in this story is invert the conventional Spinoza topos in Jewish culture. Traditionally, Spinoza had served as a symbol of the radical maskilic break with the Written and Oral Law, as part of an embrace of secularism. Yet here the focus in not on the betrayal of Torah, but on Spinoza’s Ethics, which is, in effect, Fischelson’s surrogate holy writ. Having studied it for the last thirty years, “[h]e knew every proof, every corollary, every note by heart.” Yet the more he studied, “the more puzzling sentences, unclear passages, and cryptic remarks he found. Each sentence contained hints unfathomed by any of the students of Spinoza.”71 Like the first-century sage Ben Bag-Bag, who said of the Torah, “Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it,” Fischelson finds in the Ethics a bottomless pit of meaning and interpretation.72 On the rare occasions he leaves his apartment, he brings the Ethics with him and devotes any spare time to reading it. He displays a constant, almost fanatical recourse to passages from the Ethics to justify his stated positions (his refusal to fear death) and make (p.171) sense of his experience (the joy caused by a cool evening breeze through his attic window)—as if justification can come only within the four cubits of Spinoza’s system. His greatest pleasure comes in looking out his window at night and observing the planets and constellations through his telescope, which provides him with the reassurance that “although he was only a weak, puny man … he was nevertheless a part of the cosmos, made of the same matter as the celestial bodies.” “In such moments,” the narrator continues, “Dr. Fischelson experienced the Amor dei intellectualis which is, according to the philosopher from Amsterdam, the highest perfection of the mind.” The Book of Nature—“the earth, the sun, the stars of the Milky Way, and the infinite host of galaxies known only to infinite thought”—appears to stand as open to the ecstatic Fischelson as the Book of Revelation: Spinoza’s Ethics.73
Yet, in ways both marked and subtle, even mischievous on the author’s part, Fischelson invariably falls well short of his lodestar. Singer hints at this incongruity between the hero and his intellectual hero even before mentioning the name Spinoza, starting with his very first sentence: “Dr. Nahum Fischelson paced back and forth in his garret room in Market Street.” The cause of his distress is the stifling summer heat, but already we know that Fischelson suffers from a very un-Spinozan restlessness and agitation. Further intimations of Fischelson’s deviation from his exemplar come toward the end of the first paragraph, once more before any reference to Spinoza:
A candle in a brass holder was burning on the table and a variety of insects buzzed around the flame. Now and again one of the creatures would fly too close to the fire and sear its wings, or one would ignite and glow on the wick for an instant. At such moments Dr. Fischelson grimaced. His wrinkled face would twitch and beneath his disheveled mustache he would bite his lips. Finally he took a handkerchief from his pocket and waved it at the insects.
“Away from there, fools and imbeciles,” he scolded. “You won’t get warm here; you’ll only burn yourself.”74
To the reader directly or indirectly familiar with the early biography of Spinoza by Johannes Colerus, this little episode is an unmistakable wink. According to the Lutheran preacher, on the rare occasion Spinoza took a break from lens grinding or writing, one of his hobbies was to look for spiders and make them fight together, or throw flies into a cobweb, “and [he] was so well pleased with that Batttle, that he would sometimes break into laughter.”75 Fischelson, on the other hand, observes flies about to burn themselves and impulsively swats at them. His curmudgeonly tone notwithstanding, he seems to care that these insects might suffer pain and even death. On this point, Singer makes a revealing confession in the introduction to his collection of memoirs Love and Exile:
(p.172) There was a time when I used to catch flies, tear off their wings, and put them into boxes of matches with a drop of water and a grain of sugar for nourishment. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was committing terrible crimes against those creatures just because I was bigger than they, stronger, and defter. While I was always angry with the wicked, I was wicked myself toward those who were weaker than I.76
Juxtaposing these passages, we realize that if—by virtue of his inability to watch the death of the flies with indifference and even enjoyment—there is something defective in Fischelson’s efforts to emulate Spinoza, for Singer this is to his credit, even if this moral advantage goes unrecognized by Fischelson himself.
The rest of the story narrates Fischelson’s continued fall from the Spinozan ideal. Like Spinoza, he is beset with maladies, in his case not a life-threatening tuberculosis but a stomach ailment that causes pain “after only a few mouthfuls of oatmeal.” Yet instead of bearing his lot stoically, he bemoans it, even instinctively crying out “God in Heaven, it’s difficult, difficult” to a supernatural deity he presumably denies. When, from his attic window, he looks down from the heavens to behold the bedlam of Jewish Warsaw, with all its sounds and smells, its mixture of the sacred and the profane, the calm of his amor dei intellectualis is rudely interrupted. “He knew that the behavior of this rabble was the very antithesis of reason. These people were immersed in the vainest of passions, were drunk with emotions, and according to Spinoza, emotion was never good.”77 Fischelson experiences a quasi-religious feeling at the thought that he is made of the same substance as the “celestial bodies,” but he literally cannot stomach that he is made of the same matter as Warsaw’s “rabble.”78 Nor, as the author makes clear, is he free of its irrationalism:
Even the cats which loitered on the roofs here seemed more savage and passionate than those in other parts of the town. They caterwauled with the voices of women in labor, and like demons scampered up walls and leaped into eaves and balconies. One of the toms paused at Dr. Fischelson’s window and let out a howl which made Dr. Fischelson shudder. The doctor stepped from the window and, picking up a broom, brandished it in front of the black beast’s glowing, green eyes. “Scat, begone, you ignorant savage!”—and he rapped the broom handle against the roof until the tom ran off.79
Who is it that perceives the cats as “demons,” and the one at the window as a “black beast” with “glowing, green eyes”? Though related in the third person, the point of view appears to be that of Fischelson himself—again, the Fischelson who presumably is not superstitious and does not believe in (p.173) devils. Regardless, the same Fischelson who starts by castigating the crowd for their immersion “in the vainest of passions” is overcome, as he chases away the tomcat, by a moment of passion.
With the failure of his pension to arrive on time, followed by the sudden outbreak of the First World War, Fischelson reaches a point of near total unraveling. The chaos on the streets, the unavailability of food or anyone who can help him, sends him into a nervous spell. He drags himself home and lies down in bed, convinced he is dying, and falls into a deep sleep with vivid, mysterious dreams. On awaking, “[h]e tried to meditate about his extraordinary dream, to find its rational connection with what was happening to him and to comprehend sub specie eternitatis, but none of it made sense.”
Then comes the moment of renversement. “The eternal laws, apparently, had not yet ordained Dr. Fischelson’s end.” Enter Black Dobbe, a homely spinster who lives next door. She is “tall and lean, and as black as a baker’s shovel.” Her nose is broken, she has “a mustache on her upper lip,” she speaks “with the hoarse voice of a man,” and wears “men’s shoes.” Put simply, she is physically repulsive and even ridiculous. She is a poor and simple Warsaw Jew, uneducated, illiterate, superstitious by nature. She used to sell bread and bagels she bought from a baker but now has been reduced to selling “wrinklers”—that is, “cracked eggs”—in the marketplace.80 About all that she has in common with Fischelson is that she too is unmarried and alone. This was not her choice, though: Engaged several times, on each occasion the groom-to-be jilted her.
The plot device that brings the two together is a letter. Black Dobbe needs a letter from her American cousin to be read for her and, finding no one else around, reluctantly knocks on the door of the heretic. But the door has been left slightly ajar, and opens to reveal Fischelson lying in bed unconscious. Black Dobbe revives him with water, helps him up, smooths down his blanket, and prepares a meal for him. Fischelson, in turn, reads the letter to her and disabuses her of the notion that he is a convert and that the Ethics must be a “gentile prayer book” by insisting to be “a Jew like any other Jew.”
