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Economics and Literature

“Floating Jews”—The luftmentsh as an Economic Character

La figure du luftmentsh, « Juif flottant » : étude de cas d’un personnage économique
Nicolas Vallois et Sarah Imhoff
p. 275-314


Le terme yiddish « luftmentsh », littéralement « personne en l’air », ou « personne de l’air », sert à désigner, parmi la population juive, des petits commerçants, colporteurs, mendiants et plus généralement des pauvres. Le mot est apparu dans la littérature yiddish dans les années 1860, et commença à être utilisé par des économistes et des statisticiens dans les années 1880-1890. Cet article analyse l’utilisation du terme luftmentsh dans le discours économique et statistique dans au début du vingtième siècle, en vue de fournir une étude de cas des rapports entre économie et littérature. Nous caractérisons le luftmentsh comme un « personnage économique », c’est-à-dire comme une catégorie économique et statistique à laquelle est associée un imaginaire complexe emprunté à la littérature yiddish. Nous montrons que ce personnage économique a popularisé une image influente et ambivalente de la masculinité juive au travail. Cette étude nous permet également de formuler des recommandations méthodologiques pour l’analyse de l’antisémitisme dans l’histoire de la pensée économique.

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  • 1 The Yiddish luftmentsh is a transliteration in Latin characters of the original word written in Heb (...)

1Luftmentsh” (plural luftmentshn) is a compound word in Yiddish: “luft”, meaning “air”, and “mentsh”, meaning “man”, “person”, or “human being”.1 Literally an “air-person” or “air-man”, the word has been used to refer to Jewish petty traders, peddlers, beggars, and paupers in nineteenth-twentieth century Eastern Europe. These luftmentshn were said to “live in the air” in the sense of “floating”, of having no definite occupation, profession or business. “Floating in the air” also evoked wandering and traveling, notably in the case of peddlers who travelled from place to place. More importantly, the “air” metaphor implied poverty: luftmentshn lived from the air in the sense that they had almost no means of subsistence.

2The word luftmentsh appeared originally in the Yiddish literature of the second part of the nineteenth century. Desanka Schwara identifies its first use in an 1865 novel by Sholem Yankel Abramovitsh, entitled “The Magic Ring” (Schwara, 2003, 93). At the time, much of Jewish life in Eastern Europe was marked by poverty. The historian Salo Baron estimated indeed that in late nineteenth century Russia, about 40% of the Jewish population were luftmentshn, i.e. people without education, capital or specific profession (quoted in Schwara, 2003, 91).

  • 2 On the theme of “floating Jews” in Marc Chagall’s paintings, see Berg (2008, 54-57), Goldberg (2003 (...)

3But the expression luftmentsh was not merely a descriptive term for the dire economic straits of the Jewish population; it also involved the attribution of aesthetic and poetic value to poverty and meaningless economic activity. Some artists, such as Marc Chagall, used the theme of “floating Jews” to romanticize the lives and bodies of poor Jewish men.2 As Schwara notes, the luftmensh is “the romanticized, transfigured designation for people who have become resigned to poverty” (Schwara, 2003, 217).

4Jewish authors also used the luftmentsh from a self-critical or ironic perspective. Most novelists writing about luftmentshn were indeed satirists, and the characters they created were first and foremost conceived to be comic. This is notably the case of Menahem-Mendl, hero of the eponymous novel by Sholem Aleichem. Menahem-Mendl is arguably the most famous representation of the luftmentsh, even though his professional profile differs from the previous examples. Unlike small-town peddlers and beggars, Menahem-Mendl is a “speculator”, who decides to leave his shtetl of Kasrilevke to make a fortune in big cities. He dabbles unsuccessfully in various precarious businesses (exchange on the financial market, real estate, commerce of wood, sugar, oil, writing) before ending up as a failed matchmaker and immigrating to the United States. Menahem-Mendl is a naive character, who is mocked and criticized by his more “grounded” wife Sheyne-Shendl, who stayed in their shtetl and despised the air-activities of her husband (Sholem Aleichem, 1911).

  • 3 Quoted in Goldberg (2003, 120).

5Irony did not imply contempt, however. These descriptions of luftmentshn can frequently be understood as the authors’ reflections about their own fragility and powerlessness (Berg, 2008, 205). Sholem Aleichem, for instance, lost his fortune in financial speculations, and spent his life wandering across towns and continents, like the Menahem-Mendl character he created. Chagall also painted himself and his wife floating in the air in Over The Town, and considered himself to have been “born between sky and earth”.3

6Things changed in the 1880s-1890s when the term luftmentsh began to be used in political and economic discourse. The expression was used by authors who were no longer exclusively writers but also political activists, reformers, economists and social scientists. In his book “Luftmenschen. History of a metaphor”, Nicolas Berg argues that this evolution changed the meanings from self-ironizing literary characters to a social discourse that criticized Jews as unproductive. Berg argues that the emergence of the negative luftmentsh entailed the disappearance of the self-ironical attitudes and positive cultural appreciations regarding Jewish poverty (Berg, 2008, 85-152).

7This article focuses on the term luftmentsh in economic and statistical discourse in the first part of the twentieth century. The main thesis of this paper is that the figure of the luftmentsh offers a complex and ambivalent image of the Jewish worker both in economics and literature. This claim challenges Berg’s arguments concerning the loss of ironic and positive content in the rhetoric of economic “productivity”. We show that his narrative is too simple, and overstates the transition from literature to economics. On the one hand, the accusation of economic unproductivity was also present in Yiddish literature. On the other hand, even though the luftmentsh was on the whole a pejorative denomination in economic discourse, it entailed positive attributes too. Our new narrative also carefully attends to gender, which, we show, plays a central role in the image of the luftmentsh and participates in its complexity and ambivalence.

8This paper contributes to the research on the interplay between economics and literature, and relates to previous analysis about the ways in which economists and novelists have reflected upon the problem of poverty in the nineteenth century (Lallement, 2010). Our focus, however, is more specifically on an “economic character”, i.e. on a literary figure having relationship to economic life (Goux, 2016, 65). Creating economic “types” or “characters” can be considered as an approach common to both economics and literature (Goux, 2016, 74). Existing research about economic thought and literature has paid attention to these literary figures, particularly to Robinson Crusoe (e.g., Watt, 1951; Pignol, 2018), as well as Don Quixote and Don Juan (Perdices de Blas and Reeder, 2013) or Eugénie Grandet (Pignol, 2016b). The luftmentsh, as embodied in the literary characters of Menahem-Mendl or Benjamin the Third, has been frequently read and understood by Jewish critics as a “Jewish Don Quixote” (e.g., Litvakov, 1924; Opatoshu, 1936). The case of the luftmentsh is particularly interesting because of the interplay of religion, gender, antisemitism, and economics.

9Jews, Jewishness and Judaism have played a central yet understudied role in the relationship of economics and literature. Speculation, the stock exchange and the rise and fall of ambitious social climbers have been powerful and recurring themes in economic novels, especially in the nineteenth century (Akdere and Baron, 2017, 2). From Shylock to Fagin and Frédéric de Nucingen, there is a very long literary tradition of Jewish characters, acting as bankers, usurers or speculators, and frequently involving anti-Jewish stereotypes about greediness, social ambition or power. Yet, as Bruna Ingrao argues, the Jewish identity of these figures has not been yet thoroughly investigated (Ingrao, 2017, 36). When these issues are studied, it is usually through the angle of antisemitism—and more specifically, on the antisemitism of the author, and not of their creations. For instance, in a footnote within his article on Balzac, Thierry Suchère discusses whether the antisemitism of the nineteenth century stock exchange novel is specific to the era, or reflects the personal views of the novelists (Suchère, 2018, 12). What remains undiscussed, however, is the way in which representations about the Jews—whether antisemitic or not, personal or not—are intertwined with economic reflections.

10This article intends to show that shared discourse about Jews is an important conveyor of economic representations and is thus a particularly useful—yet understudied—domain to analyse the intersection of economics and literature. The imaginative resources of fiction, e.g. fantasies, dreams, illusions, figures prominently in the economic representations of the Jews. This idea is well accepted in the case of economic antisemitism, that is, for ideas regarded as delusional, irrational and scientifically worthless. What is perhaps more original is the claim of an essential entanglement between facts and fictions in the economic thinking about the Jews.

  • 4 Alexandre Péraud, for example, suggests this is true in his case study on French economists and nov (...)
  • 5 For a critique of these ideas, see Bras (2016). Our argument that both economics and literature use (...)
  • 6 See for instance Missemer (2013), Prendergast (2014) and Petit (2015).

11In that regard, the paper makes two important claims. First, our case study shows that economics does not necessarily or always lag behind literature in the capacity to create economic “fictions”. This challenges the idea that the economists’ use of the fiction is essentially different and less complex than literary fiction per se.4 Although this may be true in many—or even most—cases, even one robust claim (like ours here) demonstrates that this proposed difference is not categorical or essentially true. A corollary of that idea is that literary narratives are somewhat “richer” than the stories told by economists (e.g., Pignol, 2016a) and that economists either misuse or misunderstand economic novels.5 Hence most of the research on the relations between economics and literature has focused on the economic content of literary works, answering questions such as “how do authors X or novel Y represent economic relations?” (Citton, 2017, 227).6 This case study focuses instead on economics. It is not about Yiddish literature, but about how economists draw on Yiddish literature. We are thus not concerned about the faithfulness of these readings to the originals, but about the role of that fictionalized character in economic discourse.

12The second claim is that gender is a critical tool for analysis of economic representations, even when the discourse does not seem to involve women. The luftmentsh was a counter-model not for all Jews, but for Jewish men only: these “floating Jews” were seen as weak and feminized men who did not provide for their families. Not only were Yiddish literary luftmentshn almost all men, the very categories of production and labor themselves were gendered, and the economic character of the luftmentsh unmasks the assumptions about normative masculinity. This article highlights how gender analysis—and particularly attention to masculinity—is crucial to the construction of economic norms and discourse and more generally shows the potential of critical masculinity studies in the history of economic thought.

13Our analysis is based on a large number of economic and statistical studies about Jews in the early twentieth century, mostly in German and Yiddish. We identify two channels of transmission in the emergence of the luftmentsh as an economic character. Economic reflections about luftmentshn can be traced back first to Max Nordau, a German Zionist leader, whose 1901 discourse popularized that figure. The first section of the article analyses Nordau’s speech and its influence on Zionist economist thought. A second channel involves authors who were familiar with the original meaning of the word in the Yiddish literature. These authors, who built a richer imaginary about luftmentshn than Nordau, are studied in the rest of the paper. In this domain, we focus on the works of Yakov Leshchinsky, for two reasons. First, his work was widely influential among Yiddish writing economists (Mahler, 1967; Alroey, 2006; Estraikh, 2007; 2017; Vallois, 2022b). He edited several journals on Jewish economic issues, and directed the Economic-Statistical Department of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO). Leshchinsky played a pivotal role in mediating ideas, methods, and statistics between Germany and Eastern Europe, since he was one of the rare Yiddish-speaking authors with extensive contacts in the German Jewish community (Kuznitz, 2014, 37; Vallois, 2021). Second, this focus on Leshchinsky allows continued conversation with other historians, since Berg and Schwara build their claims about economic and statistical discourse on the basis of (some of) Leshchinsky’s writings. The article concludes with some methodological reflections on antisemitism and Jewish self-critique in economic-literary discourse.

