Thoughtful Thursday: The world needs more mensches

One of the most thoughtful posts I’ve read recently was by fellow blogger, Rachel Mankowitz, called Be a Mensch. I had heard the word ‘mensch’ all my life, but clearly didn’t understand what it meant. Thanks to Rachel for providing this important Yiddish (and German) language lesson, with much food for thought. There is no doubt about it, we need more mensches! And now, in her own words …

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. […] Be a Mensch — rachelmankowitz

See what I mean?! Thank you for this reminder, Rachel. May we all try hard to be mensches ourselves.


Image credit: Inc.magazine

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27 Responses to Thoughtful Thursday: The world needs more mensches

  1. OmniRunner says:

    Love this – it’s more important to be good than to be great. So true.

  2. Ah, such a good reminder. I swear, every Jewish kid everywhere always heard at the end of every lecture by his mother (or grandmother), “… and remember to act like a mensch!” 🙂 – Marty

  3. Alison says:

    Love your cover photo btw.

  4. Alison says:

    Yes, thanks Rachel. I had never fully understood the word before either. Great post to read to start my day. I will strive to be more

  5. I’ve never heard the word mensch before, but I love it, and Rachel’s beautiful post. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Bring on the mensches! The world needs millions and millions of them to counteract all the rotten cankers out there. Mr. Rogers, of television fame, was a mensch, and recently a right-wing friend mocked him. Sad how homely virtues such as decency and kindness are too often derided.

  7. Emilia says:

    Really liked this post!

  8. Haifa Miller says:

    This article speaks to me. A quality I appreciate very much. Mensch-like is what I try to be. Thank you for sharing Rachel’s comments.

  9. bernieLynne says:

    Excellent article. It is a word I had heard but wasn’t really familiar with.

  10. DM says:

    Good words Jane! Words full of wisdom and kindness. They minister to my heart this morning. I was at a place yesterday where I’d built a new garage last Fall. Long story short, I have had warranty issues (small leaks) with both the overhead door and a walk door. Yesterday was my 7th attempt at fixing the issues. (yesterday I brought along another highly skilled semi retired carpenter to see if he could identify the source of the leak..we shall see. And the overhead door, was installed by another guy, who has been there 4 times himself he’s technically responsible, but the buck stops with me/ I was the general.

    I came home last night battling shame (and anger) the homeowner has been so patient…and I am at my wit’s end, knowing what to do, I’m not perfect (obviously) but I am trying to do what’s right by them…so I’ll hang in there and keep trying. I called another overhead door installer yesterday, and he’s agreed to stop and see if he can do what needs to be done. Thanks for listening 🙂 DM

  11. barryh says:

    Nice one, Jane. The concept is, I think, a bit like what ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’ used to mean in English. But these got corrupted as being to do with class and position in ‘society’, and are little used nowadays. Maybe these words need reviving, or should we just use ‘mensch’?.
    Wiki says it’s a ‘person of integrity and honour’, and suggest it’s eqiuvalent to the American ‘stand-up guy’.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      A person of integrity and honour, that works for me, Barry. Re gentlemen and ladies, sadly, as you say, the class structure had these terms reflect people who would have not thought a commoner worthy of the terms! Nowadays, the “gentlemen’s agreement” that worked for centuries with a handshake and trust seems to have gone out the window, especially in politics. None of this speaks encouragingly of human nature!

  12. Inkplume says:

    Perfect post to read at the beginning of the day. Now I can start it with the intention of trying to be a mensch.

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