Lake effect

Not spiritually landlocked
This has not been a good year for Luftmenschen. Before bidding the year good-bye, let’s pay them some attention. The term, the dictionary tells us, is “an adaptation of the Yiddish ‘luftmensch,’ which breaks down into ‘luft’ (A Germanic root that can be tied linguistically to the English words ‘loft’ and ‘lofty’), meaning ‘air,’ plus ‘mensch,’ meaning ‘human being.’” The pioneer Jewish-American novelist Israel Zangwill imported it in 1907, when he described someone who was “not an earth-man. . . . He was an air-man, floating on facile wings.’”

The Luftmensch has floated in and out of my mind since 1962, when I first read “Life in Chicago,” an essay by the major critic Isaac Rosenfeld, who died in 1956, age 38. Saul Bellow wrote of him, “He had a bent for theology, . . . which he did everything possible to discourage. . . . He was a playful man.”


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