A few months ago, Marty Graffman challenged the Torah Study group to define a “mensch.” And, while I was listening to the group’s responses, I was thinking about how I would define “mensch.” But, everything that came to mind seemed formulaic, as if it came from a Wikipedia article.
When I got home that morning, it hit me. A “mensch” is Mike Sernoffsky. Let me tell you why.
Mike Sernoffsky was born in Russia in the mid-1880’s, which made him several years older than my grandfather. According to the 1930 and 1940 census for Toledo, Ohio, he was a “cutter” of ladies’ coats. In the late 1940’s and 1950’s, he managed a pawn shop, in a rundown area, just outside downtown proper.
My earliest recollections of Mike and his wife, Lena, were from Sunday afternoon dinners at my grandparents’ home. I have no idea how my grandparents became friends with Mike and Lena. What I do remember is both Mike and my grandfather loved a good five cent cigar. Mike would take a cigar from his shirt pocket and make a show of removing the cigar band and placing it on my finger. He would light the cigar, blow perfect smoke rings, and I would try to stick my finger in the middle of the rings. What a show for a little six-year-old boy!
I don’t remember Mike being a particularly religious man. But I do remember him saying he was a member of the Oddfellows, which I didn’t understand and thought was particularly odd. The Independent Order of Oddfellows was, and still is, a friendship and service-based organization with the purpose to ““visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” (You may see where I am going with this.)
The Sernoffsky’s lived about three blocks from St. Vincent Hospital, located roughly in the center of what was then the Jewish neighborhood. Every Sunday morning, Mike would walk to the hospital, inquire about all the Jewish patients, and spend the day visiting them. I don’t know the details. It wasn’t something he bragged about.
Mike Sernoffsky was a “mensch.”