Style and Technique

One of the major devices of The Spinoza of Market Street is the placement of the main characters in a way that dramatizes their condition. Fischelson lives in a room high above the street, cut off from its turmoil, and Black Dobbe lives in a room cut off from sunlight. Fischelson lives between the sky and the earth, descending to the latter only once a week to buy his food, preferring to look at the former through his telescope. The light of vision, of intellectual insight, comes through his window, as it were. Black Dobbe has no window, no intellectual light, and she spends most of her time down in the street, struggling to make a living, her feet firmly on the earth. Fischelson’s room, however, is the more important of the two rooms in the end, for it does more than embody isolation. It helps to highlight the fact that man is neither a beast (as the events in the street below seem to assume) nor divine (as the events in the night sky seem to suggest to the mind), but in between. Fischelson’s room is where the two extremes meet, bringing new life to the philosopher and a sense of value and meaning to the ignorant peddler. Viewed as a stage, Fischelson’s room is where the two components of human destiny—the need to eat and feel and the need to envision life’s meaning—play out their importance to each other.

Historical Context

Spinoza
The protagonist of this story has devoted his life to the study of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher, Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), particularly his major work, Ethics. Although Spinoza finished writing Ethics in 1675, it was never published during his lifetime, in part due to its controversial nature and the censure of religious authorities. Spinoza is one of the great modern philosophers, associated with Rationalism. As a Jew, Spinoza’s skepticism regarding religion, God, and Judaism was highly controversial within the Jewish community. He was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656 for his radical departure from Jewish doctrine. Unrelated to his philosophical works, Spinoza worked as a lens maker, adept at grinding lenses for telescopes, eyeglasses and microscopes. Dr. Fischelson’s telescope in the story is clearly a reference to this connection with Spinoza.

Jewish Daily Forward
The Jewish Daily Forward was founded in New York City in 1897, eventually becoming the leading Yiddish language newspaper in the United States. Singer was a staff writer for the Forward from his arrival in the United States in 1935 until his death in 1991. Many of his novels were originally published in serial form in the Forward, as were his short stories.

Yiddish Language and Literature
The Yiddish language, associated with populations of the Jewish Diaspora, is rooted in Hebrew and Aramaic, later...

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Literary Style

Translation from Yiddish
Throughout his life, Singer wrote almost exclusively in Yiddish. As Yiddish is still spoken by only a relatively small number of people, most readers are acquainted with his work in translation. Later in his life, as he became more comfortable with his own command of English, Singer often translated his Yiddish stories into an English rough draft, and then worked with another translator on the details of the translation. This story retains only one phrase from the original Yiddish; when Black Dobbe appears before Dr. Fischelson in a silk nightgown on their wedding night, she says, ‘‘Mazel tov.’’ This is a Yiddish phrase usually spoken on holidays and celebrations.

Narration
The narration is third person, meaning the narrator is not a character in the story, but is ‘‘restricted,’’ rather than ‘‘omniscient,’’ meaning that the events of the story are primarily told from the perspective of the protagonist. Only occasionally does the narrative perspective venture outside of Dr. Fischelson’s head, to describe some of Dobbe’s initial impressions of him.

Intertextual References
Intertextual references are elements of a story that refer to texts, or books, which exist in reality outside of the story. Central to this story is the reference to the philosopher Spinoza’s philosophical work, Ethics. Dr. Fischelson’s life and career have been devoted to the...

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Compare and Contrast

Early 1900s: There are some eleven million speakers of the Yiddish language. Late Twentieth Century: Approximately half of the world’s population of Yiddish speakers have been killed in the Holocaust.

Early 1900s: Poland is part of the Russian empire under the Tsar (Czar). Late Twentieth Century: With the breakup of the Soviet Union, formerly under communist rule, Poland becomes an independent nation.

Early 1900s: The shtetls in Warsaw, Poland, include a high concentration of the Jewish population, and are a locus of Jewish culture.

Late Twentieth Century: Much of the population of Polish Jews has perished in the Holocaust, while others have left Poland to escape such persecution.

Early 1900s: The aborted Russian Revolution of 1905 leaves the empire still under the rule of the Czar. However, the Russian Revolution of 1917 leads to decades of communist rule.

Late Twentieth Century: The USSR suffers from internal difficulties, signalled, among other things, by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and eventually ceases to exist in 1991. Russia allows member states to declare their independence.

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Topics for Further Study

Singer’s fiction has been contrasted with that of other prominent twentieth-century Jewish-American writers, such as Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malmud. Learn more about one of these writers and their short fiction. In what ways does this writer’s treatment of issues of Jewish identity and religion compare and contrast with those of Singer?

Singer’s short story takes place in a Jewish shtetl (a small Eastern European Jewish community) in Warsaw, Poland, amidst the backdrop of the beginning of World War I (The Great War). Find out more about the history of Polish Jews in the twentieth century. In what ways did major historical events—such as World War I and World War II—affect the Jewish population in Poland?

Singer’s story takes place in the setting of a Chassidic (or Hassidic) Jewish community. Find out more about the history of Hassidic Judaism, it’s beliefs, traditions and customs. How is it different from other denominations of Judaism— such as Conservative, or Reform Judaism?

The main character’s alienation from his community is based on his preoccupation with modern philosophy over Jewish theology. What is modern philosophy? In addition to Spinoza, who are some of the major modern philosophers? Pick one of these to learn more about, including most important works and central tenets of the philosophy

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What Do I Read Next?

The Spinoza of Market Street (1961) by Isaac Bashevis Singer is a collection of short stories, translated into English from Yiddish.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Children’s Stories and Childhood Memoirs (1996) by Alida Allison is a collection of fictional children’s stories as well as excerpts from memoirs of Singer’s childhood.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life (1997) by Janet Hadda is a comprehensive biography of Singer.

The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1956) by Cynthia Ozick is a prize-winning collection of short stories written by one of the foremost Jewish-American short fiction writers.

Anglish-Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature (1989) by Gene Bluestein is about the influence of Yiddish language on American English. Pieces include listings and definitions of common Yiddish words and phrases.

Spinoza: A Life (1999) by Steven Nadler is a biography of the Jewish-Dutch rationalist philosopher who greatly influenced Singer.

Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction (1987) by Henry E. Allison is an accessible introduction to the basic texts and philosophy of Spinoza.

A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954) by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg is a collection of short stories originally written in Yiddish, translated into English. This text includes ‘‘Gimpel the Fool’’ by Singer, as well as a story by his brother,...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Alexander, Edward, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 125, 143, 147.

Cassill, R. V., Instructor’s Handbook for the Complete and Shorter Editions, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 3d ed., W. W. Norton and Company, 1986, p. 219.

Friedman, Lawrence S., Understanding Isaac Bashevis Singer, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 7–8, 230–31.

Gittleman, Edwin, ‘‘Isaac Bashevis Singer,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, edited by James E. Kibler Jr., Gale Research, 1980, pp. 296–313.

Kresh, Paul, Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West...

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