Requiem for a Luftmentsh

Isaac Rosenfeld, the mid-century American Jewish intellectual—essayist, novelist, literary critic, thinker, wastrel, provocateur, son, husband, father, lover, prodigy, genius, failure, dead at his desk of a heart attack at the age of 38—was many things to many people, but no one would say he wasn’t bright. If anything bound the many threads of his dissolute life, incisively recounted in Steven Zipperstein’s biography Rosenfeld’s Lives, it was his intellect, his supreme conviction from childhood onward that what made life worth living was the thought that went into it. Rosenfeld is best known today for his friendship and rivalry with Saul Bellow, for his unrealized grand ambitions as a novelist, and for the nonfiction pieces he wrote for The Partisan Review, Commentary, and The New Republic—essays that pushed the boundaries of cultural criticism with their astute observations on morality and beauty. When Zipperstein’s book appeared last year, reviewers focused almost exclusively on Rosenfeld as a symbol of literary failure, on Bellow as Rosenfeld’s foil, and Rosenfeld as the might-have-been.

But these reviewers missed the most remarkable aspect of Rosenfeld’s brief life: not the career he might have had, but the one that he actually did have, and most significantly, what that career represented. Rosenfeld was a public intellectual of a very specific sort that is nearly extinct today, and it is very much worth exploring why that is so. What we are talking about is not the decline of the intellectual, or even of the Jewish intellectual, but rather the decline of an explicitly Jewish subset of the intellectual: the luftmentsh. The implications of the luftmentsh’s demise for both Jewish and American culture are vast—and almost entirely positive. For the death of the luftmentsh may mark the beginning of an entirely new understanding of what intelligence should be.

The Yiddish word luftmentsh literally means “air-man,” but it is tempting to translate it as “airhead,” since the term is considerably closer to insult than compliment. In Eastern European Jewish culture, it describes a man—and as we shall see, a luftmentsh is always a man—who has enormous ambition, but whose achievements are confined to castles in the air. The luftmentsh loves to think and dream, but resists at all costs the pull of gravity that might return him to earth to confront his limitations. Instead he looks to the clouds with pure, beautiful, delusional optimism: not merely hopeful, but entirely convinced that he indeed knows how to fly. The most famous luftmentsh in the Yiddish literary canon is Sholem Aleichem’s Menachem-Mendl, a character who spends his life pursuing various financial schemes with the unwavering conviction that he is always on the verge of success—and whose failures only encourage him to try again. But as hospitable as the world of finance is (or was) to dreams unrelated to reality, the luftmentsh’s most natural habitat is the world of letters. In literary and intellectual circles, the luftmentsh can truly thrive, pursuing his lofty ideas to their most impractical extremes and all the while being praised for his genius, without ever needing to demonstrate any kind of accomplishment at all. Indeed, to the true luftmentsh, actual accomplishments—whether businesses built, coherent works composed, students instructed, disciples cultivated, children raised, bills paid, lovers satisfied, problems solved—are almost considered shortcomings, interfering as they do with his far more majestic potential. If this type doesn’t sound familiar to you, then perhaps you aren’t acquainted with previous centuries’ incarnations of the Jewish nerd.

Isaac Rosenfeld grew up as the living embodiment of the twentieth century’s American Jewish nerd. The son of immigrant parents, he was short, stout, sickly, a “barber pole with glasses,” and encouraged by his family to spend the bulk of his boyhood doing what he clearly enjoyed most: sitting in a dimly-lit room and reading his way through the canon of Western philosophy and literature. He made it out of the house to go to school, of course, and also to attend a Sholem Aleichem Folkshul (Hebrew-school-like supplementary program designed to preserve Yiddish literacy) and he wrote well enough to publish some short works in Yiddish as a young adult. At home, he replaced an earlier generation’s obsessive study of Talmud with an obsessive study of Aristotle, Dostoyevsky, and the various strains of Marxist philosophy that were in vogue among American intellectuals of his time. He might well have remained locked in his bedroom forever if he hadn’t had the great fortune in public high school of meeting some like-minded peers, most notably Saul Bellow. Their friendship, which deteriorated with Bellow’s adult successes, centered around an intense exchange of ideas, and was fueled by their earnest conviction that they were both destined for greatness as American authors. Comfortable enough in the vast seas of both Jewish and Gentile civilization to mock the latter with the former, their best-remembered joint project was “Di shir ha-shirim fun Mendl Pumshtok,” a Yiddish parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” At the University of Chicago, Rosenfeld and Bellow were enrolled in a curriculum based on the so-called Great Books, but this was somewhat irrelevant. After all, they had already read them.