Despite his temporary recovery, Fischelson remains certain he is on death’s door and prepares a will. “But death did not come. Rather his health improved.” Meanwhile, he begins to spend more time with Black Dobbe. She cooks for him and tells him the word on the street about the war; he shows her his telescope and regales her with stories of his years in Switzerland and other European cities. The final hook comes when Black Dobbe brings out her trousseau from one of her earlier engagements. “And she began to spread out, on the chair, dresses—woolen, silk, velvet. Taking each dress up in turn, she held it to her body. She gave him an account of every (p.174) item in her trousseau—underwear, shoes, stockings.” She turns silent, her face “brick-red,” while “Dr. Fischelson’s body suddenly began to shake as if he had the chills.” “Very nice, beautiful things,” are the only words he can manage to utter.
Fischelson’s betrayal of Spinoza continues with the wedding to Black Dobbe that immediately follows—a betrayal only heightened by the fact that it is conducted “according to the law,” with a rabbi officiating, the groom wearing the traditional white robe (or kitel), and Black Dobbe circling him seven times “as custom required.” Dobbe is like a woman transformed—beaming and all decked out in “a wide-brimmed hat” adorned with fruit, a dress of “white silk,” high-heeled shoes, and ample jewelry—but Fischelson remains weak, frail, even gloomy. He is “scarcely able to walk” and too weak to break the goblet at the end of the ceremony with his foot. All in all, he is “anxious to return as quickly as possible to his attic room,” and to get back to the Ethics.
But the final surprise in a string of them—a surprise that never could have been derived at according to the geometric method—occurs that night in the marital bed. Interrupting Fischelson in his reading of the Ethics, Dobbe appears “wearing a silk nightgown, slippers with pompoms, and with her hair hanging over her shoulders.” Fischelson, in turn, drops the Ethics from his hands. Intense, passionate lovemaking follows. “What happened that night,” the narrator suggests, “could be called a miracle. If Dr. Fischelson hadn’t been convinced that every occurrence is in accordance with the laws of nature he would have thought that Black Dobbe bewitched him. Powers long dormant awakened in him. … Although he had only a sip of the benediction wine, he was as if intoxicated.” The word intoxicated (vi a shikur) is perhaps a sly allusion to Spinoza, the “God-intoxicated man,” only here the intoxication comes from great, revitalizing sex. Fischelson is “again a man as in his youth,” his pains alleviated, his health and virility restored.
Is this consummation of the marriage—a consummation in stark contrast to the unfinished commentary on the Ethics—in fact a miracle, no matter what Fischelson thinks? Is Fischelson’s sudden Viagra-like potency a product of supernatural intervention? Here we might benefit from stepping back to consider “The Destruction of Kreshev” (1943), one of Singer’s “devil” stories written only a year before “The Spinoza of Market Street.” The story begins:
I AM the Primeval Snake, the Evil One, Satan. The cabala refers to me as Samael and the Jews sometimes call me merely, “that one.”
It is well-known that I love to arrange strange marriages, delighting in such mismatings as an old man with a young girl, an unattractive widow with a youth in his prime, a cripple with great beauty, a mute with a braggart.81
(p.175) The mismatch here is between Lise, the devoted daughter of Reb Bunim, the richest man in the Polish shtetl of Kreshev and a generous, upstanding pillar of the community, and a brilliant, “extremely clever” yeshiva student, Shloimele, who is a secret follower of Shabbtai Zvi, the false messiah. Shloimele lures her, with elaborate theological justifications, into acts of ever greater sexual deviance, culminating in his persuading her to have sex with an ox of a man, her father’s ignorant coachman Mendel. Shloimele’s subsequent admission of the havoc he has wrought brings apocalpyse down on Kreshev: Lise is formally divorced from Shloimele and publicly humiliated, driving her to suicide; Mendel is flogged and imprisoned and, once freed, torches the town in revenge.
No supernatural voice narrates “The Spinoza of Market Street.” And yet, here too we have what can only be described as a “strange marriage”—the coupling of an intellectual with an illiterate, an expert in Spinoza’s Ethics with a seller of cracked eggs. Here too, moreover, the moment of truth occurs in the bedchamber. In this case, however, the marriage of Nahum Fischelson and Black Dobbe yields a kind of salvation instead of damnation, a comic rather than tragic ending. The implication of the story is that the “eternal laws” that “had not yet ordained Nahum Fischelson’s end” are not Spinoza’s ironclad laws of nature but the whims of uncanny, vitalistic forces, which here lead to life, not death; joy, not destruction.82
This insight, however, is denied Fischelson. No sooner has he risen from bed at dawn than he quickly regrets his opting for carnal knowledge over the amor dei intellectualis:
Dr. Fischelson looked up at the sky. The black arch was thickly sown with stars—there were green, red, yellow, blue stars; there were large ones and small ones, winking and steady ones. There were those that were clustered in dense groups and those that were alone. In the higher sphere, apparently, little notice was taken of the fact that a certain Dr. Fischelson had in his declining days married someone called Black Dobbe. Seen from above, even the Great War was nothing but a temporary play of the modes. The myriads of fixed stars continued to travel their destined courses in unbounded space. The comets, planets, satellites, asteroids kept circling these shining centers. Worlds were born and died in cosmic upheavals. In the chaos of nebulae, primeval matter was being formed … and he Dr. Fischelson, with his unavoidable fate, was a part of this. The doctor closed his eyelids and allowed the breeze to cool the sweat of his forehead and stir the hair of his beard. He breathed deeply of the midnight air, supported his shaky hands on the window sill and murmured, “Divine Spinoza, forgive me I have become a fool.”83
The philosopher and Spinoza scholar Steven B. Smith has questioned whether Fischelson’s lament in his famous last words—“Divine Spinoza, (p.176) forgive me I have become a fool”—reflects an accurate understanding of Spinoza’s philosophy of the passions. “Fischelson believes that erotic love is at odds with the life of reason,” Smith writes, “but Spinoza constantly reminds us that mind and body are not two substances at war with one another, but two aspects of the same individual. The passions are not at odds with reason, but ‘inadequate ideas’ waiting to be developed.”84 Despite his encyclopedic knowledge of the Ethics, Fischelson has forgotten the crucial third proposition of the fifth book, Of Human Freedom: “An affect which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.” For Smith, this raises the question whether Singer is satirizing Spinoza, or only Fischelson’s idolatrous yet imperfect understanding of him. Smith leans toward the latter. My own reading is that he is mocking both. One need only consult one of his later interviews, where he admitted that “what I wanted to say [in “The Spinoza of Market Street”] was that if you are a human being, if you are alive, you cannot live according to Spinoza,” to realize that Singer did view passionate love as a betrayal of Spinoza—but a worthy betrayal.85 (Smith may be right about Spinoza, but in that case, both Fischelson and Singer himself are fools.) In this reading, Fischelson is a fool for thinking himself a fool simply for having married and slept with a woman—and having been as if reborn in the process. He is a fool for failing to appreciate the miracle of an aging, decrepit scholar discovering the fountain of youth.
Fischelson may think he has betrayed Spinoza by succumbing to passion. But the problematic passion, Singer suggests, lies in his obsessive attachment to the Ethics and the elusive amor dei intellectualis, an attachment that even true love cannot break.
I convinced myself that philosophy can never reveal anything. It can tell us what we cannot do, but it can never tell us what we can do.86
Sixteen months after the publication of “Der Shpinozist” in Di tsukunft, Singer transposed the Spinoza theme from the short story form to the serialized novel. In November, 1945—six months after the end of the war against Germany and the revelation of the full catastrophe of European Jewry—Der Forverts printed the first installment of Di familye Mushkat [The Family Moskat]. It ran for nearly three years.87 In 1950 it became the first of Singer’s novels to be translated into English, albeit in substantially abridged (p.177) form. Set largely in Warsaw and its environs and stretching from prewar czarist Poland to Hitler’s invasion in September 1939, the novel traces the demise of East European Jewry through the prism of four generations of a particular family, ruled at the beginning by its wealthy patriarch, Reb Meshulam Moskat. In Singer’s artistic vision, the ruination of the Moskat family transpires on two planes. On one hand, it is a product of the entropic and corrosive forces of modernity. The sacred canopy of the Law, with its multiple fences and restrictions, steadily recedes. The authority of rabbis and patriarchs alike withers. Romantic love preempts arranged marriages and wrecks existing ones; new, secular political ideologies, from Zionism to socialism, become surrogates for traditional faith; and migration to America threatens to sever connection to Yiddishkayt altogether. Yet all this fragmentation is ultimately trumped by the tragic fate they share—the looming destruction of the Moskats, and of East European Jewry as a whole, at the hands of the Nazis.
