To keep things on an even plane, I too will refer to Wikipedia for definitions:
- a person of integrity and honor
- someone to admire and emulate; someone of noble character
- a good person
- a stand up guy
As with most Yiddish words, there is no precise English translation for a mensch – but most Jews know one when they see one. The above definitions really only touch the surface of what it means to be a mensch. Somehow there is a lot more to it, but it’s difficult to further explain.
There are many assumptions that come with labeling someone a true mensch. Here are several:
- a mensch has a great relationship with his grandmother
- a mensch is someone you can trust
- a mensch is comfortable in most social situations
- a mensch is someone you set up with your sister
- a mensch has no criminal record or devious addictions
- a mensch cares about being Jewish
- a mensch has an education and/or a decent career
- a mensch treats others with respect and common courtesy
- a mensch has his priorities in the proper order
- a mensch might not like his girlfriend’s mother’s pot roast, but she thinks he does
For those uninitiated, let me give you some celebrity examples of mensch vs. not-a-mensch (excluding the being Jewish part of course):
- Joe Biden is a mensch. Dick Cheney is not.
- Regis Philbin is a mensch. David Letterman is not.
- Randy Jackson is a mensch. Simon Cowell is not.
- Bruce Springsteen is a mensch. Prince is not.
- Justin Timberlake is a mensch. Will Smith is not.
- (And don’t forget our very own mensch in the U.S. Senate.)
I always considered myself a mensch – but until I became a father, I’m not sure I truly understood its meaning. When my son was born almost 4 years ago, my mission in life became frighteningly clear: to make sure he becomes a mensch. That simple one syllable word describes everything I want him to be. If I am successful, there will be nothing more satisfying to me as a parent.
I think we’re on the right path, Sam and I. But frankly, I don’t think I have much to do with it. He’s figuring most of it out just the way he likes to do things – all by himself. Sam adores all of his grandparents and does schtick with each one. He’s the only kid at preschool who hugs the other parents. He has a couple of girlfriends at The Good Day Cafe who claim him as their best customer. Sam has started to leave impressions at Target Field – first with the servers at The Town Ball Tavern and then with Sue, the organ player. Take him to the MOA and he’ll wave to everyone (as long as they have beards and mustaches of course). I’ve even witnessed a few remarkable gestures of empathy – something required of any mensch and and an inherent skill that few people truly possess – let alone someone not yet 4 years old. So far, so good – I have my own little mensch in training.
And then I had a daughter. So now, while I work diligently to make my son the mensch he ought to be, I am steadfastly figuring out how to get my daughter to find her own. She’s only three months old, but future moments of paternal despair have already permeated my brain. What on Earth will I do if she brings home one of Nina Badzin’s schnorrers instead?
So what Yiddish word should be next? Meshuge?