One gets the sense, in examining these young men’s lives, of an excitement in ideas unequaled by any similar excitement in reality. Part of the reason for this was the Great Depression. The lack of job prospects for these bright young people was both debilitating and liberating, as it meant that one could spend all day in the library without missing out on any opportunities in the real world. Bellow described this period as the beginning of his “mental life,” and it is quite possible that he would have preferred not to have any other. Rosenfeld certainly would have preferred it that way. Upon graduating, he took up a fellowship in philosophy at Columbia University, but found even open-ended graduate study to be too stifling for his burgeoning mind. He abandoned his fellowship to devote himself entirely to writing fiction and criticism—with his wife’s secretarial earnings paying his bills. In his short lifetime, Rosenfeld failed to achieve his dream of writing enduring fiction, but his essays—on books, on terror and joy, on good and evil, on the moral and aesthetic dimensions of literature, on the Jewish past and future, on the cultural implications of money and power and youth and sex and beauty and love and decline and death—are stunning, sometimes funny, sometimes devastating, searing coals of thought.

Rosenfeld soon found himself at the center of a swirling salon of writers, thinkers, bohemians, and intellectuals, nearly all of them Jewish, and, one surmises from descriptions of the interactions and correspondence between these friends and enemies, nearly all of them as well-read as he. These brilliant people were not immune to the less brilliant fads of the day, such as the theories of the psychologist Wilhelm Reich, who advised his followers to gather their sexual energy by masturbating while lying in specially-built “orgone boxes.” (Both Rosenfeld and Bellow owned their own.) But its most thoughtful members placed their highest hope in the life of the mind, in the possibility, however distant, that the intellectual could bring to society a kind of redemption. And it is this bright, odd hope in the power of the intellectual that today seems so bizarre. Rosenfeld’s life story is usually considered a tragedy because of his unmet promise. But what makes one pause now in reading his biography is the bare existence of that promise—the faith that intelligent people around him placed in people like him, and their expectation that a great American novel or essay would redefine and change the nation or the world.

The idea of a “public intellectual” in America today is practically quaint, embodied primarily by the twelve people in American letters who happen to have steady gigs at one of four magazines. One could moan and groan about this, but it would be more interesting to consider whether a society needs such people at all. If we assume for the moment that it does, then it is worth investigating where the younger versions of such people might be hiding—people like the young Rosenfeld, tucked away in their dimly lit rooms with their books, preparing for the life of the mind. And so I present the question: Where are the young people today who read Aristotle for fun?

It’s a leading question, of course, and also an unfair one, since even Rosenfeld and his friends had the added motivation that being well-read might have impressed people (perhaps even—gasp—girls) in a way that it would not today. But I am not asking this question to make some false and tedious point about each generation being dumber than the last. Much like the proverbial sucker, there’s a nerd born every minute. Rather, I ask the question in order to determine what it means to be young, smart, and talented now as opposed to then. This is not really a question about who attends prestigious universities or who becomes famous (or even infamous), but about how we define intelligence, ambition, and success, which qualities we respect in others, what sorts of lives we want young people to aspire to lead, and what ideas we believe make life worth living.


The acute demise of the public intellectual in America has been demonstrated many times over, most thoroughly in Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (2001). It would be easy to explain this supposed degeneration in public discourse by citing the usual tedious list of low-brow media influences with which today’s young people must contend. But if anything, the rise of a bottom-up media culture has made intellectual life potentially richer, with the tiniest niches of thought instantly filled by proliferating publications and with brilliant minds in the hinterlands no longer isolated from their brilliant peers elsewhere. The actual change in intellectual life in recent years is not one of degree, but of direction. Intellect today is no longer measured by how well one observes the world, but rather by how well one solves the problems one finds within it.