1. Max Nordau’s 1901 Discourse and its Influence

14In Yiddish culture, there is no unique and stable definition for popular “types” such the luftmentsh. As Jennifer Caplan notes, these characters, “unlike other set of stock types, for example the Commedia dell’arte characters”, did not “develop as a set or at one particular time”; they “do not owe their origins to a specific author, and there is no real agreement on exactly how many archetypes there are” (Caplan, 2016, 138-139). However, most authors referring to luftmentshn agree on a more or less similar definition of that word, on the basis of two influential sources: Sholem Aleichem’s antihero Menahem Mendl and Max Nordau’s famous discourse at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel. As a matter of fact, many—perhaps even most—writers who used the word luftmentsh in the twentieth century did not know its literary origin and, as both Schwara and Berg note, many mistakenly attributed it to Nordau’s speech (Schwara, 2003, 92-93; Berg, 2008). On December 27, 1901, Nordau, one of the most prominent leaders of Zionism at the time, declared in German:

  • 7 The quote is taken from the original copy of the discourse in German, but we borrowed its English t (...)

particularly in the East, where the great majority of [Jews] dwell, the Jewish people is a nation without trade or occupation [Beruflosen]. We do have at present a large number of Jewish artisans and wage laborers, but the economic “type”, which is still so common in the East, is that of the Luftmensch, that specifically Jewish phenomenon wherein grown people, in decent enough health, wake up each morning with the hope of some miracle coming to pass that would furnish them some way to get through the day, and who marvel every evening, either out of blind faith or superstition, at the very wonder of the fact that they managed to find a bit of bread for themselves and their kinfolk (Nordau [1909] 1923, 117-118).7

15In this description, Nordau provided four typical elements for what became then the classical image of the luftmentsh in Zionist discourse. The main characteristic of a Luftmensch, is, first, professional instability, or lack of a clear and fixed source of income, which results in poverty. According to Nordau, Luftmenschen are Beruflosen, “without trade or occupation” (Nordau, [1909] 1923, 118), and live on a day-to-day basis. Second, these poor Jews are excessively religious and superstitious, hence their naivety and their “hope of some miracle coming to pass”.

16These two characteristics were consistent with the original description of luftmentshn characters in Yiddish literature. The rhetoric of economic unproductivity was also present in the Yiddish literature of the late nineteenth century. Abramovitsh, author of The Magic Ring, in which Schwara identifies the first occurrence of the word luftmentsh, supported in his early years the classical views of the “Jewish Enlightenment” [Haskalah] on socio-economic reforms, considering that Eastern European Jews should be “modernized”, and fully embrace secular and professional education (Miron, 1995, 2017). Nordau was probably not familiar with Yiddish literature, but the word and image of the luftmentsh had already begun to circulate by the turn of the twentieth century. Nordau’s important twist, however, was to insist much more on the association between “air” and the idea of groundlessness (Bodenlosigkeit). Luftmenschen “live in the air”

in the literal sense, for they lack even a footprint’s breadth of land to call their own and therefore they exist entirely suspended in mid-air; and by way of metaphor one may say so because they lack a solid economic base to stand upon and they live, as does the individual Luftmensch, day by day, by the grace of miracles, rather than proper labor (Nordau, [1909] 1923, 118).

17Nordau’s words epitomize the classical stance of early German Zionism toward Luftmenschen, in which their poverty, their “lack of a solid economic base” is attributed to the lack of a land of their own. Nordau’s second important innovation was to put forward the notion of physical weakness. Three years earlier, at the Second Zionist Congress, Nordau had advocated for the “rejuvenation” of the Jewish people through the creation of a “muscular Judaism” [Muskeljudenthum] (quoted in Presner, 2007, 1). Nordau’s idea of muscular Judaism was a call for a “regenerated race of healthy, physically fit, nationally minded, and militarily strong Jews” (Presner, 2007, 2). As Todd Presner has shown, the dialectic of Jewish regeneration/degeneration in early Zionist discourse meant that the muscle Jew was the ideal and positive counter-image of the poor Eastern European Luftmenschen (Presner, 2007, 21-34). Hence, if the latter had to be regenerated, it was because they were considered physically degenerate, and either unfit or unwilling to take physical work.

  • 8 For a general analysis on the debate over Jewish productivization, see Penslar (2000).

18Gendered assumptions are central in that portrait. In Nordau’s description, and in early Zionist iconography at large, the muscle Jew was pictured as a heroic warrior, a resolutely masculine character (Presner, 2007, 3). Conversely, Luftmenschen were thought of as physically weak Jews, and productivization, i.e. physical regeneration through work, was intended to “masculinize” them. Economic unproductivity was associated with femininity, and advocates of Jewish “productivization” feminized Jewish men when describing the prototypical Jewish worker (Weinberg, 2007, 423). However, these feminized figures remained male characters. The traditional discourse on Jewish economic productivization, from early nineteenth century “Jewish Enlightenment” [Haskalah] to Soviet economic reforms, overwhelmingly focused on the rehabilitation of male workers, and marginalized women (Penslar, 2019, 515; Weinberg, 2007, 423; Yalen, 2020).8 Expectations to be productive or to learn a trade were thus expectations of men, but not of women. It is also worth noting that both masculine and feminine gender norms here assumed bodily ability: the Luftmentsch was not disabled; in fact, if women appear rarely in this economic discourse, people with disabilities appear even less.

19Nordau’s depiction of Luftmenschen served as a political justification of Zionism: “it is clear, that the first task of Zionism must be … to make them [the Luftmenschen] economically more competent” (Nordau, [1909] 1923, 129). According to Nordau, the creation of a Jewish state would enable their “productivization”, with a strong priority given to agricultural work. This political and economic agenda was related to an epistemic one: in the same discourse, Nordau also called for the development of Jewish statistics, claiming that “an exact statistical research of the Jewish People is an uppermost necessity for the Zionist movement” (Nordau, [1909] 1923, 113).

20Nordau’s speech and writings played a decisive role in the diffusion of the word Luftmensch among economists and statisticians. The popularization of Nordau’s view can be traced to Arthur Ruppin. Shortly after Nordau’s speech, in 1903, an association for Jewish statistics was created in Berlin, which published the Journal for Jewish Demographics and Statistics, and Ruppin was appointed as its editor. In the first year of his editorship, Ruppin published his influential Die Juden der Gegenwart (The Jews of To-day), in which he wrote:

  • 9 This quote is identical in the 1911 second edition of Ruppin’s book, which is more frequently refer (...)

in Galicia we find the same picture. Only a tiny fraction of the Jews has a stabilized existence to some extent, the majority live on a day-to-day basis and do not know in the morning, where they will find something to eat at noon for them and their families. Max Nordau created the word “Luftmenschen” for this existence. (Ruppin, 1904, 181)9

21Here Ruppin explicitly attributes the invention of the word Luftmensch to Nordau, and his description is obviously inspired by the latter’s words, especially the idea of living “on a day-to-day basis”. The idea that they should labor productively “for them and their families” also implies that, like Nordau, Ruppin assumes this conversation is about Jewish men, and that proper men should be economic providers not only for themselves but also for the women and children related to them. What is also interesting is that Ruppin further developed Nordau’s conception and gave a statistical definition for the notion of Luftmensch: “in the statistics, these Luftmenschen appear under the category of ‘paid services of different kinds’ or ‘independents without profession’, and it is significant, that the Jews, who make only 11,09% of the population in Galicia … , represent 51,51% of independents without profession and 39,8% of the paid services of different kinds” (Ruppin, 1904, 181).

22Written in German, Ruppin’s The Jews of To-day had a significant influence on economists and statisticians, even beyond the restricted field of Jewish statistics. For instance, in his 1912 Die Zukunft der Juden (The Future of the Jews), Werner Sombart borrowed directly from Ruppin: “in Galicia the picture is not much different: here too a very large number of Jews do not know what they will find to provide for their subsistence on the next day. This is an existence, that Nordau called ‘Luftmenschen”. Sombart then gave the exact same statistics as Ruppin (Sombart, 1912, 14-15).

23As a general rule, after Nordau’s discourse and its popularization by Ruppin, economists and statisticians working on Jewish economic problems used the word luftmentsh in a sense that was consistent with Nordau’s definition. This was not only the case of Zionist supporters, but of authors from all over the political spectrum, including socialists, communists, Bolshevists, and non-affiliated ones. In an article on Jewish migration published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1931, the socialist demographer Liebmann Hersch wrote that “by the term Luft-Mensch is meant a person with no definite trade or steady employment, who avoids severe manual labour and lives from hand to mouth by small occasional jobs and commissions” (Hersch, 1931, 506).

24In the end, following Nordau and Ruppin, most economists and statisticians understood the word luftmentsh in a restricted and negative sense, as a synonym for lack of profession or professional instability (e.g., Thon, 1907, 119). All these authors considered that the predominance of the luftmentsh type called for productivization policies, even though they disagreed on the content of such reforms (e.g., projects of agricultural colonization, in Palestine or elsewhere; development of professional and vocational training, participation to the class struggle). This might lead one to imagine, as Berg claims, that that the poetics and aesthetics of poverty essentially disappeared in the transition from Yiddish literature to economic and statistical sources. Yet this was not entire true, as the next section will show.

2. The Entanglement of Economics and Literature in Yiddish

  • 10 In each of these publications, the same word could appear several times. For this OCR research, we (...)
  • 11 We obtained these results with an OCR research on Historical Jewish Press, the online databasis of (...)

25In Yiddish, the word luftmentsh seems to have been a relatively frequent and standardized word in the early twentieth century. An Optical Character Recognition (OCR) full-text research of the term “luftmentsh” on the Yiddish Book Center, a digital library of nearly 11,000 Yiddish books, yielded 331 distinct publications from 1911 to 1995, and over a large range of genres (e.g., art and literary critics, politics, economics, history, novels). By way of comparison, the closely related expression “lumpenproletarian” yields fewer than half results (134 publications).10 In all of the occurrences of the word luftmentsh, the overall sense of the expression remained consistent with Nordau’s definition. Similar results can be obtained in the Yiddish press of the same period.11

26Though it was delivered and subsequently printed in German, Nordau’s discourse was known to many Yiddish writers. In his textbook A General History of the Jews, which had a huge impact on Russian Jewish intellectuals (Seltzer, 2010), the historian Simon Dubnow wrote for instance that “Nordau reported about the uncertain economic situation of the Jews, about the mass of luftmentshn in the economy” (Dubnow, 1938, 324). Ber Borochov, the influential leader of Marxist Zionism in Russia, even claimed in a brochure in Yiddish, like many German authors (cf. supra), that Nordau invented the word: “the term luftmentsh was Nordau’s contribution to our literature”, wrote Borochov, “and it expresses [Jews’] remoteness from the soil [bodn]” (Borochov, [1916] 1919, 8).

