What exactly is a mensch? I’m lucky enough to know quite a few people whom I honor with that title. But the full appreciation of menschlichkeit – best translated, Stephen-Colbert-style, as menschiness – seems to be elusive. This is somewhat dismaying. In fact, this is very dismaying. So here goes.
As usual, idiot that I am, I went first to the OED. I mean, only a schlemiel would look up a Yiddish word in the British crown jewel of English as she should be spoke. Still, look I did, and here’s what I found:
In Jewish usage: a person of integrity or rectitude; a person who is morally just, honest, or honourable.
Okay, so it’s hardly a surprise that the OED just doesn’t get it. Menschiness is admirable, sure, but bland? Never! Where’s the warmth, the laughter, the big-heartedness, the sheer vitality and generosity of spirit of menschiness?
Surely I’d find them in Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish. Surely?
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.
Rectitude? Decorousness? Was Rosten actually trying to make Yiddish boring? Was he aiming for a Victorian drawing-room version of menschlichkeit? Pfah! Getting a bit desperate, perhaps, I turned to Wikipedia:
Mensch (Yiddish: מענטש mentsh; German: Mensch, for “human being”) means “a person of integrity and honor”… In Yiddish, from which the word has migrated into American English… a mensch is a particularly good person, like “a stand-up guy”…
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 bani adam (بني آدم) has the same meaning.
Well, at least that’s an improvement, with German, Hebrew, and Arabic all thrown in for good measure and to keep your head spinning. But it still doesn’t leave anyone any the wiser. “A nice guy”? Talk about lame. Not that anything in the Wiki entry is wrong; it just misses out on the full meaning of the word.
So faute de mieux (why not toss a soupcon of French into the mix while we’re about it?) here’s my idea of menschiness (and of course — especially since we’re speaking Yiddish — feel free to cavil, amend, expand, ridicule, or suggest something better):
A mensch is what I call a real human being — one with a fully functioning heart and soul and an infectious warmth and generosity of spirit.
That’s not a bad start. But to get the whole of it… well, that’s the thing with Yiddish — it’s hell to explain. The one thing I’m sure of: Whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, pantheist or atheist, animist or agnostic, male, female or any combination of the two, is totally irrelevant: if you’re reading this and smiling in recognition, welcome to the human race — you’re a mensch.