Today the primary goal of education at institutions like Harvard or Yale or the University of Chicago is not to teach students to revere ideas, or to master a specific body of works, or to become better observers of the world, but rather to teach them to solve problems. This approach to education has reigned in the sciences since the Enlightenment, but its extension into the humanities dates only to the past forty years. By the time I arrived in college fifteen years ago, the idea of “required reading” for all students was long passé, and even the idea of course requirements was dying a slow death. In fact, one of the only remaining universal hurdles for the freshman class at Harvard, where I had just enrolled, was the Quantitative Reasoning Requirement. The “QRR” was not a math course, but rather a twenty-five-question quiz intended to test one’s ability to pinpoint and correct flaws in statistics. A typical question might ask what distortions a telephone survey directed toward every twelfth name in the phone book would produce. (It would over-count single-occupant and small households, if you must know.) If this kind of question sounds more like a case interview at McKinsey Consulting than a requirement for a degree in literature, then it is perhaps not surprising that many of my classmates with humanities degrees became consultants.

Nor was this problem-solving ethos limited to students who simply weren’t sure what to do with themselves after graduation and needed to repay their student loans. One would expect a doctoral program—such as the one in which I occasionally spent six years of my life—to be a milieu rather isolated from practical concerns. But even there, I found, the interests of students and faculty were astonishingly technical. An entire field called narratology had emerged whose goal was to uncover consistent patterns in literary works, applying to fiction the concerns of the telephone survey. One internationally renowned scholar, Franco Moretti, had even introduced a new approach to literary study that called for the actual quantification of world literature by characteristics to reveal patterns in literary development, so that students could statistically survey, say, the rise of the first-person in twentieth-century novels across world cultures. This approach would require a team effort of many scholars reading literature across dozens of languages and periods in order to create the necessary graphs. Presumably such an approach would make good use of the skills such scholars needed to pass the QRR.

A far more telling demonstration of how intellectual life has taken a turn for the statistical can be found in Posner’s Public Intellectuals—not in the book’s content, but in its form. To demonstrate the decline of public intellectuals, Posner does not rely on opinions or even reportage from those in the know, but actually provides tables upon tables of statistics tracking media mentions of public figures, sorted by field, age, occupation, and other indicators, and then uses multiple-regression analysis on these data to prove his point.

It would probably not be too much to say that the sort of intellectual literary writing, especially on Jewish subjects, at which Rosenfeld excelled, has moved in this direction too, and is by now quite entrenched in it. This doesn’t mean that today’s essays on these subjects are collections of statistics. But they are almost always collections of anecdotes and quotations—prooftexts, to invoke the Jewish concept—intended not to meander or observe or to provoke, but rather to effectively prove a point, with as much concrete evidence as can be mustered. In the pages of a new literary magazine like n+1, for example, founded several years ago by the sort of young American Jewish intellectuals who approximate the ambitions of the young Rosenfeld and Bellow, the best essays, even on purely literary subjects, are works of reportage that inevitably present a cultural problem and either implicitly or explicitly suggest a solution by the end. The same can be said of magazines like The New Yorker or The New Republic or other surviving publications to which Rosenfeld contributed. This model of intellectual nonfiction writing has become so standard as to appear obvious, as though this were the only way for an intelligent person to express himself. But this is not the way Rosenfeld wrote.

When Rosenfeld published his infamous essay “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street,” claiming that the laws of kashrut encourage sexual repression, he did not do so to try to solve a problem of sexual repression; his goal was to make an observation and, of course, to provoke his readers. In 1949, the piece stirred a controversy by dismissing religious concerns with a dirty joke. But what is most remarkable about that essay today is the high-wire act of its reasoning. It jumps from an anecdote about Jews observing the production of “kosher bacon” at a delicatessen to his conclusion on why such an event would draw a crowd: “Now I am prepared to say that this scene had its origin in Paradise.” It continues with a vague account of Jewish dietary laws, builds to an equally vague assessment of meat and dairy as correlating to male and female, culminates with the idea that food taboos are placeholders for sexual taboos, and concludes that kashrut be abolished for all but Hasidim.