27It is therefore no wonder that the use of the word luftmentsh in these texts fitted the main characteristics of Nordau’s description: the professional instability, the “economic groundlessness” (e.g., Borochov, [1916] 1919, 13) and the lack of a “substantial foundation” (Zineman, 1947, 317); and the naïve hope in “prompt salvation” (Finkelstein, 1947, 121). Leshchinsky was no exception in that regard, and his conception of the luftmentsh was influenced by Nordau’s views too, for instance when speaking about the “miracle-livelihood” of the Galicians Jews (Leshchinsky, 1928c, 58).

28There is, however, an overall and significant difference in the respective economic uses of the words Luftmensch/luftmentsh in German and Yiddish. This difference can be explained by sociological factors pertaining to the audiences that the Yiddish-writing economists were addressing. Most Yiddish writers at the time had indeed no choice but to make a livelihood from journalism (Harshav, 1990, 165). Many Jewish social scientists could not obtain academic positions and worked for the press, philanthropic organizations, or as journalists, doctors, lawyers (Estraikh, 2017; Vallois, 2021).

29This was notably the case of Leshchinsky. Throughout his long career, he regularly contributed to the main Jewish journals in Eastern Europe and the United States, addressing a large, international readership (Manor, 1961; Estraikh, 2007). The social context of Leshchinsky’s discourse matters because it shows that economic journalists like Leshchinsky and Yiddish writers actually shared an audience. Poets and novelists frequently wrote in the same journals as statisticians and social scientists. This is particularly true for the three authors who are usually regarded as the “triumvirate of great writers” in Yiddish literature: Sholem Yankel Abramovitsh, Yitshok Leybush Peretz and Sholem Aleichem (Katz, 2004, 240; Miron, 1995). These three authors were all famous by the 1890s, and publishing popular pieces in Hebrew or Yiddish in the 1900s always seemed to connect to them one way or another. Leshchinsky’s first work for instance, Statistics of a small town, was published in the Hebrew journal Ha-Shiloah, to which Abramovitsh regularly contributed (Leshchinsky, [1903] 1960). Leshchinsky then wrote in Peretz’s Yiddish-language Yidishe bibliotek (Jewish library) his influential Jews in London (Estraikh, 2007, 18-219).

  • 12 The book version of Menahem-Mendl and the newspaper serials were not strictly identical. On the dif (...)

30Conversely, the popular press played a pivotal role in the diffusion of these three “great” writers. This was particularly true for Sholem Aleichem, whose “best-known characters were created in Yiddish newspaper serials and later expanded into book-length works” (Katz, 2004, 214). Sholem Aleichem published in particular in Haynt the second series of Menahem-Mendl letters (and other novels; Dymshits, 2013).12 In concrete terms, the reader of Haynt could read on page 2 Leshchinsky’s weekly economic column, and the next day on the same page, an episode of Menahem-Mendl. In the Zionist journal Ha-olam, in which Peretz also contributed, Leshchinsky’s and Sholem Aleichem’s articles regularly appeared alongside each other, in the same issue (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1911b). Leshchinsky’s above mentioned 1916 article was published originally in Yidishe velt, which offered selections by Peretz, Abramovitsh and Sholem Aleichem. As a general rule, Yiddish newspapers to which Leshchinsky was a contributor included poems, literary criticisms, “belles lettres”, but also ethnography, economic analysis and journalistic reports.

  • 13 YIVO Archive. Papers of Jacob Lestschinsky, RG 339, Box 1 Folder 2 (Asch), Folder 7 (Bergelson), Fo (...)
  • 14 Chagall to Leshchinsky, 1939, YIVO Archive. Papers of Jacob Lestschinsky, RG 339, Box 3 Folder 72.

31This proximity between Leshchinsky and popular Yiddish writers is further documented by his correspondence. Leshchinsky was in touch with major figures of Yiddish literature at the time, such as Sholem Asch, Dovid Bergelson, Abraham Liessin, Shmuel Niger, Daniel Tsharni, Dovid Hofshteyn, and Der Nister.13 For most of these authors, there was no clear-cut distinction between journalism and other literary activities. Tsharni was a poet and a journalist; Bergelson and Asch were known as Yiddish writers but also contributed, like Leshchinsky, to the American journal The Forward (Forverts) in the 1920s-1930s. Liessin and Niger wrote their own pieces but were mostly known as influential literary critics and editors of reviews, to which Leshchinsky also contributed. This small circle of writers, editors, journalists, poets also interacted with Chagall, who was close to Leshchinsky.14

32It is important to note that Leshchinsky never considered his readership’s diverse background as an external constraint on his writings. His literary inspirations and references also reflect his methodological conviction that literature could be regarded as a source of ethnographic and socio-economic evidence. In 1921, he published a book on the history of Yiddish literature, entitled “The Jewish economic life in the Yiddish literature”, which was also intended to be a contribution to Jewish economic history. Leshchinsky argued that Jewish economic mentality had been characterized as a “middleman-ish inheritance” (farmitler yerushe), which had provided the main material of Yiddish literature. He distinguished three main periods in the history of Yiddish literature: the golden age of this mentality, as exemplified by Abramovitsh; its downfall, illustrated by Sholem Aleichem; and lastly the apparition of new social classes (Leshchinsky, 1921, 18-24).

  • 15 This ambition appears clearly in a chapter entitled “A Day in the Old Market”. That chapter, which (...)

33From this naturalistic perspective, literature could be an important source for economists and social scientists. Though he took a different path than his novelist friends, Leshchinsky saw no definitive boundaries between his own works and “belles lettres”, i.e. writing stories and fictions about Jewish economic life. This conception was perhaps specific to Leshchinsky, who distinguished himself with his recognized literary skills and ambitions (Manor, 1961, 162; Mahler, 1967, 192).15 However, the sense of proximity between economics and literature was most probably shared by other Yiddish-writing economists and statisticians who at the time had no choice but to address audiences similar to Yiddish novelists.

3. Rags and Walking-Sticks: The Economic Attributes of the luftmentsh

34Yiddish offers a rich lexicon for the concepts associated with the word luftmentsh. In the entry on “inactivity and laziness” [umtetikayt un foylkayt], the Thesaurus of the Yiddish language mentions no fewer than 74 nouns (including luftmentsh), 86 verbs, 61 comparisons, 39 adverbs and 39 idioms and proverbs (Stutchkoff, 1950, 431-434). Though Yiddish economic discourse does not use every expression listed in the Thesaurus, Leshchinsky’s works show that the association between “air” and economic unproductivity generates a whole range of related expressions, as table 1 shows.

Table 1. Derivatives of the Word “luftmentsh” in Leshchinsky’s Works


English translation



Luft hakhnoses



1921, Yidishe ekonomishe lebn, 11.

Luft gesheftn



1925, Ekonomishe lage, 90; 1930, Tsvishn, 100.

Luft yidn



1925, Der emes, 55.

Lebn fun luft

to live from the air


1907, Der yidisher arbeter in london, 10.

Otem mit arbet luft oder spekulatsye luft

Breathing from work-air or speculation-air


1925, Der emes, 58.

Luft parnoses, a parnose fun der luft

Air-livelihoods, a livelihood from the air


1928, Di entviklung,35; 1933, Oyfn rand, 174, 175.

Luft figurn

Air figures


1931, Yidn in poyln, 64-65.

Klaynbirgerekh luftmases

Petty-bourgeois air-masses


1921, Yidishe ekonomishe lebn, 19.

Anshei ha-avir

Air men


1960 [1950], Ha-tefutsah, 124.

aus der Luft leben

to live from the air


1916, Fragen, 165.

in der Luft schweben

to float in the air


1916, Fragen, 165.




1916, Fragen, 165.




1932, wirtschftliche Schicksal, 118-119.

35Several expressions in German were derived from Luftmentsh; the German word appeared in English publications (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1948, 67); and there was also an equivalent in Hebrew. Yet on the whole, most derivatives of the air-metaphor were to be found in Yiddish. (The references in the third columns of table 1 are merely examples from Leshchinsky’s own writing.) Some expressions such as “air-businesses” [luftgesheftn] or “air-livelihood” [luft parnose] appeared very frequently, not only in Leshchinsky’s works, but in Yiddish publications in general.

36In Yiddish, the word luftmentsh could function as either specific or general terms. Luftmentsh and its derivatives are often used in enumerations, such as: “a large number of Luftmenschen, beggars, peddlers, and domestic servants turned to productive work” (Leshchinsky, 1932, 39). In a restricted sense, this suggests that luftmentshn are a specific type of Jewish pauper, different from beggars, peddlers, and domestic servants. Elsewhere, Leshchinsky distinguishes between a class of hand-workers and a class of middlemen, in which luftmentshn are included among others (e.g., merchants, shop-keepers, tavern-owners; Leshchinsky, 1921, 25-29). But in a larger sense, he used the word luftmentsh as the most general designation for all types of paupers. This usage is consistent with the frequent expression “stam a luftmentsh”, which can be translated as “just a luftmentsh or “an ordinary luftmentsh”, and figures at the end of enumerations as a synthetic category, e.g. “agents, sellers, merchants, contractors, in one-word, ordinary luftmentshn” (Cohen, 1945, 21).

37It can thus be argued that the term luftmentsh also bears a relationship to terms with which it appears in conjunction in enumerations, even though these terms do not use the “luft” components. For instance, “stargazer” and “windprofession” are related to luftmentsh in this sense. We collected the occurrences of these terms and classified them in several semantic domains (See table 2a.) The complete list of occurrences and expressions is given in table 2b. in the appendix.

Table 2a. Semantic Domains Related to the Word “luftmentsh

Semantic domain


English translations

Shady business and idleness

Leydik geyer, pust-un-pas, Betteljudentum [German], Schnorrer [German], Hausierer [German], Schacher-Macher [German], Sterngucker [German], die, für die das Sichumhertreiben auf dem Markt an sich eine Profession [German], mikakh u-mimkar [Heb], sarsur, sarsurot kalkalit [Heb].

Idler or loafer, idle, beggar-Jewry, beggar or parasite, peddler, haggling huckster, stargazer, those, who take “let-oneself-hanging-around the market” as a profession, trade or commerce (litt: negociation and selling), haggler, haggling economy.


