A fair question and one worth pondering. One reason that moment was so deeply resonant, for me at least — and I’ll bet I’m not alone — was that we have a serious mensch deficit these days, approaching at least -15 percent of GDP, and especially in politics. The immigrant-bashing in the Republican debates, for example, provides an excellent example of anti-mensch-ness.
Urban Dictionary has this definition: “An upstanding, worthy, honorable adult person of either sex. Fr. German and Yiddish for ‘human being.'”
A fine definition, as far as it goes, but as with so many Yiddish words — and let me say that of all the languages I do not speak, Yiddish is my favorite — there’s more to it than that.
There’s a strong ethical component to being a mensch and even, I think, a measure of self-sacrifice. The reason Sanders’s intervention was such high-level mensch-ery was that it came at a personal cost: Defending your opponent against an unjust attack is something that mensches do.
What else do mensches do? They listen well, with both brain and heart. They don’t disparage others to lift themselves. In fact, a core feature of a mensch is elevating others. Mensches tend to keep their egos in check. It’s interesting in this regard that Sanders runs on ideas, not his personal story.
In economics, mensches will tend toward issues of poverty, full employment, inequality and opportunity. In law, they are more likely to be public defenders than corporate attorneys. I suspect many are teachers. I doubt too many go into politics.
I remember asking my Uncle Willy from Queens the same question my daughter asked me. His response: “A mensch is real person!” Except he pronounced it “poyson.”
That’s pretty efficient. But from here forward, if anyone wants to know what a mensch is, just click on the link above. That says it all.
What’s your favorite Yiddish’ism, and what does it mean to you? Be a mensch and answer in comments. I’ll collect the words and stories for a future post.