“Menche” sounds like mensch, a Yiddish term meaning “upstanding guy,” often preceded by “a real.” This definition was fortuitously superimposed on the extant German mensch, which connotes “man” or “human being”. (The spelling difference doesn’t seem to be a product of Americanization, since Menches exist in Germany.) But this is no news to Menches and Jews.
One day, when the centathlete was in elementary school, he was summoned via the PA by a doddering secretary who pronounced his name as “Menky.” This error elicited classroom comparisons to “Monkey” and, as you might imagine, accordant jeers. But it’s all good…now.
Back to that response. “Menche?” The speaker on the other end typically softens his voice and laughs lightly or chuckles deeply, according to the gradations of your auditory perception. There’s profundity in that sound. It doesn’t belong to one person; it’s a social reflex, a bubble-burst of a perspective-soup simmering over centuries. “Heh heh heh”—an immediate, fond recognition and transmission of a culture, inflected with an unspoken inquiry into ethnic membership.
The centathlete wouldn’t lie; he’s a goy. And he won’t throw around any more Yiddish, because that’s been lampooned memorably in the mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, when Lars Olfen, played by Aryan-appearing Ed Begley Jr. (comma before the “Jr.”?—the centathlete prefers to save a keystroke) ridiculously tries, through vocabulary, to evince simpatico dealings with Jews.
The centathlete has been a groomsman at several Jewish weddings. At one, during a fit of especially jocular camaraderie, after managing to induce laughter over some minor topic, he was embraced firmly and told, “You should have been a Jew!” The squeezer’s last name was Roth (a German name for a redhead).
This brings us to the author, Philip Roth (probably not related to the fellow groomsman in question). Before reading Portnoy’s Complaint, the centathlete, through personal experience, already associated humor, Jewishness, and language. The novel affirmed that linkage a thousandfold.
Do you know which HBO channel currently shows Curb Your Enthusiasm? Envision Larry David on performance-enhancing drugs, ranting from his therapist’s couch about castrating mother-son intimacies and raunchy hijinks with girlfriends nicknamed “The Monkey,” “The Pilgrim,” and “Pumpkin.” Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy presents a literary Goliath to the small-screen David—but if there were a whine-a-thon between these two icons the giant would win.
Did you enjoy every Seinfeld episode (there were 180) to the extent that you actually celebrate Festivus (“for the rest of us”)? Portnoy is also a recognizably neurotic, libidinal and uncensored uncle to George Costanza.
The book, published in 1969, was influenced by the edgy comedy of Lenny Bruce, who entertained and offended Americans in the early 60’s—the same period that spawned the art-folk scene satirized by A Mighty Wind—and propelled stand-up comedy, that seminal American cultural achievement. The centathlete recalls the dramatization of a Bruce riff during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Underworld by Don DeLillo:
“You’re a product of your geography. If you’re a Catholic from New York, you’re a Jew. If you’re a Jew from Butte, Montana, you’re a totally goyish concoction. You’re like instant mashed potatoes…”DeLillo’s Bruce brings back for the centathlete, a native Long Islander, questions and expressions of identity—and that’s not small potatoes for contemplation.
Portnoy’s Complaint takes place partly in Newark, NJ, Philip Roth’s birthplace and a setting for many of his works. To the centathlete and perhaps others, that city has been undergoing a “rebirth” for decades. This protracted gestational period suggests an elephant will eventually emerge.
While we await Newark’s Second Coming, pacing an imaginary hospital hall like menschen or idling in the viny, whiny jungle of the mind like chimps, we can do worse than “swing” with Alexander Portnoy. Snorts! Giggles! Roars! The centathlon, at least this stretch, is funny, isn’t it?! Portnoy agrees:
“Correct, Monkey, correct!”
Centathlon vs. Centathlon
# 64 The Catcher in the Rye