Farmitler, farmitlerishe elementen, farmitler natsye, kleinhändlerisch-vermittlerischen Traditionen [German], farmitleray, kremeray, farmitleray psikologye, farmitler yerushe, farmitler klas, makler, maklergayst, hendler, hendlerish-meklerish yidntum, Vermittler - und Tauschvolk, Markt - und Schankvolk [German].

Middleman, middlemen elements, nation of middlemen, small-merchant-middleman-ish traditions, middleman-hood, shopkeeping-hood, middleman mentality,middleman heritage, middleman class, broker, broker-spirit, merchant, merchant-broker Jewry, middleman-and-exchange nation, Market-and-tavern nation.

Floating and wandering

Spazierstockjuden [German], farmitler vanderik folk, Windberufen [German], Hausierer [German], das jüdische Wandelgenie [German], yarid yidn.

Walking-stick Jews, middleman-wandering nation, wind-professions, peddler, the Jewish wandering genius, (trade) fair-Jews.

Smallness, lack of ressources

Kremerlakh, luftmentshlekh, hendlerlakh, meklerlakh, stam mark-yidn, kaptsn, nishul-maamad [Heb], frohliche Arme und lustige Bettler [German].

Small shopkeepers, small Luftmentshn, small merchants, small middlemen, simple market Jews, pauper, someone lacking of social status, joyful pauper and funny beggar.

Jewish spirit

Farmitleray psikologye, farmitler yerushe, farmitler natsye, kleinhändlerisch-vermittlerischen Traditionen [German], hendlerish-meklerish yidntum, natsyonale meklerishe neshome, Handel khush, farmitleray, maklergayst, das jüdische Handelgenie [German].

middleman mentality, middleman heritage, middleman-nation, small-merchant-middleman-ish traditions, merchant-broker Jewry, national-brokerish soul, commercial talent, middleman-hood, broker-spirit, the Jewish commercial genius.

38Though it makes a strong argument for the relationship of luftmentsh and other terms, our method of identification cannot pretend to perfect accuracy. The different semantic domains are not clear-cut categories, and many expressions belong to several domains: for instance, wandering is closely associated with business activity in general in Yiddish, as in the expression handl-vandl, which means “trading and maneuvering”, though vandl means literally wandering, either physically or spiritually in the sense of the Diaspora (Katz, 2004, 171). Also, this table also excludes terms that relate directly to Nordau’s definition, such as groundlessness or professional instability because those meanings have been analyzed above.

  • 16 For another illustration of that association between luftmensh and Schacher, see for instance Zinbe (...)

39Consistently with Berg’s thesis, it seems at first that all five semantic domains in table 2a have essentially negative meanings. In the first domain, luftmentsh is associated with the idea of shady business and idleness, i.e. with occupations that are on the fringes of legality and morality. Luftmentshn were commonly understood as unscrupulous traders, or fake beggars, who lived from scams and deserved moral blame. Hence the strongly negative meanings of the German words associated with “Betteljudentum” (literally, Beggar Jewry), such as “Schnorrer” or “Schacher”, a nineteenth century term for “a specific Jewish type of commerce, with the pejorative sense of haggling, huckstering” (Penslar, 2001, 45-46).16

40The second semantic domain is built upon four words in Yiddish that have very close meanings: farmitler, mekler, hendler, kremer. A mekler is a broker, but in many contexts this word is quite similar to a farmitler, which refers to a mediator, intermediary, go-between or middleman. Hendler (merchant) and kremer (shopkeeper) are also often taken as synonyms for various “intermediating” activities. Like many of his contemporaries, Leshchinsky regarded these go-between professions as unproductive and too widespread among Jews.

  • 17 See also Leshchinsky (1912b, 6; 1932, 30; 1950, 124). Conversely, Leshchinsky interpreted as a nega (...)

41Leshchinsky derived substantive forms such as “kremeray” or “farmitleray”, which are generic pejorative terms for these unproductive commercial activities. Leschinsky’s statistical analyses frequently distinguished between a “productive element” including workers in the industry and agriculture, liberal professions and employees on the one hand, and “air-livelihoods” or “unproductive element” on the other hand, made of “kremer and hendler”, and also referred to as “idler-ish and middleman-ish element” (farmitlerishe un leydikgeyerishe element; Leshchinsky, 1928b, 35 and 52). As a general rule, when commenting on the evolution of Jewish employment structure, Leshchinsky considered the gradual extinction of this “airy” and unproductive element as a positive evolution, suggesting that Jews were no longer a “nation of middlemen” (folks farmitler; Leshchinsky, 1925b, 89).17

42The designation luftmentsh also related to the semantic domain of wandering and floating (third row on table 2a). This theme can have favorable connotations, especially in discourses pertaining to art and culture: Marc Chagall said in a 1939 speech:

We must consider the path of a Jew-artist, who was and still is a luftmensh. We cannot let ourselves be marred by raw work, mannerism, and daubing. If we do not give our all, our whole life to art, if we are not, in our own way, extreme maximalists in art—then we are nothing (Chagall, 2003, 62).

43Some of Leshchinsky’s early work framed wandering as negative, such as his critique of Jewish immigrants’ concentration in the less mechanized branches of capitalist societies, and particularly in the sweatshop system. In The Jewish Worker in London, Leshchinsky argued that Jewish immigrants were relegated to the lowest stratum of their new country, and were thus pushed to emigrate: hopeless wandering entailed a self-perpetuation of poverty (Leshchinsky, 1907, 33).

44In the fourth semantic domain, several words have with the Yiddish suffix “akh/ekh”, which conveys smallness, as in kremerlakh” (small shopkeeper). In Yiddish, the suffix often implies affection, as in “kinderlekh” (little ones, children). But this was not the case in Leshchinsky’s writings. Leshchinsky was one of the major defenders of “non-proletarianization theory”, which stated that the major drawback of Jewish economy in the Diaspora was the inability to “proletarianize”, i.e. to become factory workers (Gutwein, 1990; Vallois, 2022b). In Leshchinsky’s Marxist perspective, the future of capitalist economy belonged to the large-scale, highly concentrated, mechanized industry. Associating luftmentshn with words such as “kremerlakh” (small shopkeeper) was therefore a way of pointing out their economic insignificance, powerlessness, and backwardness.

4. Leshchinsky’s Revision of the luftmentsh

  • 18 German economist Werner Sombart provides a good illustration of the pejorative meanings associated (...)

45Although Leshchinsky’s usage shared much in common with other economic writers in the first four semantic domains, examination of the last opens the door to see the distinctive ways he uses the character. The last semantic domain gathers expressions that suggest, as exemplified in the syntagms “farmitler natsie” (middleman nation) or “famitler neshome” (middleman spirit), that there was something inherently and specifically “Jewish” about airy behavior, as a kind of “inherited psychology” or “middleman inheritance” (farmitler yerushe). Leshchinsky’s writings, however, display much inconsistency in this domain. On the one hand, Leshchinsky explicitly and strongly opposed explanations based on race and “Volkspsychologie”, i.e. explanations grounded on the idea that nations have “collective spirits” (Leshchinsky, 1923, 1). Leshchinsky never used the German expressions of (Jewish) “commercial spirit” (Händlergeist) or “haggling nation” (Schachervolk), which were at the time commonplace designations in the antisemitic German literature, and had very strongly negative meanings (Vallois, 2022b).18 Leschinsky refused the idea that Jews had been a “commercial nation” since ancient times (Leshchinsky, 1912, 5) and mocked the notions of “Jewish trade genius” and “Semitic trading instinct” (Leshchinsky, 1906, 25). Yet on the other hand, he used very similar expressions, such as “middleman spirit” or “air-spirit”, which seem to indicate that there was indeed in his eyes such a “makler-psychology”, an “airy” inclination of the Jewish worker. This is further confirmed by the following opposition that Leshchinsky drew between the mentalities of Jewish and non-Jewish workers:

For the manufacturer,  the mass of non-Jewish peasants, with their sane bodies, their primitive psychology  is a lot cheaper and more convenient than the mass of petit-bourgeois Jews  with their weak bodies and excited nerves, with their higher standard of living and sophisticated mind,  with their spiritual agility [neshome rirevdikayt] and psychological activity, with their effort to free themselves from the yoke of labor and reach for themselves the status of owners managers, with their dangerous aspiration to become independent and to organize themselves  independently (Leshchinsky, 1931, 70).

46There is here no explicit reference to the word luftmentsh, or to related expressions with a “luft” component. However, Leshchinsky combines in this portrait several elements of the classical image of the luftmentsh, notably the idea of physical weakness, which can be found in Nordau’s description. Leschinsky’s novelty here, relatively to Nordau, is to introduce into this portrait a psychological component, the desire to rise socially. From Leshchinsky’s perspective, this particular mentality is different from the alleged “Jewish commercial spirit”, but it entails negative economic dispositions: desire to move beyond physical labor and an excessive sense of independence that is incompatible with factory work.

47Although it might not seem so at first, this claim relates closely to Yiddish literature: the character of Menahem-Mendl often appeared as a stand-in for the luftmentsh. The reference appeared sometimes through comparison, for example when writing that some Jewish merchant speculated during the war “exactly like Menahem-Mendl” (Leschinsky, 1930, 170). More often, Leshchinsky used “Menahem-Mendl” as a specific social category: in Russia, observed Leschinsky, the productivization process changed significantly the life of “shopkeepers, merchants and other Menahem-Mendls” (Leshchinsky, 1923, 3; see also 1921, 11; 1930, 102; 1945, 19-20). Leshchinsky’s writing practices were representative of Yiddish publications at the time: many of Sholem Aleichem’s popular characters became everyday words in Yiddish (Katz, 2004, 214). The Thesaurus of the Yiddish language, published in 1950, even mentions the verb menahem-mendln, literally “to Menahem-Mendl-ize”, i.e. acting or behaving like Menahem-Mendl (Stutchkoff, 1950, 432).

48These psychological portraits of Jewish and non-Jewish workers, which related to the Menahem-Mendl character, were a recurrent theme in Leshchinsky’s works (Leshchinsky, 1913; 1916a, 165; 1933, 201). Leshchinsky thought nonetheless that this “mentality” or “spirit” could change. Writing about the economic situation of Jews in Vilna, for instance, Leshchinsky rejoiced over a “revolution in the spirit of the nation”: a new “Jewish psychology” had appeared, Leshchinsky argued, and “it is nowadays badly considered to be an idler, to know nothing, to be a luftmentsh” (Leshchinsky, 1933, 174-175). Such an attitude was typical of social reformers who wanted to “regenerate” and productivize, Jewish workers and to change their supposed “airy” mentality. This is consistent with Berg’s and Schwara’s views about Leshchinsky as a typical example of the “productivization” agenda and discourse. Both Berg and Schwara base their arguments about Leshchinsky on one of his articles, written in German and published in 1916 (Schwara, 2003, 218-219; Berg, 2008, 87-88). In this article, Leshchinsky wrote that Russian Jews

still suffer from the last residuals of the earlier “Luftmenschen” and “Walking-stick Jews” (Spazierstockjuden) … ; there are still with us many “joyful paupers” and “funny beggars”, who live from scams, from the air, for whom “hanging-around-the market” is a profession; social beings, who “float in the air”, economic fantasies of a Menahem-Mendls’ kind—a historical aftermath … . The national psychology has so much changed, that the “joyful paupers” and “funny beggars”, who once in the Jewish communities were very well considered and used play the role of economic cult characters, so to speak, have lost completely their appeal and thus their joyfulness (Leshchinsky, 1916b, 233).

