December 27, 2007
Brave + mensch = ?
Three years ago, we were sitting around our offices dreaming up an end-of-the-year issue, inundated with examples from other magazines: The Ten Best Movies, The Ten Richest Angelenos, The Ten Most Powerful Hollywood Players, The Ten Top Restaurants, The Ten Hottest Bars and et cetera.
Since these lists are both celebration and statement, we decided we wanted to promote something a little different. What if a list championed a Jewish value, not people, things or bars (not that there's anything wrong with them....)?
Thus was born The Mensch List -- a roster that, humans being human, is far more difficult to crack than one tabulating power or wealth or even cool.
But this year, after we made the list, I -- in the spirit of some holiday -- checked it twice. And there are four people missing.
These are people I've come across in 2007 who didn't make this list but who deserve some special notice of their own. That's because they are not only mensches, they are also remarkably courageous.
Funny that the Yiddish adjectives that mean "strong" and "brave" never made the jump into the modern Jewish vernacular. Somehow, schnorrer and shmendrick and ferklempt remained near and dear to our tongues, but mutik and bahartst are no more a part of our lives than Benny Leonard or Kingfish Levinsky. When great Jewish prizefighters like these went down for the count, so did the words their fans used to praise them. That leaves shtarker. But shtarker has baggage that mensch doesn't begin to carry.
I'm no Yiddishist, but to my ears, the word has always been said with a wink, the speaker already knowing that strength and health, no matter how abundant, are fleeting. To this day, when I drop my son off at a teen party, my last words aren't "Be a shtarker!" but "Be a mensch."
So I don't know what neologism will suffice for someone who is both extraordinarily brave and a mensch to boot. What word describes those Jews and non-Jews who risk their lives to stand up for the things we all believe in? This year, I found four, and I suppose their names will suffice:
Benji Davis and David Landau
These two young men packed up this year and left their comfortable lives in Los Angeles and moved to Sderot, the beleaguered Israeli town under near-constant bombardment by Qassam rockets launched by Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorists in Gaza.
Davis is a college student from Beverly Hills volunteering at an elementary school in Sderot -- there is a charmingly awkward YouTube video of him trying to folkdance with his young charges -- and at the Sderot Media Center, which tries to raise awareness of what Israelis within the Green Line are faced with every day.
"Sderot's residents deserve protection," Davis writes on his blog, 90210tosderot.blogspot.com. "Sderot's children deserve some sense of normalcy. Sderot deserves our help.
"We can protect Sderot from the terrorists -- it's up to you."
Landau is 19. When I asked his father, Fred, why his son moved -- of all places -- to within two miles of Gaza, he said, very matter-of-factly, without a hint of boastfulness, "Because he's a Zionist." Many of Sderot's own residents have moved away, the Israeli government has for a year now struggled to come up with a response to the Qassams, Jews from Tel Aviv to Tarzana have gone about their normal lives, but Davis and Landau have chosen to risk their lives to remind us that, no, not all is milk and honey.
They're on my list.
Sultan is the Syrian-born psychiatrist who has become well-known for her outspoken condemnation of Muslim extremists and the so-called Muslim moderates whose unwillingness to speak out forcefully serves as tacit approval of the fanatics.
The Journal was the first newspaper to run the text of Sultan's famous February 2006 rant against two Muslim clerics on the Al Jazeera network. I finally met Sultan last week when I interviewed her on the bimah during the One Saturday Morning service at Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood.
Beyond the extremists who shower the L.A.-area-based, 49-year-old mother of three with almost daily death threats, Sultan has many liberal critics who deride her for condemning all of Islam and thereby feeding the most negative stereotypes many Americans already harbor.
I asked Sultan about that charge. "I read classical Arabic," she said. "I know what is in the Quran."
As a woman, she also personally experienced the most painful and misogynistic aspects of her culture. If the religion is to be saved, she seemed to be saying, the culture would have to drastically change. And Sultan, at great personal cost, refuses to back down from her demands that it do so.
I started reading Moti Sorkin's blog this summer, and I continue to be astounded by his combination of courage and clarity. Sorkin is currently an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan, with the 82nd Airborne Division.
He grew up in Sacramento and attended Claremont McKenna college. He is young, married and idealistic. Sometimes he can blog at motisorkin.blogspot.com about where he is and what he's doing; sometimes he can't.
A while back, I e-mailed him to ask how he'd like to be identified in The Journal. He wrote back: "You can write, 'He is serving in the Army because he believes in making the world a better place, and defending America against radical Islam is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.'"
That is four names on a my new rarified Top Ten list -- in the coming year, may we all aspire to be one of the other six.