We Lost a Mensch
If you’ve ever been called a mensch, consider it a great compliment. The Yiddish word is used to describe someone of noble character. It is the highest Yiddish praise you can receive for being an upstanding human being.
We lost a true mensch when Colin Powell died on October 18, 2021, at the age of 84 from COVID-19 complications. Powell will be honored in American history as the first black United States National Security advisor, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first black secretary of state.
He was a statesman par excellence who shattered not one glass ceiling but layers of them, paving the way for men and women of color to participate in the highest levels of government when it wasn’t easy for them to move up the ranks.
Powell helped the Nixon administration, served in the Reagan administration, and gained international acclaim during his term as secretary of state for U.S. President George W. Bush (2001–2005).
Many people don’t realize Powell grew up in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Hunts Point in the Bronx in New York. His parents were Jamaican immigrants who were surrounded by Jewish friends. As a teenager, Powell worked at Sickser’s, a Jewish-owned shop that sold strollers, cribs, and other baby paraphernalia.
Sickser’s conducted business primarily in Yiddish. Colin (or Collie, as Jay Sickser called him) learned the language working there. In fact, he learned it so well that, after he made his sales spiel (pitch), he would listen as his customers discussed in Yiddish how much they actually were willing to spend, unaware Collie could understand them.
On the Sabbath, Powell served the Jewish community as a shabbos goy, a Gentile who performs tasks forbidden to Jewish people on Shabbat, like turning on the lights.
During an interview, the former secretary of state acknowledged the influence Jay Sickser had on his life. He recalled the day his boss pulled him aside to encourage him to pursue an education: “‘Collie, nu, come listen. I want to talk.’ And he said to me, ‘Collie, you’re a good worker, love having you in the store. You’re part of the family. But listen, you know, you can’t ever stay here. You have to get your education. You’ve got a good family, and you’re smart. Go get your education, and make sure you move on.’” Powell eventually became a four-star general in the United States Army and stayed in touch with the Sicksers for the next 50 years.
Powell’s story shows us the best of America, how great it can be when we pull together, instead of pulling apart. In the 1950s, a Jewish immigrant invested in a black teenage boy. He told him he was special, was smart, and had a bright future. That moment stuck with Colin Powell for the rest of his life.
Today, it seems this country concentrates on dividing people by race, ethnicity, and economic status. But in his old neighborhood 70 years ago, Powell recalled, “No one was a minority.”
As an adult, Colin Powell defended the Jewish people and stood up against anti-Semitism. He believed in Israel’s right to exist and wished to see the Jewish people live in peace. Upon his passing, AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) tweeted, “Colin Powell was a genuine friend of the Jewish people who understood the critical importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
We may not always have agreed with his politics, but we are saddened nonetheless to say goodbye to a true mensch.