by David Safier
Calling Daniel Hernandez a mensch may seem like an odd cross-cultural reference, but I didn’t come up with the term to describe him. At his reading and book signing at UA today, Daniel repeated how uncomfortable he still is with the title, “hero,” but when Debbie Wasserman Schultz told him he was a mensch, he liked that — that, and “role model.”
To understand what a compliment “mensch” is, you have to have grown up with it. The Yiddish term refers to someone who is the real deal — solid, worthy of respect, reliable. You reflexively square your shoulders when you say about someone, “He’s a mensch.” Yiddish has an almost infinite variety of ways to insult someone, but “mensch” is one of the few unqualified compliments.
Being a hero is a transitory thing. Daniel undeniably acted heroically when he rushed into the chaos of the January 8 shooting and had the presence of mind to help Gabby survive. But that moment has passed, and Daniel has proven himself to be more than a momentary hero. Since then, he’s shown himself to be [I square my shoulders as I write this] a mensch.
Ernesto Portillo did a wonderful job of asking Daniel questions, sounding like he was conversing across the dining room table. I’m sure the hometown atmosphere, and being on his own college campus with his family and friends in attendance, made Daniel feel especially relaxed and at home. His detailed answers displayed a level of understanding and insight uncommon in anyone, let alone a 23 year old man who has unexpectedly been thrust into the spotlight.
I bought a copy of Daniel’s book, They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth (the title wasn’t his idea, by the way), and I’m anxious to read it. It comes in an English and Spanish version. Daniel says one of the reasons he wrote the book is because of the number of people who have said they are inspired by his story, and he wants to use his story so he can be a role model for others. He’s made a wonderful start on that journey.