It is a crazy essay, not because of the ideas it presents, which today barely register as provocative, but because its highly intellectual author felt no need to provide even the slightest bit of evidence to support his admittedly provocative claims. He quotes no texts, cites no studies, includes no interviews, provides not even a single comment from a single person—whether a scholar, a man on the street, or his mother-in-law—to buttress his point. The piece does not even include the sort of barely half-baked non-evidence that a non-journalistically-inclined Jewish nerd might reasonably be expected to produce on the topic of kashrut—such as, say, a verse from the Torah, or better yet, a conveniently misinterpreted verse from the Torah. Rosenfeld simply doesn’t bother. He relies on his writing alone to make his point. Today, I cannot read that essay without mentally demanding proof, without recalling the statistical law that correlation (if there even is one in this case) does not imply causation, or without reaching the end and thinking, “Well, and if it were true, what do you suggest we do about it?”, knowing that even Rosenfeld’s suggestion that the Jewish dietary laws be abolished is intended as provocation rather than solution. I ask these questions as I read this essay not because I am naturally hostile to its conclusions, but simply because I am accustomed to seeing smart writers at least try to prove their points. It is no longer the case that an intriguing idea is enough.

Yet an intriguing idea is all that sustains Rosenfeld’s best and most memorable essays. Essays on the state of American Jewish literature (usually about its demise) crop up every decade or so. One can easily find the most recent ones in the pages of The New Yorker or similar magazines. These essays lately feature lists of names of writers and examples of works that fit particular paradigms, declare a trend, and then either praise or lament it. But Rosenfeld’s 1944 essay “The Situation of the Jewish Writer” contains not even a single writer’s name, except to credit Bellow with the phrase “colonies of the spirit.” Instead it is a musing about alienation and exile as a source of creativity. Its claims could not survive our age, now that a very literary Israel and a confident American Jewish community have changed the rules of the game for Jewish writers. But this is beside the point. Even in its own time and on its own terms, the essay could not stand up to any real demand for proof. It makes its observations without citing a single work of literature and without offering a shred of evidence for its grand idea. The essay is moving, elegiac, troubling, provocative, and above all a thing of beauty. One could not publish it today.

Our current expectations of our intellectuals (and of the institutions that cultivate them) are the results of a larger change in what we consider intelligence, but they are not its cause. In the spirit of the evidence-free musings at which Rosenfeld excelled, we might as well take the liberty of moving from blithely observing what has happened to blithely speculating why.

The awkward truth is that intellect today is very closely tied to practical purposes, and specifically to money—or, more accurately (and more true to what money has always represented to Diaspora Jews), to the avoidance of risk. There are several reasons for this. One is almost too obvious to mention: the cost of the kind of education on which intellectual life unfortunately yet undeniably depends. If Isaac Rosenfeld had graduated from the University of Chicago in 1999, he might still have settled upon graduation in a bug-infested New York apartment. But it is likely that he would have been staring down fifty thousand dollars’ worth of student debt while doing so, and would still be attempting to pay it off at his death at 38.

Yet there is also a less obvious reason why intellectual life has taken a turn for the practical, and which perhaps more profoundly condemns the Jewish luftmentsh to extinction. In non-Jewish Western culture, the life of the mind was for centuries restricted to those whose social status allowed them to afford it, making nerdhood—with its combination of intellectual talent and social isolation—a contradiction in terms, except perhaps for monks. But in Ashkenazi Jewish culture, the idea of Torah li-shma, or study of Torah for its own sake, was something to which every man, rich or poor, was expected to aspire, and even in poverty, many achieved the dream of leading an intellectual life. The esteem for scholarship in Jewish culture is a true if tired cliché. But what is less often discussed is the machinery behind the scenes which made it possible: the particular arrangement of Ashkenazi society, in which women were expected both to work outside the home and to raise the children so as to allow their husbands the ability to pursue a life of studying Torah. This societal arrangement affected not only the management of a married couple’s life, but their extended family as well: Often an arranged marriage between teenagers would involve the young couple boarding at the bride’s parents’ home for a number of years, so that the groom could continue his studies free of earthly obligations. This arrangement was so typical that there is even a Yiddish word, kestler, denoting a married man who boards with his in-laws.

