Born to be a Mentsh

Published: September 2nd 2010
in Culture » Books

Author and Yiddish scholar Michael Wex
Pic: Michael Wex

The word shmuck may have hit a new apex this year with its appearance in the title of a major motion picture, Dinner for Schmucks.


And according to Canadian Yiddish oracle Michael Wex, famous for his 2005 bestseller Born to Kvetch, it’s not like the old days, when oblivious censors hailed from places like Iowa and Nebraska. When questionable Yiddish words were slipped into film and television by Jewish writers looking to get around taboo English words and phrases, to simply amuse themselves or to subtly let their audience know that they were fellow members of the tribe.


Today, just about everybody – Jews and gentiles alike – knows the word shmuck. They may not know its literal Yiddish meaning (“In Yiddish, shmuck is not a cute word, it’s very, very offensive”), but they know its meaning in the cultural lexicon, alongside other Yiddish buzzwords like putz, chutzpah and yenta.


“A mentsh is a person who’s committed to a principle,” explains Wex, author of How to Be A Mentsh (& Not a Shmuck), just released in paperback. “A shmuck is a person who’s committed to themselves.”


A leading figure in the current Yiddish renaissance as well as a professor, translator and performer, Wex, who is appearing at Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival on September 6, told Shalom Life that achieving menschdom is more elusive than most people would tend to think. The line between being a mentsh and being a total shmuck is not black and white. Most people fall within that complex grey area between good and bad.


"A mentsh is the kind of person you would call a stand-up person,” he says. “Somebody who can be counted on to do the right thing even when no one else is looking. Even when doing the right thing might not be to their advantage. You find that wallet with a million dollars in cash in it and you actually return it. You could return the empty wallet or return nothing at all. A mentsh is the kind of person who does the right thing because they know it’s the right thing to do."


Wex explained that while words like mentsh and shmuck come from Eastern European Jewish culture, there is a universalism in their meaning; every culture has ideas about what a good person is and how a good person should conduct themselves.


“It seems this idea of a mentsh plays a role in day-to-day life, the way you judge people, the way you look at people’s behaviour and hence your own behaviour. That is a little stronger [in Judaism] than in some other cultures.”


In today’s “Greed is good” culture, when you have Madoffs who take advantage of others for financial gain without even breaking a sweat – Wex writes about the true story of a tuba player whose motto is “It’s only cheating if you get caught” – our win-at-all-cost society is tailor-made for shmucks. Even mentshes are tempted to live that way, though they know deep down it is dead wrong and against their principals (what Wex terms a “failed shmuck”).


“There’s a whole culture out there that tells you that being a shmuck is a wonderful thing,” he says. “When they made the movie [Wall Street in 1987] that was supposed to be ironic, then you got 15 to 20 years of that kind of materialistic yuppie culture that said that not ironically.”


Wex adds, “There’s a saying, ‘As the Christians go, so goes the Jews.’ Jewish society tends to reflect the society around it.”


Even in Judaism, Wex says, the standard of judgement has shifted from whether a person is a mentsh to how many hechshers they don’t hold by. “It’s become frumkeit instead of mentshlichkeit,” he says. And for the longest time, it was the other way around.


Related articles: (Michael Wex, Ashkenaz Festival)
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