49In the same paragraph, Leshchinsky refers to Fishke the Lame, a famous novel by Abramovitsh about the life of an itinerant Jewish beggar. His invocation is, however, far from the novel’s self-ironizing tone and sense of benevolence toward paupers. This quote illustrates “productivization” discourse on Jewish paupers, with its associated moral condemnations: Luftmenschen run shady businesses (they “live from scams”), they chose their own poverty (they are happy paupers), they unduly benefit from cultural approval, their economically-backward mentality will disappear with modernity. The designation “Walking-stick Jews” is worth noting, because similar expressions appear in Yiddish in conjunction with the word luftmentsh: shtekele dreyer (Malach, 1939, 22) or dreyen mitn shtekele (e.g., Tenenbaum, 1952, 123), literally turning or rotating with [walking] sticks. As in Nordau’s portrait, these expressions refer to vagrancy, wandering, groundlessness, since the verb dreyen can be translated as coming and going, being restless—and a dreyer in Yiddish is a swindler or schemer.

50Yet in our opinion, Leshchinsky’s 1916 article is not representative of the rest of his writings. The overall tone of the article differs from other Leschinsky’s works published in Yiddish statistical and economic outlets. It was written in a specific context, for a specific audience: it was published in Der Jude, a literary review led by Martin Buber, then an important figure of the German-Zionist intelligentsia. Our analysis shows that there was much more ambivalence in Leshchinsky’s discourse than Berg and Schwara suggest.

51This ambivalence is particularly discernible in the above-mentioned psychological portrait of the Jewish worker. Some of the drawbacks that Leshchinsky attributed to the Jewish labor force could also be deemed positive qualities, including the ideas of intellectual “agility” (neshome rirevdikayt) and entrepreneurial spirit. When writing about the economic situation of Jews in Poland in 1931, Leshchinsky praised Jewish manufacturers in Bialystock precisely for these qualities. The city’s garment industry was in crisis during the interwar period, which led to the collapse of a large number of important German companies. Unlike Germans, many Jewish factory owners successfully maintained their businesses and, according to Leshchinsky, “a central factor was psychology” (Leshchinsky, 1931, 83): facing a fall in demand, Jewish manufacturers had adapted and innovated to find new prospects, especially in foreign markets. Their (relative) success was due to “their intelligence, their energy, their agile spirit [rirevdikn gayst], and their entrepreneurial dexterity” (Leshchinsky, 1931, 80).

52This case also shows that the small scale of Jewish economic activities, which Leshchinsky regarded as a problem, could also offer some advantages. Unlike Germans who owned large businesses, and therefore needed stability and strict rules, Leshchinsky described Jewish entrepreneurs as more flexible and adjustable because their small business did not require detailed accounting records, which allowed them to take more risks (Leshchinsky, 1931, 80-83). Smaller Jewish capital was “more mobile”, Leshchinsky emphasized, and therefore played a major role, both in Western Europe and in Russia, in the major innovations of the nineteenth century, especially in railroads and in the funding of large banks (Leshchinsky, [1950] 1960, 101-104). Mobility and scientific innovation also suggest positive connotations of the air-metaphor, such as associations with flying or steam (Berg, 2008, 59-60).

53Also, this idea of smallness significantly tempered the Marxist accusation of being unproductive bourgeois. The Soviet literary critic Max Erik, for instance, saw in the character of Menahem-Mendl a condemnation of the petty bourgeoisie and its “stubborn efforts … to make it into the bourgeoisie, to achieve the latter’s unfulfilled capitalist dreams” (Erik, 1986, 24). The whole point of Sholem Aleichem’s novel, however, was to show the permanent failure of these luftmentshn to “make it” into the bourgeoisie: they were neither true proletarians, nor were they real capitalists because they lacked capital. A Yiddish journalist wrote for instance that most Jewish immigrants to Argentina were “workers and luftmenshn”, and not gevir [eminent, wealthy men] because they did not bring any capital with them (Chanin, 1942, 167).

  • 19 In the same 1931 book on the economic situation in Poland, Leshchinsky proposed different empirical (...)

54Leshchinsky also thought that commerce might be somewhat productive as an economic activity. He recognized that sharing and distributing merchandise fulfilled a socially useful function (Leshchinsky, 1931, 33-34). What was pejorative in terms such as “makleray” (middleman-hood) was not the function of intermediation per se, but the excessive concentration in these activities. In other words, it was a matter of degree.19

55Last but not least, Leshchinsky attributed positive value to wandering. He was concerned not with Jewish immigration as such but rather its lack of organization, which resulted in Jews overcrowding the sweatshops of the main immigration centers. Properly led and structured, immigration could lead to upward social mobility, as we shall see later in greater detail.

56Leshchinsky’s multivalent usage of the designation luftmentsh can be further illustrated through his use of the closely related Marxist term lumpenproletarian. It first appears in his 1906 The Jewish Worker in Russia, where Leshchinsky refers to a short story by Sholem Aleichem, An Easy Fast, in which the hero, Chaim Chaikin, suffers from extreme poverty. Having no job and no food, he decides to make the best out of his poverty by declaring fast days (Sholem Aleichem, [1912] 1917). Leshchinsky, who was himself a Marxist, takes Chaikin as a figure of the “hungry proletarian”, i.e. a lumpenproletarian who is to be blamed for his lack of political consciousness (Leshchinsky, 1906, 4-5).

  • 20 This definition of Lump is taken from Theodor Heinsius’s 1818 German dictionary, quoted in Bussard (...)
  • 21 Quoted in Thoburn (2002, 439).

57Leshchinsky also uses the word lumpenproletarian when speaking of the “reserve army” of unemployed and underemployed Jewish workers (Leshchinsky, 1906, 9; 1907, 15 and 30). Leshchinsky’s use of the designation Lumpenproletarian should come as no surprise. The Marxist concept of Lumpenproletarian seems conceptually and linguistically very close to the notion of luftmentsh. Both words originally came from Yiddish and German literature, before penetrating social and economic discourses. Similarly to the air-metaphor, the term Lump, defined as “a poor, miserable person”, can be used in combination with many other terms (e.g., Lumpenhund, Lumpenpack, Lumpenvolk; Bussar, 1987, 679).20 Both luftmentsh and Lumpenproletarian appear frequently in loose enumerations (Bourdin, 2013, 43; Thoburn, 2002, 439), as in Marx’s famous reference in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon to “the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème”.21 The idea of “la bohème” recalls the “airy” livelihood, and by the twentieth century refers to someone living on the margins, defying rules, and not caring about the future.

  • 22 Draper (1972) suggests nonetheless that the original root is Lump meaning “knave”, and not Lumpen m (...)

58There is another interesting association between the German Lump, which also means rag, and shmates, the Yiddish for rag, old unworthy pieces of clothing, which were seen as central and symbolic attributes of luftmentshn.22 Dealing with shmates and similarly reviled items such as herring was seen as typical “air-businesses.” For instance, when Leshchinsky described the young Jews in Vilna in 1933, he wrote:

they have the greatest aversion for air-livelihoods  ; it is impossible for them to get settled at the local market with shmates or herring  . They want to learn a profession, the hardest work, but they abhor the market, the small-shop, the shmates-livelihood (Leshchinsky, 1933, 175).

  • 23 Quoted in Bussard (1987, 675). We do not, in this paper, take up the question of whether Marx was a (...)

59More fundamentally, as for Marx, the Lumpenproletariat was a “passive decaying matter of the lowest layers of the old society”; therefore both luftmentshn and lumpenproletarians are essentially unproductive classes.23 Hence Bussard’s description of the Lumpenproletariat as “parasitical group [which] was largely the remains of older, obsolete stages of social development” (Bussard, 1987, 677) could also apply to luftmentshn. Last but not least, Marx related the Lumpenproletariat to the idea of financial speculation and money-lending (Huard, 1988, 13), in ways that recall Sholem Aleichem’s Menahem-Mendl.

60In his book Language culture, theory and practice, the Soviet linguist Elye Spivak proposed to modify the Yiddish lexicon according to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, replacing for instance “mister” [her] by either “comrade” or “bourgeois”, and “luftmentsh” not with lumpenproletarian, but with the close designation of “declassed person” [deklasifirter] (Spivak, 1931, 106). Spivak’s proposal did not succeed, for many reasons, but it is significant to note that a Marxist author such as Leshchinsky did not use the designation lumpenproletarian more often: apart from the very few occurrences that we quoted previously, we find only one occurrence of the term lumpenproletarian in later works (Leshchinsky, 1926, 69). This non-existent or weak relation between the words luftmentsh and lumpenproletarian can be explained by the purely negative connotations that the latter term conveys, at least in Marx’s usage. The Lumpenproletariat can play no positive roles in history because it has no class-consciousness, and is always prone to reaction (Bussard, 1987, 677; Thoburn, 2002, 444). Robert Bussard argues that Marx’s (and most Marxists’) contempt for Lumpenproletarians reflect “an attitude of condescension, combined with aversion and even fear, towards certain elements of the lower classes” (Bussard, 1987, 688). This is an important difference from the luftmentsh. Unlike the Lumpenproletarian who does not belong to the real proletariat, a luftmentsh remains a mentsh, i.e. in Yiddish an honorable person.

61It is true that the word luftmentsh is, as Dara Horn points out, “considerably closer to insult than compliment” (Horn, 2008), and there is no doubt that Leshchinsky understood it to have pejorative connotations. Yet we have seen that its meaning was highly ambivalent and complex. More importantly, Leshchinsky’s attitudes toward luftmentshn were not reducible to pure contempt, which was typical of some previous and contemporary social reformers, enlightened Jews (maskilim) and other advocates of productivization.

5. The luftmentsh as a Figure of Jewish Masculinity

62In the first section of this article, we discussed the gendered assumptions of the luftmentsh figure in Nordau’s description and early Zionist discourse. In this case, the luftmentsh was clearly identified as a male character, though a feminized one: it offered indeed a counter-model to the Zionist ideal of a “muscular masculinity”. The gender of that Jewish character was less evident in Yiddish literature and Yiddish economic publications. At first sight, it could be said that the figure of the luftmentsh has no gender. In Yiddish, mentsh means “man”, which can also be understood in the universal sense of “human being”. Leshchinsky imagined the “air-mentality” as a general feature of Jewish economic life, although, as we have suggested, he assumed economic life to be a properly masculine endeavor.

