Born to be a Mentsh

Published: September 2nd 2010
in Culture » Books

Author and Yiddish scholar Michael Wex
Pic: Michael Wex

It’s easy to get so caught up in following rules of Judaism that you can’t see the forest for the trees. You forget what all the rules are there for, and confuse the ends with the means.  “The mitzvahs are there as a way of refining your character.”


After much investigation, Wex is convinced that it is simply harder to be a mensch in today’s fast-paced, BlackBerry and Twitter world.


“Modern  technology has put us in a position where you don’t need other people in quite the same way as you would have needed them 100 years ago. Now, you can order everything online. It’s easier to isolate yourself that way.”


With our increasing isolation, it’s harder to see the consequences of our actions. Just take a cursory glance at what people are saying about each other online. No one would talk to someone else that way if the other person was in physical reach of you.


Historically in Jewish tradition, embarrassing someone in public was a sin tantamount to murder. “Now, all you have to do [to see that] is turn on the television,” says Wex.


Wex's goal with his non-fiction books is to translate Jewish concepts, to make Yiddish meaningful to people in terms of contemporary culture using movies, television and pop music. And he more than succeeds with How to Be a Mentsh, a book that digs deep into Jewish tradition to look at what it means to be a mentsh.


Wex has also just released his third work of fiction, The Frumkiss Family Business, which is the saga of Elyokim Faktor, a famous Yiddish writer who moved to Canada is 1947, and three generations of his family growing up in Toronto’s Bathurst Manor neighbourhood.


For some reason, Toronto’s Jewish community has never really inhabited a solid place on the fiction map, unlike New York or Montreal. “People all over the world know about Montreal smoked meat because of Mordecai Richler’s books.”


“Bathurst Street is like a major character in the book,” says Wex. “We’ve got a city where over 50 per cent of the Jews in Canada live and it hasn’t really developed any Jewish mythology the way Montreal has to a large degree because of Richler.”


Wex says that the book is a takeoff on the timeless literary tradition of Yiddish family sagas where all the children are estranged. One was always a rabbi, one was always a communist and one didn’t care about anything but making money. There was certainly a lot of yelling. But they always gathered together as a family in the end.


While the story and the characters in the book are all fictional, Wex fondly recalls an era when Yiddish was still commonplace in everyday life in Canadian Jewish communities.


“Guys like me are old enough to remember Yiddish-speaking plumbers because there were Jews from Europe who were plumbers who spoke Yiddish. When I was a kid, you still had older people who did that kind of work. I went to school with a guy whose father had a plumbing or heating business. The question there wasn’t whether his father could speak Yiddish but whether he could speak English. You just don’t get that anymore.”


Michael Wex is speaking at Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival on Monday, September 6th at 5 p.m.

Related articles: (Michael Wex, Ashkenaz Festival)
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