The Menschkeit of Elijah Cummings

“Menschkeit” is a Yiddish word that describes, better than any word I know in English, what many of us witnessed in the words and demeanor of Maryland Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings who chaired the Michael Cohen hearing on February 27.

Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland (official photo, public domain)

According to author Leo Rosten, who wrote “The Joys of Yiddish,” a mensch is a person of noble character–“someone to admire and emulate.” It implies a deep-seated sense of decency, dignity and ethics. It is, in any circumstances, a term of high praise, and stands in even greater contrast to the debased behavior shown by so many during the hearing. Cummings essential decency was highlighted during one of the most contentious exchanges of the hearing, which occurred when Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib blasted Republican Representative Mark Meadows for bringing a black woman to the hearing to defend Trump against charges of racism. Cohen had accused Trump of being a racist, citing several examples. The woman, Lynne Patton, had long worked for Trump and according to Meadows, had agreed to attend the hearing as evidence that Trump was not racist. She stood silently as Meadows voiced his defense.

His mention of his black relatives brought to mind a neighbor, a white, retired railway worker, who is a Trump enthusiast and who has often made comments that strike me as clearly racist. It turns out that his son married a black woman so that he has black grandchildren—and he has invoked this as proof that he is not a racist. Cummings was remarkable in bringing a sense of civility and forgiveness to the hearing. It is clear that in calming the angry exchange between Tlaib and Meadows he tapped into a deep and genuine sense of empathy and showed what might be called profound emotional intelligence.

Qunita Jurecic penned a pointed and moving piece for The Atlantic on Cummings’ largely overlooked role . We live in a time of reckoning and rage, and at such times the impulse for mercy may seem “less an act of grace than an effort to avoid acknowledging the pain of those who have been wronged,” wrote Jurecic.

Yet Cummings extended mercy and forgiveness, closing the fractious and often ugly hearing with eloquence and dignity. In his closing statement, Cummings brought Cohen to tears by recalling the images of Cohen leaving the courthouse with his daughter looking on.

“Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.”

If ever there were a time of cynicism in American politics, that time is now. That Cummings was able to remind us of what it is to extend forgiveness and empathy is that much more impressive. That is menschkeit.

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