In The Family Moskat, Spinoza functions as the signature of a single character, albeit one of the most central in a book swarming with them—the figure of Asa (Oyzer) Heshel Bannet. We meet him for the first time at the start of the second chapter:
A few weeks after Meshulam Moskat returned to Warsaw another traveler arrived at the station in the northern part of the capital. He climbed down from a third-class car carrying an oblong metal-bound basket locked with a double lock. He was a young man, about nineteen. His name was Asa Heshel Bannet. On his mother’s side he was the grandson of Reb Dan Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Tereshpol Minor. He had with him a letter of recommendation to the learned Dr. Shmaryahu Jacobi, secretary of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. In his pocket rested a worn volume, the Ethics of Spinoza in Hebrew translation (ibergezetzt in loshn-koydesh).88
Our earlier discussion of Singer’s autobiographical writings suggests that the resemblance between author and character is more than accidental. Yet the genealogy of this figure clearly is meant to extend further back. Though he arrives in Warsaw still wearing sidelocks and a gaberdine coat, Asa Heshel is the proverbial talmudic prodigy turned maskil, a type familiar since Salomon Maimon. In describing the intellectual journey of the young heretic the narrator furnishes us with the arc of Spinoza’s Jewish rehabilitation, in miniature:
He attended cheder for only half a day. He quickly got the reputation of a prodigy. At five he was studying Talmud, at six he began the Talmudic commentators, at eight the teacher had no more to give him. At the age of nine he delivered (p.178) a discourse in the synagogue, and at twelve he was writing learned letters to rabbis in other towns. … Matchmakers flooded the family with matrimonial offers; the townsfolk predicted that he was sure, in God’s good time, to inherit his grandfather’s rabbinical chair. … And then what does the promising youth do but abandon the roads of righteousness and join the ranks of the “moderns”? He would start endless disputes with the others … in the study house and criticize the rabbis. He prayed without putting on the customary prayer sash, scribbled on the margins of the sacred books, made mock of the pious. Instead of studying the Commentaries he delved into Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed and Jehuda Halevi’s Khuzari. Somwhere he got hold of the writings of the heretic Salomon Maimon.89
In short, Asa Heshel has traveled the road from the beys medresh to Maimonides to Spinoza, with the assistance of Rubin’s Hebrew translation of the Ethics. He arrives in Warsaw with barely a possession to his name, but he has his “new” guide to the perplexed, he has his Spinoza.
According to his letter of recommendation, written by the head of the modern Jewish school in Zamosc, Asa Heshel has come to Warsaw “because of his thirst for enlightenment,” more specifically with the aim of acquiring a formal high school and university education and an “honorable livelihood.” Yet this sense of purpose is belied by the previous depiction of Asa Heshel before leaving home. On one hand, he is consumed by “eternal questions” about the existence of God, the responsibility of man, and the immortality of the soul. On the other, he is congenitally passive, undisciplined, and resigned, more strung along by events than working to shape them.90 He begins courses of study without completing them. He reads without method. “Each day he would make up his mind anew to leave the town, and each day he stayed.” In the end, the truth of the matter is that he leaves the shtetl of Tereshpol Minor for Warsaw not “because of his thirst for enlightenment”—as a boy from the provinces determined to “make it” in the big city—but because he is compelled to by circumstances. The man who proposes marriage to Asa Heshel’s mother hinges his offer on her heretical son’s leaving town. And so doubts are sown, from the very outset, as to whether Asa will be able to resist the temptations of Warsaw and commit to the pursuit of secular learning that is his putative aim.
The Family Moskat contains a reprise, on an operatic scale, of the main question of “The Spinoza of Market Street”: namely, is the contemplative ideal of the “intellectual love of God” any match for the passions? The answer is an even more emphatic no. A chance encounter with Abram Shapiro, the sybaritic son-in-law of Reb Meshulem, gives Asa Heshel entrée into the (p.179) Moskat family. There, he meets Hadassah, the granddaughter of Meshulem, and the two immediately fall for each other. Yet Meshulem is determined that Hadassah marry Fishele Kuttner, a scion of a wealthy family who is, to boot, a pious follower of the same Hasidic rebbe of the Moskat patriarch. In a passage found in the original Yiddish but scrubbed from the English translation of the book, Singer makes palpable the tension between Asa’s Spinozism and romantic obsession:
Asa Heshel tried to console himself with the thought that he, Hadassah, Fishele, and Reb Meshulem were all motions of the infinite substance, bubbles in the sea of the Godhead. Everything that had happened to him today and would happen in the future was necessary, determined according to the eternal laws, unchangeable. But Spinoza’s thought did not help with his anxiety. He was still far from the level of loving God with an intellectual love, independent of everyday events. He was full of affects and had no idea how to expel them and what to supplant them with.91
Needless to say, the affects win out. His continued visits to the Moskat family, ostensibly for tutoring in Polish and Russian by Hadassah (whose education in non-Jewish schools is an early symptom of the fraying of Meshulem’s authority), quickly become a pretext for an affair between them. Reb Meshulem’s discovery of their goings-on leads him to press hard for an arranged marriage to Fishele. Hadassah and Asa Heshel elope as a result, with the aim of absconding to Switzerland, but they are apprehended at the Austrian border, and while Asa manages to escape, Hadassah is arrested and, after brief internment, is returned to her parents in a sorry state. At this point the twosome becomes a foursome. Asa, now living in Switzerland, agrees—for unexplained reasons—to marry a woman he does not love: Adele, the daughter of Meshulem’s third wife, who has been infatuated with Asa from the very start. Hadassah, meanwhile, accedes to her family’s demand that she marry Fishele. Yet the magnetic attraction between the two lovers does not ebb. Returning to Warsaw, Asa resumes his now adulterous affair with Hadassah, the two engaging in ever more brazen acts of lust—from sadomasochistic fantasy to fornicating on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Their respective spouses eventually grant them divorces, and Asa and Hadassah, now ostracized by most of the branches of the Moskat family, finally enter into marriage. Yet it does not prove a consummation devoutly to be wished for. After marrying Hadassah and having a child with her, Asa loses all romantic interest. By the end of the book—when Hadassah is killed in the Nazi bombardment of Warsaw—Asa has already taken up with a new consort, a Communist-party functionary named Barbara. As (p.180) Spinoza predicted, a life devoted to the pursuit of happiness via passionate love leads only to sadness, but his proposed alternative—the amor dei intellectualis—offers only puny opposition.