Bellow once wrote that “art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction,” and one could say the same of any intense exploration of ideas. But as anyone who has spent more than twenty minutes alone with multiple children knows, someone has to be on hand to address the distractions. The life of the mind for these men was only possible because women made it so. In fact, one of the many ironies of Jewish culture is how a system of law and lore that is concrete in the extreme, much of it centered on the mundane details of domestic life, came to be obsessively studied by men as a theoretical mental exercise, while their wives were the ones expected to apply these rules to households on earth. If one substitutes Torah study for an intellectual life of a different sort, one finds that Rosenfeld and Bellow during their early careers, despite their deliberate distance from traditional Jewish culture, were in an important sense actually leading the traditional Ashkenazi lifestyle—with their intellectual gifts entirely subsidized, both financially and personally, by their wives. Bellow’s case was at one point traditional in the extreme. During his first marriage he actually lived as a kind of literary kestler in his wife’s parents’ home, writing the great American novel while his mother-in-law prepared his meals.

This subsidy was high, financially and otherwise, as is perhaps obvious in these men’s short-lived marriages (Rosenfeld left his, a tempestuous one, for numerous affairs; Bellow, with more years as well as more optimism at his disposal, married five times), or in the strivings of some of their children (Rosenfeld’s daughter, for one, became a Buddhist nun). For reasons well beyond the scope of this essay, few women today are willing to provide the scaffolding of reality on which a luftmentsh’s ambitions depend. The expansion of American adolescence into one’s late twenties also means that a person requiring this kind of subsidy today is more likely to receive it from his parents than from his spouse, and one does meet many young writers and thinkers who would be on waiting lists for low-

income housing without the help of Mom and Dad. But parental generosity has natural limits as well, and eventually everyone must grow up. When you, rather than your wife, are the one coming home at the end of the day to a home full of screaming toddlers or surly teenagers—or even when you are simply the one coming home to piles of bills that no one else is paying—you very quickly become acquainted with the limitations of the life of the mind, not merely in its material shortcomings, but more profoundly in its shortcomings in addressing those essential questions whose answers ought to have the greatest impact on the world.

Rosenfeld himself knew this, and it pained him. His journals are filled with his yearning to capture in his writing the gritty reality in which he lived: “I’m dying to write about myself, Vasiliki [his wife], the kids, the Village, my family … enough psychological abstractions—people, flesh and blood, reality!” The problem was that he didn’t really mean it. His fictional works became increasingly abstract, and elsewhere he spoke of reality and its attendant obligations as something not ennobling, but degrading. In one essay he spoke accurately—and disdainfully—of how “In my time the young regarded life as an adventure. Now they regard it as an investment.” This quip on its surface is a dismissal of materialism, but one can sense within it the luftmentsh’s visceral distaste for the kinds of demanding moral and emotional investments that make real life bear fruit.

In his short story “The World of the Ceiling,” Rosenfeld put it more explicitly: “When I was a child, I spent my days playing on the ceiling, and it was all my family could do to get me down for dinner. As I grew older and it became time, as they would tell me at home, to take life seriously, I established permanent residence on high … I can call down from the sky an influence to enlighten the people, lead them to conduct their intercourse in love and in the reverence which is owing to everyone who has been formed in the image of man.” But then, of course, “I grew up, married, raised children, ran after them wiping their noses, and thus sank deeper and deeper into reality … I haven’t had much time to spend on the ceiling.” Rosenfeld’s tongue may have been planted in his cheek, but his luftmentsh wistfulness, his dread of “sinking” into reality, is very much in earnest. The idea of reality as an abyss one sinks into, rather than as a mountain one climbs—an elevated place at once terrifying and marvelous, which one admires and scales and finally inhabits—is itself the most damning aspect of the old version of intellectual life.

Not at all coincidentally, it is also what separates Rosenfeld’s fiction from Bellow’s. Fiction requires at least a passing familiarity with reality, and despite Bellow’s own preference for the mental life, he knew what he was missing. Bellow’s protagonists may live with their heads in the clouds, but what makes their portrayals powerful are their interactions with—and their ultimate admiration for—his more minor characters who are fully invested in their lives on earth. At the end of Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the title character reflects on the death of his friend and benefactor, Dr. Elya Gruner, who has financially provided for Sammler and his daughter for twenty years, along with providing for his own children. Mr. Sammler, himself a luftmentsh who spends the novel’s first page worrying that the books in his apartment are “the wrong books,” spends the novel’s last page reciting the following private eulogy for Dr. Gruner: “He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

A long time ago, there was a certain type of man, otherwise brilliant, who failed to know this.


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