63Yet of course “man” is not a gender-neutral designation, even when it is intended to refer to men and women. To our knowledge, the expressions “luftfroy” or “luftvayb”, i.e. literally “air-women”, do not exist. Unlike her artist husband, Bella Chagall, for instance, did not describe herself in similar terms as a floating character. In her memoir, the religious teacher and the synagogue attendant might be seen as luftmentshn, but not her (Chagall, 1962). And as Dara Horn argues, “a luftmentsh is always a man”. Horn describes a related masculine character of luftmentshn, which resulted from the male privilege to study in Ashkenazi Jewish culture, where the idea “of study of Torah for its own sake, was something to which every man, rich or poor, was expected to aspire.” Jewish men were able to conduct an air-life because they had “grounded wives” who supported them (Horn, 2008). This luftmentsh was not identical to the one critiqued by Nordau, Ruppin, and others, but they shared the economic trait of non-productivity, and they both rendered less visible women’s economic roles.

64These economic underpinnings are reflected in the main popular embodiments of luftmentshn in the Yiddish literature. The best example is Sholem Aleichem’s Menahem-Mendl, which is structured by a gendered opposition between the “airy” character of Menahem-Mendl and his firmly “grounded” wife Sheyne-Shendl. Another good illustration of this gendered opposition is provided by the characters of Benjamin, Sendrel and their wives in Abramovitsh’s classical novel The Travels of Benjamin the Third.

65Leshchinsky also viewed luftmentshn as a masculine phenomenon, even though this assumption was implicit. A first justification for this interpretation comes from his conception of women’s employment. Like many Jewish social scientists at the time, Leshchinsky had conflicted attitudes toward women’s employment. On the one hand, it was seen as necessary and positive, because it was consistent with the objective to “productivize” Jewish population, and to adapt to modern economic life (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1903, 28). From that perspective, Leshchinsky regularly rejoiced over the participation of women to particular industries or trade, such as the tobacco industry in late nineteenth century Poland (Leshchinsky, 1931, 150).

66But at the same time, Leshchinsky viewed women, as well as children, as competitors for men on the labor market. This was especially true in sweatshop industries, in which Jewish immigrants were overcrowding, and where the massive presence of women and children corresponded with extremely low wages for men and terrible socio-economic conditions (Leshchinsky, 1906; 1907). Leshchinsky also regarded the larger proportion of women Jewish immigrants as a collective burden: the typical Jewish immigrant arrived in the United States with his wife and children, had to support them, therefore could not take the risk to go for entirely new economic activities, and turned to the sweatshop as a default choice (Leshchinsky, 1911a). Leshchinksy also considered women’s work as the consequence of poverty and pointed out that in more affluent households women did not have to work (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1903, 28). As a general rule, in his demographic analyses, Leshchinsky considered that men of working age were the “most productive and skilled element” (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1925a, 53; 1930, 22).

67Women’s employment raised also important issues related to demographic decline, which was a widely shared preoccupation among Jewish social scientists at the time (Hart, 2000; Vallois, 2021). In an article on the Jews in Germany, Leshchinsky argued that a major cause of the diminishing rate of Jewish natality in Germany was the fact that “the Jewish woman has to participate in the economic struggle for life … . There is no doubt that the Jewish woman is responsible for a large part of this sin” (Leshchinsky, 1912a, 5).

  • 24 See the estimations in Peled (1989, 41) and Glenn (1990, 38).

68Blaming women’s morality and employment for demographic decline was very common among Jewish social scientists at the time, especially in the writings of such authors as Arthur Ruppin or Felix Theilhaber (Hart, 2000; Vallois, 2021). It would be difficult and of dubious utility to determine whether Leshchinsky had more or less misogynist views on the subject. What seems specific to Leshchinsky is that, relative to other specialists of Jewish statistics, he said very little, as if the subject itself did not interest him much. This relative silence is significant because women’s employment was a common feature of Jewish economic life in Eastern Europe, and a crucial component of household income (Hyman, 1955; Glenn, 1991, 8-49). Both in Eastern Europe and in immigration countries, women represented a significant part of the overall Jewish workforce (Bender, 2004), especially in the garment industry (Green, 1998). Women played also an important political role in the Jewish labor movement. They constituted a large part of the Bund’s membership in Eastern Europe.24 In the United States, women worked at the forefront of the garment industry’s major strikes in 1909-1913 (Glenn, 1991, 167-205; Bender, 2004).

  • 25 As a general rule, and besides a very few exceptions (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1937, 66), Leshchinsky use (...)

69In the rare occasions where Leshchinsky discussed the issue of women employment specifically, his views suggest that he saw the subject as entirely different from the one of men’s employment. Both Jewish men and women needed to be “productivized”, yet this objective raised separate issues. As seen earlier, Leshchinsky argued that Jewish workers suffered from their “airy” mentality, their greater petty-bourgeois ambitions, relatively to non-Jewish workers. This recurring portrait was formulated in gender-neutral terms.25 However, in an article on “the Jews in Warsaw”, he proposed a similar comparison between Jews and non-Jews for women workers specifically. In this study, Leshchinsky observed that the proportion of Jewish domestic servants had substantially diminished and proposed two explanations for that phenomenon. Jewish women, argued Leshchinsky, have greater aspirations than non-Jews, and cannot therefore not compete with the latter, who are willing to work for lower salaries and lower conditions. This interpretation in terms of a “desire to rise” is consistent with Leshchinsky’s usual portrait of the Jewish worker (cf. supra), even though the sector, domestic service, was here considered as specific to women. Leshchinsky’s second explanation, nonetheless, was that Jewish women, unlike Jewish men, prefer to work in textiles, even for lower salaries, rather than staying in domestic service. According to Leshchinsky, this tendency in women employment was not specific to Jews but could be observed in all countries of “higher culture” (Leshchinsky, 1937, 166).

70The idea of a specific Jewish economic “type”, a Jewish mentality at work, therefore applied to men only. In other words, in spite of women’s participation in both the workforce and Zionism (Bauer, 2021), the luftmentsh remained a male character. This interpretation has two important consequences. First, the luftmentsh should be conceived as an image of Jewish masculinity, and not an image of the Jewish worker or pauper in general. As Sarah Imhoff argues, “we must study men as men, not as the default representatives of humanity or of Jewishness” in order to challenge “the idea that gender equals women or that women have gender and men do not” (Imhoff, 2019, 75 and 80). Jewish masculinity refers to the historical models for Jewish men.

71The most familiar of these models are the feminized and weak Jewish man of antisemitic discourse, and the strong Jews of “muscular Jewry” (mukeljudentum) of Zionist discourse (Imhoff, 2017, 62). Between these two models, the luftmentsh offers an alternative image for Jewish men: involved in shady business yet fulfilling important economic functions, selfish yet undertaking, physically weak yet agitated, undisciplined yet intellectually agile, antisocial yet socially useful.

72The strength of this model lies perhaps in its ambivalence. The luftmentsh conveyed negative meanings, and worked as an anti-model. However, the “air-mentality” also entailed creativity, intellectual agility, and artistic genius. Such qualities, if properly managed, could lead to socially useful activities. He was a weak, unproductive Jewish male, but could be masculinized. Simultaneously repulsive and attractive, the luftmentsh provided a perfect identification model. In any case, it remained a model identification for men.

6. Methodological Epilogue—Between Self-Critique and Antisemitism

73In 1901, industrial economist John R. Commons published “Immigration and its Economic Effects,” a report for the U.S. Industrial Commission. In it, he explained connections between Jews and worrisome economic trends.

[The Jew’s] physical strength does not fit him for manual labor. His instincts lend him to speculation and trade. His individualism unsuits him for the life of a wage-earner, and especially for the discipline of a labor organization (Commons, 1901, 325).

Probably the Jewish immigrant changes his standard of living soonest. When the Jew wants to make more money, he will leave his former occupation as operator or baster, etc., and will become a contractor or storekeeper. So that instead of trying to raise the standard of living in the trade, he will try to leave the trade and throw his lot in with people whose standard of living is somewhat higher. In this way his commercial instinct militates continually against making active efforts to better the condition of his trade (Commons, 1901, 327).

The Jew is also exceedingly abstract and metaphysical, and greatly interested in general principles. His union is always, therefore, except in time of a strike, a forum for the discussion of socialism and the philosophy of the labor movement (Commons, 1901, 327).

74Commons’s descriptions may strike modern readers as antisemitic—and in fact, they have struck some scholars as such (Fiorito and Orsi, 2016). But they also sound quite similar to both the economic and literary discourse we have seen coming from Jews like Leshchinsky and many other Zionists or Yiddish writers. They describe the same features in their descriptions of Jewish workers: physical weakness, a special taste for speculation, a lack of discipline, a higher standard of living, and excessive intellectual development.

75What, then, is the difference between the ways Commons and Leshchinsky characterize Jews with respect to economics? Should we deem Commons’s work antisemitic while saying Leshchinsky’s is not simply because one is Jewish and the other not? We argue that the figure of the luftmentsh demonstrates the deep complexities of determining when and how negative images of Jews might be deemed antisemitic, especially in an age where race science and racialist depictions crossed throughout scientific disciplines.

  • 26 In particular, we will analyze neither Common’s later writings on Jews in Races and Immigrants in t (...)

76In the remainder of the current section, we do not exhaustively discuss Commons’s alleged antisemitism.26 We merely invoke a comparative perspective on his report to draw a few general principles regarding antisemitism and the relationship between facts, fictions and fantasies in the history of economic thought. Rather than offering specific criteria—or even making pronouncements about who or what is antisemitic—we use the luftmentsh to show how economic and literary discourse circulated images of Jews that could be used toward both Jewish self-critique and antisemitism.

77Analyzing differences and similarities of Commons and Leshchinsky—or Yiddish literature and Commons-style economic writing—help illustrate this complex picture. One major similarity is the belief in an essential difference of Jewish economic behavior. The Yiddish literary critic Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk wrote that Menahem Mendl was “a human symbol of Jewish existence”; his story represented “the tragic saga of the Jewish people” (Trunk, 1944, 179). Trunk’s interpretation was not, of course, accepted as universal truth. There is no doubt, however, that Sholem Aleichem’s anti-hero inspired to many Yiddish-writing economists the idea of a specifically Jewish mentality and behavior, a “Menahem-Mendl” economic type. Beyond the case of Leshchinsky, that idea was particularly influential among left-wing Zionists and played a central role in the debate over Jewish “non-proletarianization” in the early twentieth century. In tsarist Russia, Jews were indeed mostly concentrated in petty trade and craft production. The theory of Jewish “non-proletarianization” claimed that Jews in Eastern Europe were unable to integrate large-scale industry and form a proletarian class because they lacked a territory of their own. As in Nordau’s case, the notion of Jewish “groundlessness” served as a political justification for Zionism: according to these Russian Marxist Zionists, socialists and proletarian goals required a form of territorial autonomy, whether in Palestine or elsewhere (Vallois, 2022b).