To this tension between Spinozan equilibrium and the turbulence of the emotional life that was so central to “The Spinoza of Market Street,” Singer adds another key layer to the Spinoza theme in The Family Moskat—the conflict between Enlightenment rationalism and orthodoxy. This conflict is dramatized in the relationship between, and the often revealing doubling of, Asa Heshel and his elderly maternal granfather, Rabbi Dan Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Tereshpol Minor. Rabbi Dan is a thoroughgoing traditionalist, an ascetic by nature who is a harsh critic of “Jewish modernity” in all its forms. When Asa Heshel, drawing on his reading of the Ethics, tries to explain to his grandfather that he does not “deny the existence of God,” Rabbi Dan promptly rejects the deist and pantheist heresies: “I know, I know. All the arguments of the heretics; there is a Creator, but he has revealed Himself to no one; Moses lied. And others maintain that Nature is God. I know, I know. The sum and substance of it all is that any sin is permitted. That’s the truth of the matter.”92 He rejects all Jewish adaptations to modernity, from liberal Judaism to nationalism. When Asa Heshel ventures a halfhearted defense of secular Zionists, claiming that “Jews were a people like every other people, and … were demanding that the nations of the world should return the Holy Land to them,” his grandfather scoffs: “If … they had no further belief in the Bible, then why should they have any longing for the biblical land of the Jews? Why not some other country? Any country?”93
The conflict between the two characters becomes more striking with the outbreak of the First World War, when the Russian soldiers drive all the Jews out of Tereshpol Minor, and Reb Dan is forced to lead his flock into exile. Among the few communal possessions the town Jews bring with them are “the scrolls of the law from the synagogue … carefully placed on beds of straw in a wagon, the holy objects covered with prayer shawls and Ark curtains.” Reb Dan, meanwhile, totes “his prayershawl bag and a couple of cherished volumes” while burning forty years’ worth of manuscripts and letters. The chaos of the evacuation, coupled with scenes en route of Russian soldiers brutalizing Jewish refugees, and wounded soldiers being brought back from the front, causes Reb Dan to lose his bearings:
Here, stumbling along the wanderer’s path, the rabbi met the powers of evil face to face. It was as though the noise and the stench of corruption and death had extinguished in him the spark of godliness. He had lost the pillar he leaned against for support. He wanted to pray, but his lips were powerless to form the words. (p.181) He closed his eyes. He felt that he was falling into an abyss. He gripped the sides of the wagon and began to recite the afternoon prayer, but in his confusion he forgot how the words went. Over and over he found himself repeating the same phrase, “Happy are they that dwell in Thy house.”94
Reb Dan, ironically, finds himself in a situation much like Nahum Fischelson in “The Spinoza of Market Street.” Unable to recall the words to one of the most commonly repeated (and thereby memorized) prayers in the liturgy—the Ashre prayer, composed largely of Psalm 145, which opens the daily afternoon service—he reminds the reader of Singer’s earlier story of Fischelson’s sudden incapacity to remember the axioms of the Ethics amid war, sickness, and passion.
Yet Reb Dan is able to recompose himself when he has a moment, in his cart, to read a page of Talmud, or when the procession arrives in a nearby village and he is escorted to the synagogue. He can withstand even the mayhem of Warsaw, his ultimate destination, when he sits in synagogue on the night of Yom Kippur:
As he sat there in his prayer shawl and white robe Reb Dan could forget that he had been driven out of Tereshpol Minor. He was in a sanctuary, among his own people and among the familiar volumes of the law. No, he was not alone. There was still a God in heaven, angels, seraphim, a throne of grace. All that he needed was to stretch out his hand and he would touch one of the holy volumes whose words were the voice of the living God, the letters with which God had created the world. A sudden wave of pity swept over him for the unbelievers who wandered about in outer darkness, shooting and killing one another, looting, stealing, raping. What were they seeking? What would be the outcome of their endless wars? How long would they go on sinking into the morass of iniquity?95
Whether Reb Dan’s continued belief in an omnipotent “God in heaven” whose will is revealed in the “familiar volumes of the law,” who is capable of bringing about miracles and who will ultimately reward good and punish evil—whether this is, ultimately, a convincing response to the “shooting and killing … looting, stealing, and raping” he has witnessed remains open to doubt. This is not an endorsement of Reb Dan’s orthodoxy. An earlier exchange between Reb Dan and the town maskil Jekutiel the watchmaker, in the midst of the evacuation from Tereshpol Minor, has already put the tenability of both the “traditional” and “modern” answers to antisemitism into question:
“Nu, rabbi?” he said.
It was clear what he meant was: Where is your Lord of the Universe now? Where are His miracles? Where is your faith in Torah and prayer?
(p.182) “Nu, Jekutiel,” the rabbi answered. What he was saying was: Where are your worldly remedies? Where is your trust in the gentiles? What have you accomplished by aping Esau?96
Yet the persuasiveness of his strong theism aside, what is striking is that Reb Dan—the golus (exilic) Jew personified—can be driven from home, bullied and humiliated en route, even momentarily shaken in his faith, and still regain his equilibrium. He does not need an actual home to feel at home: Place him in a shul, amid “the familiar volumes of sacred law,” and he will, however briefly, experience the warmth and protection of a second home.
Can the secular Jew exposed to the same turmoil and tragedy as Reb Dan find a second home in—Spinoza? Like Reb Dan, Asa Heshel—in part because of circumstances, in part because of his own ingrained passivity—is a peripatetic figure, a wandering Jew. The one constant by his side—whether he is in Warsaw or Tereshpol Minor, a student in Switzerland or a soldier on the eastern front in World War One—is Spinoza’s Ethics, which he reads and rereads with the same fanatical devoutness as Nahum Fischelson. While serving in the Russian army, to the mockery of his fellow soldiers, Asa sneaks in a few pages of the Ethics whenever possible:
He sat here in the barracks before taps and carried on a dispute with Spinoza. Well, then, let it be admitted that everything that was happening was necessary. That the entire war was nothing but a play of modes in the infinite ocean of the Substance. But for what reason has the divine nature required all of this? Why should he not put an end to the entire tragicomedy? He read from the Fifth Part of the Ethics, where Spinoza discussed the intellectual love of God.
Proposition 35: God loves Himself with infinite intellectual love.
Proposition 37: There is nothing in nature that is contrary to this intellectual love of God or that can remove it.
Asa Heshel raised his eyes from the page. Was it really so? Could one in truth love all these Ivans? Even this one with the pockmarked face and the shifty piggish eyes?97
Doubts such as these dog Asa Heshel and he proves unable to resist the slide into ever increasing skepticism, misanthropy, and even nihilism. Returning from war, he confesses to Abram, “I have no philosophy,” and “I’ve made up my mind that the human race is no more important than flies or bedbugs.”98 Without abandoning Spinoza, Asa becomes convinced that the only way to “save” him is to reconcile Spinoza’s egoistic ethics (“the idea that happiness and morality are identical”) with the pessimistic philosophy of Malthus. Asa’s (unsurprisingly) never-finished dissertation, “The Laboratory of Happiness”—with its ludicrous proposal of “the establishment of a research (p.183) laboratory for experimentation in pure happiness”—ultimately amounts to an argument for birth control, “more sex and fewer children.”99
The contrast, then, between Reb Dan and Asa Heshel is quite stark. The proximity of the “familiar volumes of the law” provides Reb Dan with a reliable pillar of support, however tenuous that support will ultimately prove come the Nazi invasion. The Ethics—for all its original promise in Asa Heshel’s eyes—appears capable of offering no such mooring. Ironically, one of the rare times in the novel Asa enjoys a moment of “at-homeness” comes during his brief return home to Tereshpol Minor, when he accompanies his grandfather to synaogue for evening prayers. Surrounded by yeshiva students “reading in the dim light” and worshippers “softly chanting,” standing in front of the Ark and inhaling the “heavy odor that seemed … to be compounded of candle wax, dust, fast days, and eternity,” Asa Heshel is suddenly (if evanescently) seized with the thought that “everything he had experienced in alien places seemed to be without meaning. Time had flown like an illusion. This was his true home, this was where he belonged. Here was where he would come for refuge when everything else failed.”100 But even after his ambitions to become a professor of philosophy have collapsed, even after his divorce from Adele and the failure of his marriage to Hadassah, indeed even after the imminence of the Nazi attack has become evident, it is the system of Spinoza to which Asa consistently turns and returns. While gazing through his window at “the sky, the stars, the planets, the Milky Way,” he coolly ponders the thought that “the same laws which controlled the sun and the moon, the comets and the nebulae, also governed life and death, Mussolini, Hitler, every Nazi lout who lustily sang the Horst Wessel song and howled for Jewish blood to spurt from the knife.”101 Not even the blitzkrieg, when it comes, can initially shake his absorption in the rationalism of the Ethics: “Between bombardments he made calculations in pencil. … Where was one to seek refuge from this chaos if not in the realm of ‘adequate ideas’? A triangle still contained two right angles. Even Hitler could not change that.”102
The differences between the English and Yiddish versions of The Family Moskat are most glaring in their respective endings. The former concludes with what is the penultimate chapter in the Yiddish original. There, the last word is given to Hertz Yanovar, a “secular” intellectual who nevertheless throughout the novel is obsessed with the occult. Standing amid the Nazi (p.184) devastation of Warsaw, a bedraggled Yanovar blurts out in Polish that the Messiah will soon come. Pressed by Asa Heshel to explain his meaning, he answers, “Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth!” For the English reader, then, the book closes on a note of nihilistic resignation that appears to reflect Asa Heshel’s own outlook by novel’s end.
