One of the Greatest Yiddish Satirists Imagines Spinoza in Contemporary Warsaw

July 27, 2020 | Yoysef Tunkel
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For Yiddish writers of the early 20th century, the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza was a natural hero, who, like themselves, had rejected Jewish tradition in pursuit of broader intellectual horizons, but had never become part of Gentile society. The Yiddish poet Melekh Ravitch produced a cycle of poems based on Spinoza’s Ethics in 1918, and Isaac Bashevis Singer would later create Spinoza-obsessed characters in “The Spinoza of Market Street” and The Family Moskat. But the most biting satire of Jewish Spinoza-mania came from the pen of the brilliant humorist Yoysef Tunkel—known by the pseudonym Der Tunkler (The Dark One)—whose 1927 “Spinoza in Warsaw” imagined the philosopher returning to life and trying to make a living in Jewish literary circles. Herewith, an excerpt from a new translation by Allan Nadler:

Having rested in his grave for 250 years, Baruch Spinoza came to the conclusion that just lying around like that was without telos. Every now and then, one ought to get up if only to look around and find out what has been going on in the realm of undying eternity.

He immediately composed a brief letter to Melech Ravitch. . . . Within days Spinoza found himself hanging around in [Warsaw’s Jewish] Literary Club, schmoozing with its members, every now and then bumming a cigarette in exchange for bringing personal regards from Kant, Hegel, Plato, and Schopenhauer.

During the evenings, he would attend lectures about Spinoza; he would sit, listen, and shrug. Hearing all that was being said about Spinoza but without being able to comprehend what anyone was going on about, simply unable to take it all in with his limited imagination. He did try to intervene a few times in order to insist that he never wrote this, and never intended that. However, the chairmen always stifled him: “Calm down, Mister Spinoza! You’ve been a dust-dweller for the past 250 years, so you must have forgotten what you wrote. When we scholars make a statement, we know of what we speak.”

And so, Spinoza endeavored to receive, at the minimum, a modest honorarium, a cut from the ticket sales for all these many Spinoza-soirées and lectures. . . . The least they could do was help him out. . . . After all, during the entire period that he had remained dead, he didn’t have any need to approach anybody, but now that he had arisen, he required something modest, just in order to live. The community’s “board” answered that they were in no position to give him any money; moreover, surely all the publicity they were giving him should be enough. If not, let him go to the Union of Opticians.

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