78Leshchinsky had been himself a major contributor to these debates. Like Leshchinsky and Nordau, theoreticians of Jewish non-proletarianization considered that the lack of a “solid economic base” was responsible for the distinctiveness of Jewish economic behavior. Haim Dov Horovitz, who is usually regarded as having elaborated the first version of the theory in 1902, drew an economic portrait of the Jews, which was very similar to both Nordau’s description and Sholem Aleichem’s novel, even though he did not name explicitly these references. Horovitz defended the idea that Jewish existence had always depended on external circumstances and, therefore, that Jews tended to wait for “economic miracles,” hence the predominance of a Jewish “commercial spirit” over productive activities that naturally inclined Jews toward speculation (Horovitz, 1902a, 123). Dependence upon miracles and external circumstances also meant professional instability and agitation: “all the Jews took their chance in all economic activities that exist in the world, jump from one activity to another, without finding a moment of rest in their lives…” (Horovitz, 1902a, 116).

79Borochov, one of the most influential leaders of Marxist Zionism, explicitly quoted Nordau’s discourse (cf. supra) and argued that the Jews’ estrangement from the soil and nature explained why “Jewish economics is said to be an air-economy [luft-virtshaft], and why Jewish economic life is an air-life [luft-lebn]” (Borochov, [1916] 1919, 8). Borochov also proposed moral portraits of the Jewish worker very similar to Leshchinsky’s, such as the following excerpt:

A Jew, possessing meager means, often decides to become a boss “on his own”  . The Jew possesses a stronger entrepreneurial spirit. He refuses to remain a proletarian  . This desire to achieve “success” is a deeply ingrained characteristic of the Jewish laboring masses  and furnish the explanation for the instability of the Jewish laboring masses. (Borochov, [1916] 1919, 5)

80It is not difficult to see that all of these descriptions reactivated antisemitic tropes about the alleged unproductivity of the Jews, their inclination for speculation, and in particular the often-made association between ambition and excessive selfishness (e.g. Horovitz, 1902b, 333; 1902c, 401), which is strongly reminiscent of the long-standing Christian accusations of greed, avarice and materialism (Penslar, 2000, 13). Beyond left-wing Zionism, the problem concerns more generally the productivization discourse: as Berg notes, the “attempt to productivize Jewish labor goes back to an old classical Christian literature; it has become a constant topos of the largely antisemitic texts and from 1900 on it started to be increasingly shared by Jews” (Berg, 2008, 90). In our context, both Jewish and non-Jewish economists largely agreed on one aspect of the Jewish problem: both groups used the narrative of “degeneration” that Presner identifies in Zionist discourse. Presner has shown how the Zionist ideal of the “muscle Jew”—a counter-image to Jews’ alleged physical and moral weakness in the Diaspora—internalized many antisemitic stereotypes about Jewish degeneracy and took clear inspiration from the fascist fascination with “sane” and strong bodies (Presner, 2007, 17).

81It should be noted that the topos involved in the luftmentsh character is a rather specific case in antisemitic discourse. Since the seventeenth century, anti-Jewish economic rhetoric had traditionally blamed the Jews for being either extremely poor, economically worthless, or either extremely wealthy and powerful (Penslar, 2000, 11-49). The image of the “floating Jews” is in an intermediate position between these two extremes. A luftmentsh such as Menahem-Mendl is a speculator who wishes to accumulate wealth very quickly, notably on financial markets, but he is different from the classical characters of mostly Jewish bankers and usurers that are to be found, for instance, in the stock exchange novels of the nineteenth century (Ingrao, 2017), because he never succeeds. A luftmentsh is ambitious, but he constantly fails and remains poor. In that regard, this character is close to other types of Yiddish popular culture, notably the nebbish, commonly defined as “an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate … ; a Sad Sack. A loser” (Rosten, 2003, 264); and the schlemiel, “that force of nature that always manages to make the situation worse when he was only trying to help” (Caplan, 2016, 139).

82Internal Jewish discourses of unluckiness, failure and weakness do not mean, however, that the representation of Jews as luftmentshn is immune to antisemitism. To take a clear example, the social and political campaigns against sweatshops often twinned luftmentsh-like descriptions and allegations of Jewish racial inferiority. Particularly in England and the United States, the sweating system’s rise in the Progressive Era was firmly associated with Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Social reformers and economists like Commons tended to blame Jews for the sweatshop’s social problems (Bender, 2004) and used images similar to Leshchinsky: Jews were seen as physically weak yet individualistic and ambitious workers, incapable of joining more masculinized and collective workplaces (Bender, 2004).

  • 27 The situation was different for German Jewish authors such as Nordau or Ruppin, who fully embraced (...)

83However, we can note significant differences of the context of Commons’s work and economists publishing in Yiddish. Unlike Commons and other non-Jewish social reformers, Leshchinsky and most Yiddish-writing economists eschewed the language of race in their portraits of Jewish workers. They regarded Jews’ alleged inaptitude for industrial work as grounded not in racial traits but, rather, in a national struggle and a lack of territorial autonomy, while non-Jewish activists stressed race as sweatshops’ underlying cause (Bender, 2004, 44). This difference explains why the economic character of the luftmentsh, though mostly negative, did not include the “most lurid images of Jewish racial inferiority” or the anxiety about Jewish immigrants’ “germs” and “smell and filth” that appeared in the anti-sweatshop campaign (Bender, 2004, 49)27. This is not to say that Jews did not engage in racial depictions of Jewishness. They did (Goldstein, 2006). And not all racializing descriptions of Jews were necessarily racist, but this does not negate the observation that Yiddish-writing economists eschewed language of inherent racial inferiority.

84Leshchinsky and other Zionist economists on the one side and authors such as Commons on the other side reached opposed political conclusions in their studies. Both sides—except for Borochov—agreed that the Jewish character severely impeded the social organization of labor. But Commons, like many Progressive Era reformers, advocated for strict immigration restriction, while Labor Zionists sought, on the contrary, to increase, organize, and “concentrate” migration in a given territory. That is, Commons sought to solve the problem by keeping Jews out of his country, but Zionists sought to solve the problem by uplifting and regenerating Jews.

85These comparisons illuminate a recent dispute in the history of economic thought between Luca Fiorito and Cosma Orsi who argue Commons is antisemitic and Dennis Chasse who argues the opposite (Fiorito and Orsi, 2016; Chasse, 2018). The argument revolves around three things: Is there a difference when a Jew and a non-Jew use the same words? Can an argument be antisemitic if it is grounded in concrete observations? And how do we parse writing that seems to hold contradictory images?

  • 28 More generally, an important drawback to both Fiorito and Orsi’s and Chasse’s articles is their neg (...)

86Chasse implicitly argues that if a Jew writes or says something, those words cannot be used to antisemitic purposes. He points out that Commons, in preparing his report, spent six months with Abram Bisno, a Jewish garment worker and union leader. Chasse’s article asks, “How can Commons be accused of anti-Semitism by using the words of a Jewish union leader?” (Chasse, 2018, 424, 426-427). Thus, he implies that Jews do not write negative things that could be interpreted in antisemitic ways.28 However, both Jewish and non-Jewish authors can share similar prejudices and influence each other. Though Commons and other Progressive Era social scientists were unlikely to have read economic pamphlets in Yiddish, Yiddish-writing economists were likely inspired by non-Jewish social science. In his Jewish Worker in London, for instance, Leshchinsky quoted Webb’s survey of London’s Jewish community, which included similar comments about Jews’ “mental agility,” “trained intellect, admirably adapted to commerce and finance,” and “lack of social morality,” which she suggested was responsible for their concentration in the sweating system (Webb, 1889, 586-589; Leshchinsky, 1907, 17-18).

87Chasse also strives to demonstrate that many of Commons’s arguments against Jewish and non-Jewish immigration were “reasonable” and grounded in concrete observations. For instance, he cites the idea that immigration was pro-cyclical or that it complicated labor organization among workers of many nationalities (Chasse, 2018, 423).

88Chasse’s reading overestimates the degrees of consistency and coherence in these alleged characters of the Jewish worker. He argues that some of the terms Commons used had no negative connotations. For example, he discusses the word “individualism,” which was not “synonymous with ‘selfishness’ or ‘uncooperativeness’” and had no “pejorative sense” (Chasse, 2018, 426). Yet economic works, like literature, can contain internal contradictions. We have shown the fundamental ambivalence of Leshchinsky’s attitude toward luftmentshn. As he wrote, the Jewish desire to rise—perhaps the most ambivalent attribute of the luftmentsh—“can be either an inclination to evil [yeytser-hore] or inclination to good [yeytser-hatov]” (Leshchinsky, 1938, 180). Similar ambivalence appears in Nordau’s discourse too. Even though the Luftmensch offered a mostly negative counter-image, Nordau, like many German Zionists at the time, simultaneously glorified the authenticity of these poor Eastern European Jews (Presner, 2007, 4). Also, Nordau considered his reflection on Luftmenschen as an apologetic defense against antisemitism. As he argued in his 1901 discourse, antisemites accused Jews of being a merchant-people, masters of capital and international trade, while the vast majority of the Jewish population that lived in Eastern Europe at the time, i.e. Luftmenschen, was actually employed in petty trade, and was largely excluded from large-scale capital businesses (Nordau, [1909] 1923, 118-119).

89These paradoxes and contradictions are, again, consistent with Presner’s observations on “Muscular Judaism” as a “deeply conflicted ideal” (Presner, 2007, 17). Fiorito and Orsi note antisemitism’s often conflicting and contradictory nature, referring to the notion of “ambivalent antisemitism” that was first popularized in the history of economic thought by Melvin Reder’s article about John M. Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Joseph Schumpeter (Reder, 2000). Yet their approach is still morally framed at the individual level. They treat antisemitism as a set of personal beliefs and prejudices by a single author. They seek to determine whether Commons is among the famous economists who held morally reprehensible ideas about Jews, and do not analyse how these ideas eventually interacted with his economic thinking.

90The corpus of economic writings on the luftmentsh character suggests that this repertoire of anti-Jewish economic tropes cannot be well understood as private, personal obsessions among individuals who were—aside from these prejudices—“great economists.” Though vague and mutable, these images of the Jewish worker were extremely influential, and they echo throughout social science. These images’ pervasiveness illustrates what Presner calls the “intersectionality of discursive formations,” multiple economic, statistical, eugenic, and aesthetic discourses that “related to and build off one another” (Presner, 2007, 19). Uses of the word luftmentsh in economic discourse referred simultaneously to a statistical category and a fictionalized character. Hence, fictionalized images of Jewish economic behavior should not be regarded as undesirable, separable by-products of economic and statistical thinking. Rather, they were part of this thinking.