Not so the Yiddish edition, which includes an additional chapter (chapter 65) of eleven pages. Here, after depicting the observance of the Jewish New Year among the surviving members of the Moskat clan, the narrative abruptly shifts to a “pine forest” far from Warsaw, where a small group of “would-be pioneers” celebrate Rosh Hashanah, taking a brief respite in their desperate efforts to escape the Germans and “reach the land of Israel.” The omniscient narrator makes clear that they are not the only ones: “From every town, young men and women, Zionist and otherwise, started out with the same desire: to reach the far-off promised land, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Haifa, the colonies and the kibbutzim.”103 And whereas the English ending equates messianism with death and catastrophe, the Yiddish version connects the Zionist emigration to the traditional belief in messianic restoration: “Rise up, oh, remnants of Israel, and prepare for the final battle. Like a torch is the House of Jacob and the House of Esau is straw. Rise up and fear not. Yours is the final victory. Unto you will come the Messiah.”104 A stark gap thus separates the two endings, a near polar opposition between hopelessness and hope.
Critics familiar with the Yiddish edition have long clashed over the literary merits of the original ending. Some argue that its inclusion was little more than an attempt to console the contemporary Yiddish reader—a reader likely to have lost scores of loved ones, relatives, friends, and acquaintances in the recent destruction—by providing an optimistic conclusion altogether discordant with the general mood of the book. In this view, the darkness of the English ending—“Death is the Messiah”—forms a more appropriate resolution.105 Others insist on the integral connection of the final chapter to the overall thematic framework of the novel and on the consequent incomplete character of the English edition.106
What is indisputable is that one cannot appreciate the centrality of the Spinoza theme to The Family Moskat, and to the figure of Asa Heshel in particular, without reading chapter 65 of the Yiddish original. The chapter begins with a description of Asa Heshel gathering his things, preparing to move in with his sister’s family on a street in Warsaw thus far spared the worst of the bombardment. In addition to packing “a few shirts, underwear, a sweater, socks, and some books,” Asa also stuffs his copy of Spinoza’s Ethics into his pocket. An extended argument with Spinoza ensues, as Asa, his previous detachment wavering, struggles to make sense of Hadassah’s death and the devastation all around him:
(p.185) He stood near the boarded-up doorway of a shop in the glare of a burning sunset and took stock of his life. Is there a God? Yes, there is. He is everything: the earth, the sky, the milky way, the crying of a child, the Nazi bomb, Einstein’s theory, Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The smoke rising there is He, too. He is One, He is Eternal. My body is an infinitely small part of His body. My spirit is a drop in the ocean of His spirit. Who is killing whom? Who hates whom? All answers rest in God. We have one aim here: to continue existence as long as possible; to be happy as much as one can. If you can’t, let His will be done. Is this Spinoza? Yes, that’s the whole of him. Can one die with such a philosophy? There’s no choice. What do the others say that’s different? God’s ways are hidden.
But no, no! It isn’t so! There is another credo: God is a fighter, a warrior. God is on the side of the righteous. He gave free will to choose between good and evil. Every hour. Every second. What kind of God is that? The Jewish God, the Judge of all the earth, the God who is jealous and vengeful. He wages war against Amalek. He is neither Hitler’s Mein Kampf nor the Nazi bomb. Nature is His work but is not He. He created evil to provide a choice. He sent Hitler as a trial and a punishment. Is God to blame if we sat by with folded hands and let the wicked rise up? If we are all lazy, why should He be diligent? Why should not the wicked triumph if the righteous wait for miracles? How could I have forgotten this precept? Did I not learn it in religious school, studying Deuteronomy? I forgot it because I wanted to cast off every yoke, because I wanted to yield to every lust and close an eye while men of power robbed, killed, raped, incited. What better excuse for tolerating evil than to blame God for everything?107
Earlier, Asa contemplated the leveling thrust of Spinoza’s metaphysical monism, its reduction of the “crying of a child” and “Hitler’s Mein Kampf” to modes of a single substance, with quiet acquiescence. Now, at least momentarily, he recoils from such resignation, recalling “another credo” (emunah): the belief in the personal, transcendent, even anthropomorphic God of the Bible, “[t]he Jewish God … who is jealous and vengeful” and “gave free will to choose between good and evil.”
Torn between these alternatives, Asa Heshel abruptly gives up committing to either (“What’s the use of all these speculations?”), yet later in the chapter this same internal tug-of-war between the Spinozan and the biblical God repeats itself. While his sister and her family go off to High Holiday prayers, Asa stays home, adamant that “[i]f you live as an unbeliever (apikores), you should die as an unbeliever.” As if by rote, he begins to browse the pages of Spinoza’s Ethics, yet, like Dr. Fischelson, quickly loses his bearings:
What did he want, that Amsterdam philosopher? Did he know what he was talking about, or was he simply splitting hairs? What is it, this substance and its endless attributes? Whom does he call God? What is thought? What is spirit? (p.186) What are ideas? What sort of spider’s web has he woven here? Asa Heshel tried to run quickly through all the theorems, but the more he studied, the more confused he became. Some sentences were obvious; others now seemed to him unclear, ambiguous, a game of words. In essence, one could be both a Nazi and a Spinozist. True, the fascists were opposed to Spinoza, but only because he was a Jew. The professors of philosophy in Berlin, Leipzig, Bonn, are no doubt analyzing Spinoza now, just as the poets there are still writing poems, and the essayists are chattering about culture, aesthetics, ethics, personality. They had divided the roles among themselves. You fight and you sing; you philosophize and you rob; you slaughter children and you write history.108
Putting the Ethics aside, Asa Heshel grabs a Bible from the bookcase. Still racked with theological questions and misgivings, he nevertheless finds in the clarity of its commandments, prohibitions, and promises something sturdy to grasp hold of:
Suppose there is no God! Suppose the murderers are right! Suppose God himself is on Hitler’s side! Suppose Moses is a liar! His words are thereby not diminished but more exalted. One Jew, Moses ben Amram, stood up in opposition to nature, to man, to history and let his voice be heard: I am the Lord Thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thous shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. … Be holy, for I, the Lord thy God, am holy. … Thou must not steal nor deal deceitfully nor fraudulently with thy neighbor. … Thou must not oppress nor rob they neighbor. … Thou must not be guilty of unjust verdicts. Thou must neither favor the little man nor be awed by the great. … Thou must not slander thy people. … Thou must not bear hatred for thy brother in thy heart. Thou must openly tell him of his offense, thus not take a sin upon yourself. Thou must not exact vengeance nor bear a grudge against thy people. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. … Thou shalt not follow the laws of the nations that I expel to make way for thee, because they have practiced all these things and I have come to detest them. And I say unto thee: thou shalt take possession of their soil. I myself will give it to thee, a land flowing with milk and honey. … And I will set thee apart from all these peoples to be mine … to be high above the other peoples I have made, in praise, in renown, and in honor, to be a nation consecrated to the Lord, your God. …
In the street, bombs kept exploding. Fires flamed. Cannons cracked. But Asa Heshel did not interrupt his reading. These words, indeed, are neither unclear nor ambiguous. The Nazi could not adopt them. These are not words but flames that the eternal Jew has flung at eternal evil.109
Up until his death in 1991, I. B. Singer would continue to people his novels and short stories, particularly those of a semiautobiographical and non-supernatural character, with intellectuals intermittently drawn to and repelled by Spinoza.110 The seventeenth-century philosopher remained code in his work for the illusory assumption of many a secular Jewish intellectual that the Ethics could be a new “tree of life,” a Spinozan Torah of rationalist self-government that might substitute for the Mosaic Torah of divine revelation and imperative. Never again, however, would Singer pen so scorching, indeed Zeiltinesque an indictment of Spinoza as one finds in the original Yiddish ending to The Family Moskat. True, the diatribe is given to an invented character, leaving the notoriously slippery Singer plausible deniability that Asa Heshel is simply a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Yet the fact that nowhere else in Singer’s work do we find so stinging and sustained a rebuke of Spinoza suggests that the author was indeed airing a very personal and sincere animus toward the “beyond good and evil” ethics and toward the leveling pantheism of Spinoza in the aftermath of the Shoah. Still, the exclusion of this coda from the English translation of The Family Moskat meant that most later readers were not privy to this fury. And the much greater readership for “The Spinoza of Market Street” following its translation in 1961 meant that Singer’s Spinoza image in the popular mind would ultimately owe more to the lighthearted caricature of Nahum Fischelson than to the much darker view of the Jewish Spinozist in the case of Asa Heshel. Perhaps this is how Singer—whose criticisms of Spinoza in later writings and interviews contained little in the way of invective—would have wanted it.111
Be that as it may, Singer clearly judged the modern Jewish attachment to Spinoza to be a path wrongly taken, a source not merely of comedy, but of tragedy. Contrary to the images from previous chapters in this book, Singer’s Spinoza was neither a secular messiah come to liberate the Jews from the ghetto and usher in a religion of humanity; nor was he a prototype of, and posthumous returnee to, a revived Jewish political and ethnic nation. Above all, for the emancipated Jew alienated from orthodoxy and the law and in search of a new safe harbor, Spinoza was no “new” guide to the perplexed. (p.188)
(1.) David Biale, “Historical Heresies and Modern Jewish Identity,” in Jewish Social Studies 8 (2002): 115.
