How to Be a Mensch
My mother gasped when she saw me walk through the door after a semester away at college. I had left home clean shaven with short hair, and now—well, let’s just say she had trouble finding my face. She took one look at me and cried out, “Oy! Oy! Oy! Why can’t you be a mensch?”
“What is a mensch?” you ask.
The word mensch (rhymes with bench) is a Yiddish word. Yiddish is written in Hebrew letters with primarily German vocabulary. Other Yiddish words are taken from languages such as Polish, Romanian, Russian, and Lithuanian. Hundreds of Yiddish words have been adopted into the English language—words such as chutzpah (nerve or gall), nosh (to snack), oy vey (oh my), kvetch (complain), shlep (to drag), kosher (fit or proper), shmooz (friendly talk), and tsuris (trouble).
My untidy appearance 20 years ago portrayed to my mother the image of a person who lived an improper lifestyle. She wondered why I couldn’t look like a human being, the literal translation of mensch. The Yiddish language consistently broadens the meaning of its words so that many become difficult to translate. To understand the meaning of mensch, let me use a common Jewish tool—storytelling.
Doing What is Right
The first story involves my friend Brian, who owned a successful business. One particular client accounted for the majority of his business. However, unknown to Brian, that client’s own business was failing miserably. Keeping up a front, they continued to funnel huge projects to Brian involving large amounts of money. By the time Brian learned that his client was in trouble, it was too late. His client filed for bankruptcy, leaving Brian with incredible debt. He sought advice about how to deal with his financial dilemma and was told to file for bankruptcy himself. This he would not do.
Instead, he contacted each of his debtors, explaining what had happened. He told them that he would faithfully repay what he owed them, but he asked for their patience. The response was extremely favorable. It took several years, but he was finally able to pay off his debt to each of them. Brian’s behavior was the essence of being a mensch. He did not do what was expedient; he did what was right.
The second story involves a young man named Brad who was born with cerebral palsy. While his body is wracked by the disease, his brainpower is spectacular. He is unable to speak, although he understands three languages. He uses a head pointer to operate his computer, running intricate and sophisticated programs.
Brad makes it a habit to be conscious of circumstances around him. For instance, he became aware of a missionary family in need of an automobile. He puts aside his disability money to assist people he sees in need, so he told his father to be on the lookout for a good used car. It wasn’t long before his dad found such a car, and Brad instructed him to purchase it and drive him to the family’s home in it. When that family received such a wonderful gift from someone whose circumstances are less than ideal, they were moved to tears. This young man is a real mensch, extending kindness to others while disregarding his own difficulties.
The third story involves a Jewish dentist who lives in the northeast. Irving has practiced dentistry for more than 50 years and has had a long-standing policy that might surprise some people. He provides free dental care to Christian workers. Whenever a Christian worker tries to pay for his services, he always replies, “No charge—because of the work you do.” Although Irving does not have the same faith as the Christian workers he helps, he is a mensch because his respect for God moves him to honor those who he believes serve that same God.
In Micah 6:8 the prophet alludes to a mensch: “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” The prophet clearly states that if people do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly, they are doing the will of God. These stories illustrate individuals who behaved just that way. They were mensches.
For Christians, the ultimate mensch is Jesus the Messiah, who always did the will of His Father. Believers are to model their lives after Christ. Thus, the question my mother asked me should be asked of each Christian: “Are you a mensch?”