Three Yards, a Cloud of Dust, a Yiddish Word

By Mike Feinsilber

In a posting last month, I wrote about 15 eyebrow-raising words that I’d spotted while reading newspapers. They were words that have been turned into “Yinglish”— words from the ancient language of Yiddish that have been adopted by English.

Yiddish is a language spoken—with, alas, increasing infrequency—by Jews with roots in or ancestors from Central Europe. Words from Yiddish, I noticed, have shown up in newspapers with surprising frequency and, sometimes, with no explanation of their original home: the writers simply assumed that everyone knows a “nosh” is a bite to eat, just a bite.

Then, in the most unexpected of places, a New York Times’s January 9, 2019 column by Marc Tracy about Clemson’s 44-16 upset of Alabama for the collegiate football championship, my wife spotted another Yiddish, or at least Yiddishy, word: “mensh.”

“Mensh” rhymes with bench and means an upright, decent person, a person of character. (Sometimes it is spelled “mench” or sometimes “mentsh.”) Tracy converted “mensh” into an adjective—“menschy.”

He wrote about Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s decision to go with “outrageously gifted” (Tracy’s words) quarterback Trevor Lawrence  (a freshman!) for much of this season in place of also talented Kelly Bryant.

Under a new NCAA rule, Swinney’s decision enabled Bryant to transfer to another school and play an additional season. Bryant enrolled a few days after the championship game at Missouri.

Concluded Tracy: “It was a menschy move by Swinney. It was also incredibly risky.”

The late Yiddish expert, Leo Rosten, probably would have agreed that Swinney was a mensh to go with his freshman and also extend Kelly Bryant’s collegiate career.

In The Joys of Yiddish, his 1968 book, Roston writes: “To be a mensh has nothing to do with success, wealth, status. . . .The key to being ‘a real mensh’ is nothing less than—character: rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous. Many a poor man, many an ignorant man, is a mensh.”

And a mensh can show up anywhere, even at the helm of a college football team.

Only in America, as they say.
P.S. Turns out that this wasn’t the first time Tracy used “mensh” on the sports pages of the Times. My friend Richard Warshaw called my attention to this: On December. 15, 2016, Tracy wrote about a 1999 incident that occurred in advance of a football game between Louisiana State University and the University of Georgia.

Details of LSU’s plays leaked out and Jim Donnan, then Georgia’s coach, got wind of it. Rather than take advantage of this valuable information, he tipped off Gerry DiNardo, then the LSU coach. Thus, wrote Tracy, Donnan had “behaved as what some in certain parts of the South call a mensch: He told DiNardo.”

So that makes for at least two gridiron menshes in the history of college football. Hold on! In the Sunday Styles section of the January 13, 2019 Times, a Yiddish word asserts itself: “macher,” pronounced “mokh-er” with the “cher” stressed as in the German “Ach!”

In his book, our friend Leo Rosten tells us, it means “someone who arranges, fixes, has connections, a big wheel, an operator.”

The Times’s Ben Widdicombe, writing about a divorce between Libbie and David Mugrabi, “an art-world power couple known for their enormous collection of Warhols.” The writer described their lavish wedding in 2005, where orchids dripped from the ceiling. Wrote Widdicombe with no further explanation: “Guests included a who’s who of art-world machers.” I suppose “machers” can also be “menshes,” but, again, only in America.
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.



Speak Your Mind