(2.) In fairness, this is true only of I. B. Singer’s published body of work. His private papers contain a few undated, handwritten Yiddish fragments of planned stories about Spinoza, including one entitled “The Last Years of Spinoza.” See Isaac Bashevis Singer Papers, Box 38/4, 100/11, Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.
(3.) For all its prevalence, the image of Spinoza in Singer’s work has received surprisingly little attention. Nearly all the scholarship on this topic pertains to “The Spinoza of Market Street.” See Morris Golden, “Dr. Fischelson’s Miracle: Duality and Vision in Singer’s Fiction,” The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Marcia Allentuck (Carbondale, IL, 1969), 26–43; Samuel I. Mintz, “Spinoza and Spinozism in Singer’s Short Fiction,” Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, ed. Irving Malin (New York, 1969), 207–17; Steven B. Smith, “A Fool for Love: Thoughts on I. B. Singer’s Spinoza,” in Iyyun 51 (2002): 41–50.
(4.) The questionable reliability of autobiography as a historical source is compounded in the case of I. B. Singer. The biographer not only has to contend with the sheer number of autobiographical texts produced by Singer over the course of his life, with their conflicting details and emphases. He or she is also confronted with the author’s rather open transgression of the boundaries between fiction and autobiography. What is arguably Singer’s most famous autobiographical work—In My Father’s Court—is described by the writer as “an attempt to combine two styles—that of memoirs and that of belles-lettres”; at the same time, much of Singer’s fiction is of an unmistakably autobiographical character. On this duality, see Chone Shmeruk, “Isaac Bashevis Singer—In Search of His Autobiography,” in Jewish Quarterly 29 (Winter 1981/1982): 28–36. I have attempted to hedge against the reliability of any single autobiographical text by drawing on several, but this is by no means foolproof. There is simply no getting around the fact that the account given by Singer of his youthful wrestling with Spinoza may be a more accurate reflection of how the mature author remembered and chose to present this encounter than of the encounter itself.
(p.238) (5.) I. B. Singer, “Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Interview,” by Cyrena Pondrom, Contemporary Literature 10 (1969): 1–38. Reprinted in Grace Farrell (ed.), Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations (Jackson, MS, 1992), 92.
(6.) I. B. Singer, In My Father’s Court (New York, 1966), 304. “Old Jewishness” and “The New Winds” are two of the chapter titles in this memoir. In My Father’s Court was originally serialized in Der Forverts from February 18 to September 16, 1955 as In mayn foters bezdn-shtub. When first published in book form in 1956, it was titled Mayn tatns bezdn-shtub.
(7.) According to Ringelblum, Stupnicki poisoned himself at the Umschlagplatz of the Warsaw ghetto before being deported. See Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, ed. and trans. Jacob Sloan (New York, 1974).
(8.) Nahum Fiedel, “Borukh Shpinoza. A kurtse lebensbeshraybung [ferfertigt tsu zayn geburtstag. 12./24. November], in Yudishes folks-blat 43 (1886): 683–87; 44 (1886): 699–703; Berthold Auerbach, Borukh Shpinoza: Dos leben un di ferfolgungen fun dem gresten idishen filozof, fervikelt in an antsienden roman, trans. B. Gorin (New York, 1899); Phillip Krantz, Borukh Spinoza, zayn leben un zayn filozofye (New York, 1905). For bibliographies of Yiddish “Spinozana,” see Y. Anilovitsh, “Spinoza bibliografye,” in Spinoza bukh, tsum drayhundertstn geboyrn-yor fun Benediktus Spinoza, ed. Jacob Shatzky (New York, 1932), 175–83; Kay Schweigmann-Greve, “Spinoza in Jiddischer Sprache,” in Studia Spinozana 13 (1997): 261–95; Brad Sabin Hill, Spinoza in the Yiddish Mind: An Exhibition on the 350th Anniversary of the Excommunication of Benedictus de Spinoza, 1656–2006 (New York, 2006).
(9.) Shaul Stupnicki, Borukh Shpinoza: zayn filozofye, bibel-kritik, shtatslere un zayn badaytung in der antviklung fun mentshlikhen denken (Warsaw, 1917). From introduction, unpaginated.
(11.) I. B. Singer, Love and Exile (London, 1984), xix–xx.
(12.) In My Father’s Court, 305. Isaac Bashevis does not present his father’s condemnation of Spinoza in In My Father’s Court as a rejoinder to Israel Joshua. He notes merely that after discovering Stupnicki’s Spinoza, “I remembered how Father used to say that Spinoza’s name should be blotted out.” His brother’s role in first exposing him to the Spinozan heresy is only mentioned in the preface to the English edition of Love and Exile, a compilation of three other memoirs by Bashevis Singer originally serialized in Der Forverts. Yet it makes sense that his pious father would only have castigated Spinoza by name in response to a specific provocation and not of his own initiative.
(13.) Ibid. The “Baal Shem” refers to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1699–1760), often called the Baal Shem Tov or Besht, conventionally regarded as the spiritual founder of Hasidism. On the history of comparisons between Spinoza and the Baal Shem Tov in the Jewish reception of Spinoza, see Allan Nadler, “The Besht as Spinozist: Abraham Krochmal’s Preface to Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Mikhtav,” in Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics: Jewish Authority, Dissent, and Heresy in Medieval and Early Modern Times, eds. Daniel Frank and Matt Goldish (Detroit, 2008), 359–89.
(14.) A Little Boy in Search of God (New York, 1976) —a translation of the first part of the serialized autobioraphy Gloybn un tsveyfl (Der Forverts, 1974–78)—was later incorporated in Love and Exile. See Love and Exile, 16.
(16.) Salomon Maimon, An Autobiography, trans. J. Clark Murray (Champaign, IL, 2001 ), 105.
(22.) Spinoza, The Collected Works, 409.
(23.) For an overview of the different positions on this issue, see Steven Nadler, Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, UK, 2006), 68–69, 141–43.
(24.) Spinoza, of course, describes time as only a mode of thought existing within the imagination while ruling out of hand a God who plans and acts purposively. See Ethics I, D8, Appendix; I, D5.
