This past week in the United States has been stressful, for everyone, and because my synagogue school students are part of that everyone, I wanted to focus on teaching a lesson that would reassure them, somewhat, that there are areas of their lives where they really do have some control. And, because I love teaching Yiddish words, the lesson for this week was: what does it mean to be a mensch?
Mensch is a Yiddish word, from German, meaning “human being,” or a person of integrity and honor. The opposite of a mensch is an unmensch, a person treating others cruelly and without compassion, as opposed to the word ubermensch (Nietzsche alert) which is usually translated as “the superman,” someone who is superior to other humans. The word Mensch has gathered a lot of associations in American culture (bearded, male, Jewish) but it really means a person who is striving to be good every day, and doing what is right, even when it’s hard. We already have Yiddish words for the most righteous among us (a Tzaddik), or the smartest (a Chacham or a Maven) or the most powerful (a Macher). But being a mensch isn’t about being the best or the most, it’s about being human.
There’s something wonderful about a compliment that can be given to everyone, instead of just to an elite few. Someone with a physical or intellectual disability has just as good a chance of being a mensch as someone who is born privileged in every way, because it’s not about your talents or your circumstances or your luck, it’s about how you choose to navigate the world you happen to live in. Oh, and mensch is not a gendered word, and it’s not limited to Jewish people, so it really can apply to anyone.
We are so often looking for ways to be better than others, or to be the best, or to earn our place, and it’s exhausting, but the opportunity to be a mensch is always there, and there’s always something you can do that will fit you and your skills and interests.
You can still have your foibles and be a mensch. You can fail a test, or lose your job, or struggle with substance abuse, or struggle to finish a Sunday crossword puzzle and still be a mensch. What you can’t do, is intentionally cause harm to other people. You can’t be a liar, or a bully, or be arrogant, or prejudiced and still be a mensch.
I’m a big fan of menschlichkeit, or mensch-iness. It’s like a pass fail course, where as long as you do the work, you’re golden. And we need things like that in a world that is so driven by competition and achievement and striving to be in the top one percent of everything.
Being a mensch is about valuing other human beings for themselves, instead of for what they can do for you. And this, more than anything, is what I want to encourage in my students. Yes, I will be thrilled for them when they learn to write Hebrew words, or lead the prayers at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I will cheer them on when they swim or dance or act in a school play, and I will celebrate with them when they get into the college of their dreams, or find a cure for a rare disease, or create calorie-free chocolate frosting that tastes like the real thing (!). But all of that is secondary to how proud I am of them, right now, when they notice that a fellow student is struggling and needs help, or when they realize that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings and they are willing to take the risk of offering an apology that may not be accepted. Each time they re-learn the lesson that it’s more important to be good than to be great, I puff up with happiness, because that’s what’s going to get them through their lives; not being the best at anything, but being a mensch through everything.
It can be hard, when we are thinking in such enormous terms as national politics and life and death, to remember that our real lives, and our real impact, comes locally – in our towns, communities, schools, and families.
May we all make it through this election, and the pandemic, with our appreciation for mensch-iness intact.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?