The mensch

>> Sunday, February 20, 2011

Last week I was over at Deus Ex Malcontent reading Chez's thoughts on the Nir Rosen thing; I don't know that I need to get into that--it's more than enough to say that Rosen was a total dick and his nonapology at Salon doesn't really change that (I link to it, but don't recommend you read it, frankly; it just isn't good).

But that's not really what this post is about. I'm just telling you how I got here. I mention it, because what Chez's post reminded me of was the whole idea of mensch-ness, and how really crucial it is to me, however far I fall from it. And how it's funny that a Yiddish idiom that I was introduced to via a college film elective, of all things, lodged in my psyche the way it did.

Where I was first exposed to the idea of a mensch as a concept, and not just a word I'd probably heard tossed around out of context somewhere, was in an undergraduate film class discussion of Billy Wilder's most excellent 1960 black comedy, The Apartment; Jack Lemmon plays a guy who, at least at first, is something of a long-suffering mensch. And the idea of the mensch was something that stuck in my head all those long years ago and never got unstuck. But being a bit on the very white and Protestant-descended if not outright WASPy side heritage-wise, I don't know if I can do it justice--so, for those not exactly familiar with the idea, here's Wikipedia's definition, in toto:

Mensch (Yiddish: מענטש mentsh; from German: Mensch, for "human being") means "a person of integrity and honor".[1] The opposite of a mensch is an unmensch (meaning: an utterly cruel or evil person). According to Leo Rosten, the Yiddish maven and author of The Joys of Yiddish, 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."[2]

In Yiddish (from which the word has migrated as a loanword into American English), mensch roughly means "a good person." A mensch is a particularly good person, like "a stand-up guy," a person with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague. Mentschlekhkeyt (Yiddish: מענטשלעכקייט, German: Menschlichkeit) are the properties which make one a mensch.

During the Age of Enlightenment in Germany the term "Humanität", in the philosophical sense of compassion, was used to describe what characterizes a "better human being" in Humanism. The concept goes back to Cicero's Humanitas and was literally translated into the German word Menschlichkeit and then adapted into "mentsh" in Yiddish language use.

In Modern Israeli Hebrew, the phrase Ben Adam (בן אדם) is used as an exact translation of Mensch. Though it usually means simply "a person" (literally, "son of Adam") in general, it is used to mean "a nice guy" in the same way as mensch. This usage may have developed by analogy with Yiddish or by adaptation from Arabic (from which colloquial Israeli Hebrew takes much vocabulary), in which the cognate construction Bani Adam (بني آدم) has the same meaning.

Another website describes a mensch as "a highly evolved human being," which I like the thought of.

The idea of mensch-ness, as I understand it, is that it's not really enough to go through life trying to passively not hurt anybody. Rather, one has an affirmative duty to be basically decent whenever one can. Oddly enough, of all the people in the world to succinctly sum up the basic essence of mensch-ness in a pithy phrase, it may have been writer/actor/blogger/geek icon Wil Wheaton who offered the perfect summary:

Don't be a dick.

That's a starting point, at least. And it's harder than it sounds, because, honestly, being a dick is not only easy, but it's also a lot of fun and enormously entertaining. I fear I probably spend an inordinate amount of time, much more than I'd like to admit, being a dick, and regular readers may recognize that a certain percentage of this very blog is devoted to a certain amount of dickishness on the part of yours truly.

The second step, I believe, is having the self-awareness to realize when you're being or when you've been a dick. The first of those is preferable, obviously, because it's a lot better to realize you're being horrible while you're being horrible because maybe you can stop being horrible. At the very least, maybe you can pull the plug and say, "Shit, I'm being an asshole right now, I'm really sorry, how do I fix this?" But at least to have the self-awareness to say, "Oh, shit, I was a total asshole" is something.

There's a big wrinkle there, however. See, the most assholey thing an asshole can do when he realizes he's being an asshole is to add a "but." "I was being an asshole, but I was tired." Well, gee, y'know, that may be an explanation, but it's no excuse, because there's no excuse for being an asshole and a mensch realizes that. And here, again, let me point out my own conspicuous tendency to fail this test, because like most non-mensches I find it instinctive to try to cover myself and lay off blame, whether it's on someone else or else on existential states like exhaustion, inebriation or the ever-so-common "bad day." I mean, it's understandable that having a "bad day" caused you to be a dick, but did your victim deserve to be victimized by your subjective experience of the day's events? He or she's just moseying along, says something to you and you snap their head off (for instance) because someone cut you off in traffic and your coffee was cold and you had a rude message on your voicemail and you have twelve million things to do and only an hour to get half of them done at best? Sure, you're only human, but you don't have to be a dick about it.

I'd like to be clear, y'know: I'm not saying anyone is perfect or has to be or should even try to be. It's not so much about being saintly, I don't think (and maybe I don't understand mensch-ness, but I think this is right); it's about being decent. It's about being aware. It's about recognizing that you're one node in this web of human relationships and everything you do improves or afflicts the adjacent nodes accordingly.

So those are the first two things. The third thing is--

Well, shit. I'm so busy fucking up the first two all the time, I haven't even gotten close to figuring out the third. Dammit.

But I guess I have this idea of where to start. I want to be a mensch, so I'm going to try not to be a dick and I'm going to try to be aware of when I'm being one. And maybe I'll stumble into the third thing.

And if you have any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear 'em.


Nathan Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 12:35:00 PM EST  

Menschlekeit is a concept I grew up with. It' a word my grandparents used in normal conversation, so I couldn't really tell you there was some moment it came into my consciousness. And without any authority, I'll add that, for me, the word mensch has always had the added connotation of being somewhat quiet and unassuming.

There was nothing grand about being a mensch; it was just a day to day way of going about things and not expecting any notice for it. Someone who is a mensch is a mensch because...well, why would you be anything less? (Of course, there's a contradiction here, because if nobody was anything less, you wouldn't need a word for it in the first place.)

You may not have run across it, but there's another word - Tzadik - that describes sort of an Uber-Mensch. The literal translation is "Righteous". Maimonides defined a Tzadik as "one whose merit surpasses his iniquity".

What this all boils down to is, I think you're much further along the road to Mensch-hood than you may give yourself credit for...which actually turns out to be one of the criteria!

Janiece Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 12:36:00 PM EST  

No suggestions, just a desire on my own part to be more mensch-like.

Tom Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 11:26:00 AM EST  

My kind of nodding acquaintance from afar with Yiddish had "mensch" as a bit derogatory, more like a patsy, always being walked on. I'm glad to be corrected before I make a horrible mistake in usage. That is, if this new information overlays the old, and the old doesn't come popping up at an inopportune moment...

neurondoc Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 10:15:00 AM EST  

I agree with Nathan. It was a word used frequently in my family. My understanding of its meaning sank in over time rather than from reading an "official" definition. I also agree that a lack of self-promotion is an integral component of being a mensch.

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