Isaac Rosenfeld had דזשאָיע דע וויוורע. I dare to use Yiddish for the term “joie de vivre” because the World Wide Web, not conceived until well after his premature death, allows me to translate French to Yiddish online, even though I do not know the Hebrew alphabet. Rosenfeld, who was as well versed in Yiddish as in English, would have been amused.
I met Isaac Rosenfeld when I was an undergraduate physics major at the University of Minnesota and he was a faculty member in the English department. At the time, that department was outstanding: Allen Tate was there, Robert Penn Warren had just left for Yale and his influence continued, and a coterie of promising young faculty included Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Morgan Blum and Isaac Rosenfeld. All these younger faculty taught undergraduate courses such as the “world humanities” course in which I was enrolled.
Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld had grown up together in Chicago, ambitious children of immigrant Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement, friends and competitors. Bellow claimed that Rosenfeld was the only fourteen-year-old in Chicago to have read all of Immanuel Kant. Rosenfeld’s early New York success in the 1940’s led Bellow (still in Chicago) to consider that he had been left in the dust. Yet Bellow is the Nobel Prize winner, while Rosenfeld left only his voluminous journals and five incomplete book manuscripts when he died at age thirty-eight, ten years after his one novel was published.
The English department at the University of Minnesota in the 1950’s was a magnet for literature students. I often ate in the dormitory cafeteria with graduate students who considered Rosenfeld to be the golden boy among the young faculty. A poet and essayist who was profusely published in the Partisan Review and other national literary magazines, he was considered possibly the next great American novelist. One reviewer compared his first novel Passage from Home (1946) to Henry James’ What Maisie Knew.
The course that I took from Rosenfeld focused on late nineteenth century art, literature and philosophy, and he chose to spend almost half the term on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He linked Marx, Freud, and other writers of the time to that monumental work that combines literature with philosophical thought and political commentary. Only much later, after moving to Western North Carolina, did I discover that Rosenfeld had taught War and Peace the previous summer at Black Mountain College. He had provided me my first encounter with the influence of Black Mountain College. Then while I was in graduate school I received word that he had died from a heart attack at age thirty-eight.
Even to his closest friends, he became known as an author who had not lived up to his potential. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky declared in a 2000 newspaper interview that his favorite poem was a Yiddish translation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pinsky attributed the translation to Saul Bellow, who promptly corrected him. The ironic poem, a loose translation of Prufrock into Jewish cultural terms, is the work of Isaac Rosenfeld, and can be accessed at zemerl.com. Here it is for my readers who are literate in Yiddish:
Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok
Ven der ovnt shteyt uf kegn dem himl
Vi a leymener goylm af Tisha b'Av
Lomir geyn zikh
Durkh geselakh vos dreyen zikh
Vi di bord fun dem rov
Oy, Bashe, freg nisht keyn kashe,
A dayge dir
Oyf der vant fun dem koshern restorant
Hengt a shmutsiker betgevant
Un vantsn tantsn karahod
In tsimer vu di vayber zenen
Ret men fun Marx un Lenin
Ike ver alt...ikh ver alt...
Es vert mir in pupik kalt
Zol ikh oykemen di hor, meg ikh oyfesn a floym?
Ikh vel tskatsheven di hoyzn
un shpatsirn bay dem yam,
Ikh vel hern di yam-moydn
zingen khad gadyo
Ikh vel zey entfernv