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Wed,Dec 18,2013 15 Tevet 5774
Do you consider yourself a mensch? Last week, two readers--one known to me; the other, a new blog-o-buddy--posed that query, prompting me to reflect. What is a mensch? Is “mensch” a universal concept? Are there objective standards for being a mensch? If guidelines exist, dare we apply that term to ourselves? Would you be comfortable saying to somebody, "I am a mensch"? Does it feel too bizarre? For me, that issue is central as I travel this path of 52, so I must address it to be properly oriented on my life's journey.
When I was growing up, there was an obsession on the part of my parents to apply a "mensch assay" to almost everyone we met. Whether we were visiting the pediatrician or buying a pair of shoes, the encounter would be followed by, "Wasn't she a mensch?” or, "Great selection of penny-loafers at that store, but let's face it; the owner is just not a mensch!" There was even an alternative body-language version of the mensch litmus test reserved for settings that prohibited talking - such as libraries, which we frequented back then. A slow head nod would equal thumbs up while a counterclockwise eyeball roll would be tantamount to saying nay.
In view of the regularity of the trial-and-error nature of our little assay, I became adept at figuring out the parameters for being a mensch, at least as far as they were established by my mom and dad. The skill was important for survival in my upbringing, since the commitment to being a mensch was embedded in the infrastructure of our home. Officially, however, the term “mensch,” is defined imprecisely as "a person of integrity", according to Webster, or as "someone to emulate and admire", according to Wiki. In fact, it's rather remarkable that modern English, the most rapidly expanding language in the history of civilization (as pointed out by Bill Bryson in his book, The Mother Tongue) does not have a word meaning an all around good guy. Instead, English speakers import the word from the Yiddish. What does that glaring semantic void say about our Western society, in which English has become the lingua franca for computers, biology, and even pop music?
The most likely implication is that we do not sufficiently revere the mensch. The mensch doesn't necessarily have the earning power or philanthropic potential of a successful businessman. The mensch isn't a sure-bet to make a Nobel-worthy discovery like the great scientists of our time have done. Notwithstanding, the contribution of the mensch to the world will not be felt way downstream, but immediately. By that I mean, when the mensch acts, someone is invariably helped in the moment, and even those who simply observe such acts are often moved to modify their behavior.
So what, then, is a mensch? Odds are, if you possess a constellation of qualities including honesty, gratitude, sensitivity to the needs of others, and ability to find forgiveness, then you have quite a bit of character, and so you are a mensch. But my goal is not to come up with the one, unassailable definition. Most likely, for you, there are other attributes that resonate as guiding mensch values. I challenge you to consider what those attributes might be, how they evolved, and whether you experience them in your day-to-day conduct. What factors assist or hinder you in recognizing the mensch-like attributes in your life? By your criteria, do the friends whom you keep, the career that you've chosen, or the place in which you live shunt you toward being a mensch, or do they get in your way?
I believe that the discomfort we have in referring to ourselves as a mensch stems from the inherent irony of wrapping ourselves in a concept that probably presumes humility. Is it not counterintuitive to claim that I am humble and yet, at the same time, to assert that I am a mensch? One way to deal with the conflict is to recognize the dynamism of the process that one might call "mensch-making." My own definition of being a mensch is not static. In trying to be a mensch, I am constantly adopting new routines and discarding old habits, so that even if I consider myself a good person right now, I am excited by the opportunity to become a better person tomorrow. By recognizing that there is room for further growth, the mensch banner seems less imposing.
I'll close with one more word from Yiddish, a language I don't speak that still manages to have a profound influence on the ways in which I think. A colleague of mine at work, who prides herself on being a "Yiddishist", has for years explained to me the concept of "firgune". In an overt sense, to firgune is to compliment, but implicit in the meaning is the idea that there is difficulty in disseminating these particular compliments. There are barriers to overcome--jealousy, subjective dislike, whatever--when we compliment someone in the special context of firgune. Also, she points out, it is particularly difficult to offer "firgune" to ourselves ("farginen zeech").
As for the word mensch, although the aforementioned Wikipedia definition may be the least satisfying because it is both amorphous and tautological, it may be our bottom line. The mensch is someone who inspires emulation. If we figure out the elements of “mensch-ness” that speak to us on the most personal level, then we can strive to become that individual, and we can even give "firgune" to ourselves.
To be a mensch is to be a human being.
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