  • 29 For a recent illustration of this approach, see Trivellato (2019) and also the 2015 mini-symposium (...)

91Our case study of the luftmentsh shows that this seemingly neutral economic-statistical descriptor entails much of the complexity that is usually attributed to literary characters, and thus establishes the difficulty of distinguishing anti-Jewish prejudice grounded in concrete observations from “sound” economic thinking. To put it otherwise, if antisemitic tropes are ambient in a culture and its economic discourse, it is not always meaningful or interesting to determine whether one particular writer was an antisemite. Therefore, in our opinion, studying the origin and diffusion of these images, tracking their transformation from one group of authors to another, between Jews and non-Jews, offers a more promising approach to show how economic representations of Jews generally informed the history of economic thought.29

The authors would like to thank Sam Brody and Justine Loulergue, both of whom gave invaluable feedback on earlier drafts, as well as Robert Brym for generously sharing his own translations of Leshchinsky. We are also grateful for the anonymous reviewers for their incisive comments that helped us sharpen the article.

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Table 2-b. Complete List of Expressions Related to the Term “luftmentsh” in Leshchinsky’s Works


English translation



Lebn fun luft

to live from the air


1907, Der yidisher arbeter in london, 10.




1910, Haynt, 01/14, 2.




1910, Haynt, 01/21, 3.

Sarsur, sarsurot kalkalit

Haggler, Haggling economy


1913, Ha-olam, 11/26, 6.

Vermittler-und Tauschvolk

Middleman-and-exchange nation


1916a, Fragen, 160.

Lediggeher und Sterngucker

Idler and stargazer


1916a, Fragen, 161.

Markt-und Schankvolk

Market-and-tavern nation


1916a, Fragen, 161.




1916a, Fragen, 165.


Walking-stick Jews


1916b, Fragen, 233.

frohliche Arme und lustige Bettler

Joyful pauper and funny beggar


1916b, Fragen, 233.

die, für die das Sichumhertreiben auf dem Markt an sich eine Profession

those, who take “let-oneself-hanging-around the market” as a profession


1916b, Fragen, 233.




1916b, Fragen, 233.

das jüdische Handel - und Wandelgenie

The Jewish commercial and wandering genius


1916b, Fragen, 233.

Menakhem-Mendl·s, Menakhem-Mendlim

Menahem Mendel·s


1921, Yidishe ekonomishe lebn, 11; 1923, Di oyfgaben, 3; 1930, Tsvishn, 102; 1945, Ndodei israel, 19-20.

Farmitleray psikologye

Middleman psychology


1921, Yidishe ekonomishe lebn, 11.

Farmitler yerushe

Middleman heritage


1921, Yidishe ekonomishe lebn, 11.


Small Luftmentshn


1921, Yidishe ekonomishe lebn, 16.

Natsionale meklerishe neshome

National-brokerish soul


1921, Yidishe ekonomishe lebn, 19.

Yarid yidn

(trade) Fair-Jews


1925, Der emes, 55.

Leydik geyer

Idler, loafer


1925, Der emes, 62.

Farmitler natsie

Middleman nation


1925, Ekonomishe lage, 89.

Kleinhändlerisch-vermittlerischen Traditionen

Small-merchant-middleman-ish traditions


1926, Probleme, 8.

Farmitler vanderig folk

Middleman-wandering nation


1928, Di entviklung, 1.

Farmitlerishe un leydikgeyerishe elementen

Element made of middlemen and idlers


1929, Di onhoyb, 7.

Kremerlakh, hendlerlakh, meklerlakh

Small shopekeepers, merchants, middlemen


1929, Di onhoyb, 7.

stam mark-yidelekh

Simple market-Jews


1929, Di onhoyb, 8.

Handlerish-meklerish yidntum

Merchant-broker Jewry


1929, Di onhoyb, 9.




1930, Der emes, 206.




1930, Der emes, 62.

Handel khush

Commercial talent


1930, Tsvishn, 100.


Small shopkeeper


1930, Tsvishn, 100.

Schacher Macher

Haggling huckster


1932, wirtschftliche Schicksal, 118-119.




1932, wirtschftliche Schicksal, 17.


Beggar, parasite


1932, wirtschftliche Schicksal, 39-40.




1932, wirtschftliche Schicksal, 39-40.

Farmitler klas

Middleman class


1933, Oyfn rand, 174.

mikakh u-mimkar

Trade, commerce (litt: negociation and selling)


1945, Ndodei israel, 19-20; 1912, Ha-olam, 11/26, 6.


Lacking of social status


1960 [1950], Ha-Tefutsah, 124.

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1 The Yiddish luftmentsh is a transliteration in Latin characters of the original word written in Hebrew characters. In this article, we use the YIVO system of transliteration and its recent complement proposed by Isaac Bleaman (Bleaman, 2019). We followed the guidelines of the Library of Congress for Hebrew transliterations and omitted diacritical marks.

2 On the theme of “floating Jews” in Marc Chagall’s paintings, see Berg (2008, 54-57), Goldberg (2003) and Harshav (2006).

3 Quoted in Goldberg (2003, 120).

4 Alexandre Péraud, for example, suggests this is true in his case study on French economists and novelists in the first nineteenth century (Péraud, 2013).

5 For a critique of these ideas, see Bras (2016). Our argument that both economics and literature use fiction and aesthetics echoes Joseph Vogl’s notion of “poetologies of knowledge” (Poetologien des Wissens), which means that knowledge production is always guided by “poetic” logics (Vogl, 2018). This allows for the extension of literary analysis to non-literary discourses such as economics.

6 See for instance Missemer (2013), Prendergast (2014) and Petit (2015).

7 The quote is taken from the original copy of the discourse in German, but we borrowed its English translation from Lederhendler (2009, 133).

8 For a general analysis on the debate over Jewish productivization, see Penslar (2000).

9 This quote is identical in the 1911 second edition of Ruppin’s book, which is more frequently referred to (Ruppin, 1911, 55).

10 In each of these publications, the same word could appear several times. For this OCR research, we used the Jochre research engine of the Yiddish Book Center at this address: We researched each of the various orthographies of the same word, while checking duplicates: for instance, we found 157 publications for luftmentsh (לופטמענטש), 143 publications for luft-mentsh (לופט-מענטש), 26 publications for luft-mensh (לופט-מענש) and five publications for luftmensh (לופטמענש).

11 We obtained these results with an OCR research on Historical Jewish Press, the online databasis of the National Library of Israel, which includes a large number of Yiddish journals of the nineteenth-twentieth century.

12 The book version of Menahem-Mendl and the newspaper serials were not strictly identical. On the difference in literary structure between the two, see Novershtern (1984).

13 YIVO Archive. Papers of Jacob Lestschinsky, RG 339, Box 1 Folder 2 (Asch), Folder 7 (Bergelson), Folder 19 (Hofshteyn), Folder 30 (Thsarni), Box 2 Folder 39 (Liessin), Folder 45 (Niger, Der Nister). On the proximity between Leshchinsky and Yiddish novelists, see also Estraikh (2017).

14 Chagall to Leshchinsky, 1939, YIVO Archive. Papers of Jacob Lestschinsky, RG 339, Box 3 Folder 72.

15 This ambition appears clearly in a chapter entitled “A Day in the Old Market”. That chapter, which was published in two of Leshchinsky’s books (Leshchinsky, 1933, 141-150; 1931a, 63-70), was inspired by A Night in the Old Market, a symbolist and dark play by Peretz, which takes place in a typical shtetl marketplace.

16 For another illustration of that association between luftmensh and Schacher, see for instance Zinberg (1929, 50).

17 See also Leshchinsky (1912b, 6; 1932, 30; 1950, 124). Conversely, Leshchinsky interpreted as a negative evolution the opposed tendency, i.e. the return to “air-businesses” in interwar soviet Russia (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1925b, 90), or in post-war Unites States (Leshchinsky, 1948, 75).

18 German economist Werner Sombart provides a good illustration of the pejorative meanings associated with the notion of Händlergeist; see in particular his 1915 Händler und Helden (Sombart, 1915, 14).

19 In the same 1931 book on the economic situation in Poland, Leshchinsky proposed different empirical criteria to estimate the number of individuals that a country should employ in professions of intermediations (Leshchinsky, 1931, 33-48).

20 This definition of Lump is taken from Theodor Heinsius’s 1818 German dictionary, quoted in Bussard (1987, 679).

21 Quoted in Thoburn (2002, 439).

22 Draper (1972) suggests nonetheless that the original root is Lump meaning “knave”, and not Lumpen meaning “rag” and “tatter”.

23 Quoted in Bussard (1987, 675). We do not, in this paper, take up the question of whether Marx was an antisemite. Historians, sociologists, and economists have argued about that question again and again, with representatives on both sides (e.g., Fine, 2014). Moreover, as we argue in the second half of this paper, we find it more productive and important to ask how anti-Jewish tropes circulate in economic and literary cultures than to litigate whether one particular individual was or was not an antisemite.

24 See the estimations in Peled (1989, 41) and Glenn (1990, 38).

25 As a general rule, and besides a very few exceptions (e.g., Leshchinsky, 1937, 66), Leshchinsky used the gender-neutral word worker (arbeter) and not female workers (arbetorins).

26 In particular, we will analyze neither Common’s later writings on Jews in Races and Immigrants in the USA (1907) nor his personal relationship with Selig Perlman. Both topics are discussed by Fiorito, Orsi, and Chasse in their articles.

27 The situation was different for German Jewish authors such as Nordau or Ruppin, who fully embraced the idea of a “Jewish race”. On the influence of race theory on Jewish social scientists in this period, see Efron (1994), Hart (2000), and Vallois (2022a).

28 More generally, an important drawback to both Fiorito and Orsi’s and Chasse’s articles is their neglect of the literature on Jewish history. In particular, they seem to ignore the study of the writings of Bisno—who played a central role in their controversy—in relevant and well-known studies of the secondary literature (e.g., Bender, 2004; Goldstein, 2006, 82) and, therefore, to miss important information—notably the fact that Bisno had, previously to Commons’s report, testified to the U.S. House of Representatives on the sweating system, as he wrote about later in his memoirs.

29 For a recent illustration of this approach, see Trivellato (2019) and also the 2015 mini-symposium on antisemitism and economic thought in Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology.

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Nicolas Vallois

CRIISEA, Université Picardie Jules Verne,

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Sarah Imhoff

Religious Studies and Borns Jewish Studies Program, Indiana University,

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