(26.) I. B. Singer, “Shpinoza un di Kabbalah,” reprinted in Mayn tatns bezdn-shtub [hemshekhim-zamlung], ed. Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem, 1996), 298.
(27.) I. B. Singer, “Ikh fantazir vegn mayn manuskript—in ‘Mizrahi,’” in Mayn tatns bezdn-shtub [hemshekhim-zamlung], 301–306.
(28.) Singer published these pieces using the pseudonym Yitshok Varshavsky that he commonly used for newspaper articles. See Y. Varshavsky, “Di filozofye fun Borukh Shpinoza,” Forverts, April 26, 1947, 2, 9; idem., “Shpinozas lere vegn der mentshlekher moral,” Forverts, May 3, 1947, 2, 8.
(29.) Singer would eventually create a close fictional analogue to his autobiographical account of the “Spinoza and the Kabbalah” episode in his novel The Certificate (New York, 1992), originally serialized as Der sertifikat in Forverts, 1967.
(30.) I. B. Singer, “Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Interview,” by Cyrena Pondrom, in Grace Farrell (ed.), Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations (Jackson, MS, 1992), 93. “Q” (“Question”) signifies Pondrom, “A” (“Answer”) Singer.
(31.) Borukh (Benedikt) Shpinoza, Der teologish-politisher traktat, trans. N. Perelman (New York, 1923). The first complete Hebrew translation of the Treatise by Chaim Wirszubski was first published in 1961.
(32.) Borukh Shpinoza, Di etik [dervayzen oyf a geometrishen ufen], trans. W. Nathanson (Warsaw, 1923); idem., Di etik [dervayzen, etc.], trans. W. Nathanson (Chicago, 1923). On Nathanson and other Yiddish Spinozists, see Shlomo Berger, “‘Undzer Bruder Spinoza’: Yiddish Authors and the Free Thinker,” Studia Rosenthaliana 30 (1996): 255–68.
(33.) J. Shatzky, Spinoza un zayn svivoh (New York, 1927). For a list of reviews of Shatzky’s book, see Schweigmann-Greve, “Spinoza in Jiddischer Sprache,” 272–74.
(34.) See A. M. Deborin, Shpinoza, der fargeyer [in likht fun Marxism] (Warsaw, 1930); Jacob Milch, “Spinoza un Marx—a paralel,” Spinoza bukh (New York, 1932), 54–93; Z. Rudi, “Spinoza un der materializm,” Spinoza bukh, 137–57; Z. Neln, “Borukh Shpinoza un der dialektisher materializm,” Literarishe bleter, September, 1932, 1–4.
(35.) Leo Finkelstein, “Di Spinoza-fayerungen in Hag,” Globus 3 (1932): 74–83.
(36.) Spinoza bukh, ed. Jacob Shatzky (New York, 1932).
(p.240) (37.) The sudden increase of Yiddish literature on Spinoza between the wars was a single, if notable illustration of the growth of Yiddish culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuies. On this efflorescence, see, most recently, David E. Fishman, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburgh, 2005); Barry Trachtenberg, The Revolutionary Roots of Modern Yiddish, 1903–1917 (Syracuse, NY, 2008); Kenneth Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 2009).
(38.) H. Leyvick, “Shpinoza,” Ale verk, vol. 1 (New York, 1940 ), 483–91; A. Sutzkever, “Shpinoze,” Poetishe verk, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1963 ), 593–97.
(39.) M. Ravitch, Poetisher priv in fir tsiklen. Der mentsh, dos verk, di shpin, ktoyres (Vienna, 1919). Ravitch amended his Spinoza cycle for each printing. The excerpts cited in the text come from its final form, in Ravitch’s anthology Di lider fun mayne lider. A kinus—oyfgekliben fun draytsen zamlungen, 1909–1954 (Montreal, 1954), 51–74.
(40.) Ravitch led a famously peripatetic life. After leaving Warsaw in 1934 he lived in Melbourne, Buenos Aires, New York, Mexico City, and Montreal. He told his life story through 1934 in the three volumes of his autobiography, Dos mayse-bukh fun mayn leben (Buenos Aires, 1964). The account of his discovery of Spinoza can be found in volume 2, 335–39.
(43.) In 1956—while Ravitch was temporarily living in Israel with his son, the painter Yosl Bergner—he represented the Haifa-based Bet Shpinozah (“Spinoza House” or Spinozaeum) at a commemoration of the three-hundredth anniverary of Spinoza’s excommunication held at the burial site of the philosopher in the churchyard of the Niewe Kerk in The Hague. To mark the occasion, the Spinozaeum donated a monument of black volcanic rock, hewn from the mountains of the Galilee, on which was inscribed a single Hebrew word: AMKHA (your people). At its unveiling in the Niewe Kerk that September, Ravitch stated, “It is true that the Jewish community was among the first to distance itself from this genius and his Torah—but on behalf of the Bet Shpinozah of Israel I hereby proclaim our reconciliation with him and admiration for him. The word AMKHA engraved on the stone cut from the mountains of Israel is a token of this.” See Bet Shpinozah, ‘Eser shanot Bet Shpinozah (Haifa, 1961).
(46.) On this journal and Yiddish modernism of 1920s Warsaw more broadly, see Seth Wolitz, “‘Di Khalyastre,’ the Yiddish Modernist Movement in Poland [after WWI]: An Overview,” Yiddish 4, no. 3 (1981): 5–19.
(47.) The three founders of Di Khalyastre were divided by latent and later explicit ideological differences. The communist Markish returned to the Soviet Union in 1926 and was ultimately one of the fifteen Yiddish artists, writers, and poets murdered by Stalin in August 1952 in the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” Greenberg immigrated to Palestine in 1923 and, after the 1929 riots, joined the radical Revisionist Right. Ravitch would reject both nationalism and communism in favor of a Spinoza-inflected secular humanism.
(p.241) (49.) Like Hillel and Aaron Zeitlin, whose hostility to the Yiddish Left he would come to share, I. B. Singer harbored a particular loathing for Peretz Markish, “who sang odes to Stalin until Stalin had him liquidated.” Love and Exile, 50. In Singer’s autobiographical novel The Certificate, the character Susskind Eikhl is an obvious (and withering) surrogate for Markish.
(51.) For an extremely thorough description of the different cliques in Jewish literary Warsaw from the end of World War I through the great deportation from the Warsaw ghetto in the summer of 1942, see Natan Cohen, Sefer, sofer, ve-‘iton: Mercaz ha-tarbut ha-yehudit be-Varshah, 1918–1942 (Jerusalem, 2003).
(52.) I. B. Singer, “Concerning Yiddish Literature in Poland” (1943), Prooftexts 15, no. 2 (1995), 124.
(53.) On the surge of interest in parapsychology in the interwar period—an interest with roots in the fin-de-siècle—see Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, UK, 1995), ch. 3.
(55.) Singer would skewer this subordination of art to politics in an essay, published in an early issue of Globus, that has been called his “literary credo.” See Yitshok Bashevis, “Tsu der frage fun dikhtung un politik,” Globus 1, no. 3 (September 1932); Moshe Yungman, “Singer’s Polish Period: 1924 to 1935,” Yiddish 6, nos. 2–3 (Summer–Fall 1985): 34.
(56.) Der sotn in Goray would first be published as a stand-alone work in Warsaw 1935; then, after I. B. Singer had already immigrated to America, it will be published in New York as Der sotn in Goray: A mayse fun fartsaytns un andere derstseylungen [Satan in Goray: A Tale of Bygone Days, and Other Stories]. In 1955 it was translated into English as Satan in Goray by Jacob Sloan.
(58.) “Perushim,” Globus 8, no. 14, 86.
