When a presidential candidate uses a Yiddish word, you could say that it has entered the American mainstream. If so, then mensch hit the big-time in 2000 when Democratic hopeful Al Gore, in complimenting a fellow attendee at a campaign event said, “We Tennessee Southern Baptists have a word for him; we call him a mensch.” Unfortunately, with Gore’s Southern accent, his mensch rhymed with inch.
Mensch places high on the “well-known-o-meter” for non-Jews, falling somewhere between mazel tov and heimish, according to Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, who was in the audience when Gore dropped the M-word.
Mensch (which can also be spelled mentsh—the more correct romanization of the Yiddish) comes straight from German, where it means man or mankind. As the Yiddish saying goes, “a mentsh tracht und Gott lacht” [Man plans and God laughs]. Along the way, mensch picked up other meanings. A second meaning that has passed from usage is as a synonym for servant. To be somebody’s mensch was once used as a slur by Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem and David Pinski.
Some attribute its third and best known meaning of a person of noble character and moral rectitude to secular Yiddishists in 19th-century Eastern Europe. They wanted to veer away from religious observance and tradition while maintaining Judaism’s moral teachings. Others, like Michael Wex, the author of How to be a Mentsh and Not a Schmuck, believe mensch became imbued with Jewish notions of good behavior and decency in Eastern European cheders [schools]. There the root of mensch-hood, he says, stemmed from the translation of the Hebrew word ish [man]. In Ethics of Our Fathers, for example, the Sages instruct the reader “be’makom she-ein anashim hishtadel liheyot ish—in a place where there are no men try to be a man,” implying that being a man involves more than just testosterone.
Comedians like Milton Berle took the moral mensch along as they made the move from the Borsht Belt to Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, and the word seeped into the American mainstream. The first known use of mensch in English literature, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came in Saul Bellow’s 1953 The Adventures of Augie March. The term’s less glorious popular culture appearances include the 2008 film Don’t Mess with the Zohan, in which Adam Sandler’s Israeli soldier-turned-hairdresser protagonist utters the catchphrase “You the mensch!”
There is no word quite like mensch in English or Hebrew. The Hebrew ben-adam (literally son of Adam) has a similar connotation but without the heft or gravitas. “The beauty of mensch is that there is no translation. You would have to say several words to get the one meaning,” says Bruna Martinuzzi, author of The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Martinuzzi, who is not Jewish, first learned the word as a child in the 1950s in Cairo, Egypt, from her Jewish next-door neighbor.
Today, mensch has become an equal opportunity noun. While the word is masculine, it is now widely applied to women as well. A non-Jew also can be a mensch or exhibit menschlichkeit—the properties that make one a mensch. “Maybe the supreme gift of Yiddish to the English language is the word ‘mensch,’” syndicated columnist Richard Cohen wrote during the 1986 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist, a Lutheran. “The question before the U.S. Senate can best be stated in Yiddish: Is William Rehnquist a ‘mensch?’”
In the wake of the recent corruption and scandals in the financial sector, titans of business are looking to the word as a mantra to live by. “Doing the right thing is good for business,” says Noah Alper, author of Business Mensch and founder of Noah’s Bagels. Alper suggests that treating employees and customers well is the key to his success, although he warns, “Be a mensch, but watch the bottom line.”
But don’t nice guys finish last? Not anymore, says Robin Gorman Newman, author of How to Marry a Mensch: The Love Coach’s Guide to Finding Your Mate. “The notion of a mensch gets a bad rap but you should be looking for someone who is going to treat you as you deserve to be treated.” Newman finds that more and more people are now putting mensch at the top of their dating list. “It’s become cool to be a mensch.”
Zay a Mensch! [Be A Mensch!] may have followed you from kindergarten all the way to the retirement home, but the concept of mensch is a comforting one. It means that you don’t need to be the holiest—that is reserved for the term tzadik; the most learned—the talmid hakham; or the wealthiest. Just being a decent guy (or gal) is the recipe for success. “It’s the Nobel prize of words,” says Neal Karlen, author of The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews. “It’s a title bestowed upon you and one you can’t bestow on yourself.”—Sarah Breger