How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck)

  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
Michael Wex’s new book com­bines deep knowl­edge of the Yid­dish lan­guage, Jew­ish folk­lore and tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish sources, from the Bible to the Tal­mud and rab­binic and Hasidic com­men­taries, in an often humor­ous and fre­quent­ly provoca­tive guide to being a good per­son, a mentsh. The first rule of being a mentsh is not to be child­ish­ly self-cen­tered, not to act only on behalf of one’s own desires. Wex uses tra­di­tion­al sources, like the Talmud’s sto­ries about the great Hil­lel, to define mentshhood’ as empa­thet­ic aware­ness of the feel­ings and needs of oth­ers com­bined with prin­ci­pled avoid­ance of inflict­ing harm and shame on oth­ers.

Wex also uses ref­er­ences to pop­u­lar cul­ture, Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­a­ture, tele­vi­sion shows, and movies to make his points acces­si­ble to those not blessed with Yid­dish flu­en­cy and years of Tal­mu­dic study. One poten­tial irri­tant for some read­ers will be Wex’s use of pro­fane col­lo­qui­al expres­sions in his writ­ing. At times, one can eas­i­ly imag­ine por­tions as com­ing from his late-night stand-up com­e­dy rou­tines that evoke laugh­ter by their wit and jux­ta­po­si­tion of pro­fan­i­ty, prin­ci­ples, and the sacred. This book reflects exten­sive learn­ing, seri­ous thought, a sense of the absurd and the unfair, as well as an imp­ish will­ing­ness to play the mazik (scamp). Those who enjoyed his pre­vi­ous books may also like his lat­est. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photograph.
Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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