במקום שאין איש איז אַ הערינג אויך אַ פֿיש.
Bemokem she-eyn ish iz a hering oykh a fish.
Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish.
When the best is not available, an inferior substitute will do. SOURCE: Bernstein, Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten. The odd juxtaposition in this saying comes from splicing together a Talmudic aphorism (in Hebrew) and a Russian proverb (in Yiddish):
B'makom she-ein anashim, hishtadel lih'yot ish. | .במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש
In a place where there are no worthy men, strive to be worthy.
Pirkei Avot 2:6
На безрыбье и рак рыба. | If there is no fish, even crawfish is fish.
The Hebrew quotation urges the highest ethical standard, but it is contradicted by the Russian proverb, which accepts an inferior option as good enough. As Benjamin Harshav explains in The Meaning of Yiddish, the two references are playfully linked through the rhyme of ish ("man" in Hebrew) and fish ("fish" in Yiddish). The Yiddish proverb substitutes the kosher herring for the unkosher crawfish, but the point is that both species are considered "poor man's food." Coarse, everyday herring, writes Harshav, cannot be used to make gefilte fish for the Sabbath. This expression is often used by a self-effacing speaker to convey: In the absence of a worthy man, you will have to accept me as a substitute.
A simpler version of the saying omits the Talmudic reference and parallels the Russian proverb:
Az s'iz nito keyn fish iz hering oykh fish. | .אַז ס'איז ניטאָ קיין פֿיש איז הערינג אויך פֿיש
If there is no fish, even herring is fish.
SOURCE: Stutchkoff, Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh