I recently came across the Yiddish word “mensch,” which is about the only Yiddish word I know. If I only have one, that’s a good one to have.
The definition, which I arrived at after less than a minute of research, is something like “a person of integrity and honor.” This definition is helpful, despite what I see as difficulties in defining “honor.” Wikipedia (funny typo here, for I typed “wokipedia,” which raises an amusing idea of an online encyclopedia of “woke” wisdom – but I digress) quotes Leo Rosten, who says a mensch is “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”
The challenge, then, is to identify people you know, or know about, who you could call “a real mensch.” Or think of someone in public life who qualifies as a mensch. Stop reading now, and come up with some names.
One way I try to grasp the meaning of “mensch” is to think of its opposite. The best I could come up with is “asshole.” Think of the people you know, either personally or in their public life, who you know to be real assholes. (A longer list than your mensch list, right? It’s easy to be an asshole.) Can you think of anyone who makes it to both lists?
By the way, I read a brief discussion that concluded that a mensch need not necessarily be a male. Wikipedia did say that being a mensch is similar to what we see as “a stand-up guy,” but a woman can be “a stand-up guy,” right? With Kim’s encouragement, I asked my friend Peter about whether there is a separate word for a female mensch, one that includes some traditional women’s virtues, primarily domestic. His response:
Yiddish words change according to the ambient culture. Today, it is perfectly proper and common to say “She’s a mensch.” Besides I don’t consider the qualities of a mensch to be gender specific: decent, humble, kind, just, charitable etc.
The closest discussion of a woman’s merits is from the Biblical Book Proverbs 31:10-31. It’s the definition of a “woman of valor” and traditionally read by a husband to a wife on Shabbbat. But it is held in disdain by most Reform and other liberal Jews.
(I looked up the passage in Proverbs, and yes, the virtues are quite domestic in scope. I’m the beneficiary of such virtues, but also of Kim’s integrity and honor – her noble character. A mensch.)
Still, I do wonder though: Check back on your list of assholes and I bet you will find they are predominantly male. But I digress, again.
Where am I going with this? We live in difficult times, in ways I need not list here. So, how are we to live? Live as a mensch. Watch yourself, perhaps, sometimes falling short of this ideal. Try to see how much you can mensch-press when you are faced with a decision.
Peter tells me, “Most menschen (plural) don’t think of themselves as such.” So, if you included yourself on your list of menschen, you are probably mistaken. Better to hope you made someone else’s list.
Let me apologize here to those of you who actually speak and understand Yiddish, for I suspect that the word has a rich cultural context beyond my half-assed but-I’m-an-English-major attempt at understanding. No offense intended, but I’ll have to check in my Wokipedia.