(59.) “Perushim,” Globus 8, no. 15, 45. Zeitlin lost his whole family (including his father, wife, and children) in the Holocaust. He survived through a twist of fate: He happened to be in New York for the premiere of one of his plays when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and he never returned. His animus toward Spinoza would surface again in his most famous post-Holocaust poem, which vindicates faith “in my living God of cataclysm/God of naked revenge and secret consolation” even while thundering against Him: “And who would rage/against a Spinozan god,/a nonbeing being?” See the excerpt of “I Believe” (1948), translated by Robert Friend, in Milton Teichman and Sharon Leder, eds., Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust (Champaign, IL, 1994), 441.
(60.) “Perushim,” Globus 8, no. 14, 82.
(63.) See Der yid fun Bovl [The Jew From Babylon], Globus 1, no. 2 (1932): 17–27; Der sindikher Meshiekh [The Sinning Messiah], serialized in Forverts in 1935–36; “Der hurbn fun Kreshev” [The Destruction of Kreshev], included along with other “demon” stories in the 1943 Yiddish reprinting of Der Sotn in Goray: A mayse fun fartsaytns un andere dertseylungen [Satan in Goray: A Tale of Bygone Days, and other (p.242) Stories] (New York, 1943). All of these works with the exception of Der sindlikher Meshiekh would eventually be translated into English.
(64.) See, among others, Ruth Wisse, “Singer’s Paradoxical Progress,” in Commentary 67, no. 2 (1979): 33–38; Edward Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston, 1990). Singer himself would indict the Yiddish literature inspired by the secular messianism of the 1920s and 1930s as an expression of “literary Sabbatianism.” See I. B. Singer, “Concerning Yiddish Literature in Poland (1943), Prooftexts 15, no. 2 (1995).
(65.) Gershom Scholem, “Redemption through Sin,” reprinted in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York, 1971 [1937, Heb.]), 78–141.
(66.) I. B. Singer, “The Destruction of Kreshev,” trans. Elaine Gottlieb and June Ruth Flaum, in The Collected Stories (New York, 1983), 94. On Singer’s “demon” stories, see David Roskies, “The Demon as Storyteller,” A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 266–306.
(67.) See Heinrich Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, 10:169–258 (Leipzig,1866). For later examples of this rhetorical linkage in the Jewish literary and theological imagination, see Israel Zangwill, Dreamers of the Ghetto (Philadelphia, 1898), 115–220; Felix Theilhaber, Dein Reich komme! Ein chiliastischer Roman aus der Zeit Rembrandts und Spinozas (Berlin, 1924); Jakob Wasserman, Fränkische Erzälungen. Sabbatai Zewi, ein Vorspiel (Frankfurt, 1925); Martin Buber, “Spinoza, Sabbatai Zvi, and the Baal-Shem” , in idem., The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, ed. and trans. Maurice Friedman (New York, 1961); and Josef Kastein, Sabbatai Zewi, der Messias von Ismir (Berlin, 1932). For more recent scholarly analysis of this pairing, see Michael Brennre, The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (New Haven, 1996), 148–50; David Biale, “Shabbtai Zvi and the Seductions of Jewish Orientalism,” in The Sabbatean Movement and Its Aftermath, vol. I, ed. Rachel Elior (Jerusalem, 2001), 85–110; and Benjamin Lazier, God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination between the World Wars (Princeton, 2009).
(68.) Max Scheler, Person and Self-Value: Three Essays, trans. Manfred Frings (Hingham, MA, 1987), 129–30.
(69.) This observation is made by Samuel I. Mintz in his “Spinoza and Spinozism in Singer’s Shorter Fiction,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 1 (1981): 207–208.
(70.) While Spinoza was certainly a bachelor, the image of him as a secular monk cloistered in his attic apartment has been convincingly shown to be more myth than fact. See Nadler, Spinoza: A Life, 289–90.
(71.) I. B. Singer, “The Spinoza of Market Street,” trans. Martha Glicklich and Cecil Hemley, The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York, 1983), 79–80.
(72.) The saying comes from the Mishnah Avot (5:22).
(75.) Colerus, The Life of Benedict de Spinosa, reprinted in Frederick Pollock, Spinoza: His Life and Philosophy (London: C. K. Paul, 1880), 421.
(78.) Indeed, if Fischelson had a true understanding of Spinoza’s third and highest kind of knowledge, or intuition—which “proceeds from an adequate idea of certain (p.243) attributes of God to an adequate knowledge of things,” and is the stepping stone to the “intellectual love of God”—then he would realize that his instinctual recoiling from the multitude represents yet another failure to live up to his Spinozan ideal. The right path would be to grasp how both the orderly “celestial bodies” and the apparent chaos of the “rabble” derive from the same rational necessity, which is equivalent to understanding them sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity).
(80.) Intended or not, the “cracked eggs” bring to mind Freud’s use of the egg as a metaphor for the fragility of the human psyche. To this point, Fischelson’s mental breakdown seems largely a result of external stresses. The link between Black Dobbe and “cracked eggs” speaks to the pent-up eros in Fischelson, and foreshadows its eventual bursting out of his ego’s overdelicate shell in the lovemaking at story’s end. See Freud, The Ego and the Id (New York, 1923), 24. I thank my colleague Max Ticktin for this insight.
(81.) I. B. Singer, “The Destruction of Kreshev,” in The Collected Stories, 94.
(82.) Morris Golden notes that “the wedding is the pervasive Singer symbol for the attempted miracle,” the site of supernatural intervention that might lead either to good or to bad. See Golden, “Dr. Fischelson’s Miracle: Duality and Vision in Singer’s Fiction,” 29.
(83.) The Collected Stories, 92–93. In the Yiddish original of the story, the unforgettable “Divine Spinoza” is simply “Borukh Shpinozah,” which means, literally, “Blessed Spinoza,” but is also, of course, Spinoza’s name.
(84.) Steven B. Smith, Spinoza’s Book of Life: Freedom and Redemption in the Ethics (New Haven, 2003), 166–67.
(85.) I. B. Singer, “Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Interview,” by Cyrena Pondrom, 93.
(87.) I. B. Singer published two articles about Spinoza and his philosophy in Der Forverts in the 1940s that coincided with the run of The Family Moskat. On these occasions, the reader would encounter the latest installment of the novel, under the name Isaac Bashevis, on the top half of the page, while the bottom half contained Singer’s expository texts on the philosopher, under the pseudonym Isaac Varshavsky.
(88.) I. B. Singer, The Family Moskat, trans. A. H. Gross (New York, 1950), 20.
(90.) On the habitual inertia and resignation to fate of male protagonists in Singer’s fiction, see Dan Miron, “Passivity and Narration: The Spell of Bashevis Singer,” Critical Essays on Bashevis Singer, ed. Grace Farrell (New York, 1996), 149–64.
(91.) Yitshok Bashevis, Di familye Mushkat, vol. 1 (New York, 1950), 83.
(104.) Di familye Muskhat, vol. 2, 760; Landis, 116.
(106.) For this view, see Irving Saposnik, “Translating The Family Moskat: The Metamorphosis of a Novel,” Yiddish 1, no. 2 (1973): 26–37.
(110.) See, for example, the novels Shosha (New York, 1978), The Certificate (New York, 1992), Meshugah (New York, 1994), and Shadows on the Hudson (New York, 1998), as well as the short stories “Her Son,” in A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (New York, 1973), “A Tutor in the Village,” in Passions and Other Stories (New York, 1975), and “The Impresario,” in The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories (New York, 1988)
(111.) What part Singer himself had in the decision to delete chapter 65 from the English translation is unclear. On the one hand, Alfred Knopf conditioned his offer to publish The Family Moskat on Singer’s making extensive cuts to the translated manuscript, and the letters between them indicate that Singer was initially resistant to Knopf’s demands. On the other hand, Singer would become famous (some might say notorious) for the active role he took in tailoring the English translations of his work to the tastes of an American audience, and in an interview from 1963 he boasted of having “worked together with the translators of The Family Moskat.” Saposnik, in any event, is inclined to believe that Singer agreed with the excision of the final chapter. See Paul Kresh, Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street (New York, 1979), 182–84; Grace Farrell, ed., Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations (Jackson, MS, 1992), 16; Saposnik, “Translating The Family Moskat.”