There are some people in this world who like to call themselves mentsches. But only a few really live up to that lofty designation, in my humble opinion. And usually, they’d never personally refer to themselves in such a manner.
We use the term all the time, but what really is a mentsch? According to Leo Rosten’s classic “The Joys of Yiddish,” a mentsch is, at its most basic level, a human being. Well, most of us can pass for that. But the definition extends to an “upright, honorable, decent person,” and “someone of consequence; someone to admire and emulate; someone of noble character.”
That, of course, is where the playing field thins out. After all, how many people do you really know who are individuals of “consequence” embodying that sense of nobility, dignity and honor? That’s a tall order, and if we’re lucky we meet a few of ‘em over the course of a lifetime.
I suppose, as long as we don’t kill anyone or run off with someone’s life savings, most of us can be branded mentsches. But then there’s that person who can be called a “real mentsch.” This is someone who goes the extra mile for a friend or family member, or maybe even a stranger. They take the time to help out someone even if there’s no apparent personal benefit for them.
Increasingly in these rather callous times, these folks are difficult to spot. But they’re out there.
A few years ago, my mother, while in her mid-70s, was driving when her car broke down next to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. She didn’t have a cell phone and didn’t know much about fixing cars. She was in a tight spot, but a man stopped, pushed her vehicle to an access road and out of traffic’s way, looked under the hood and repaired the car.
My grateful mother began digging into her purse to give the man a few bucks for his efforts. When she looked up and into his eyes, she immediately saw he would not take a penny. He waved and began getting into his car.
She told him her son would be appreciative and want to contact him, so she asked for his name and number. “Just tell him if he ever notices someone in a little need, help them out,” he responded before speeding off. (I’ve tried to follow his wishes over the years, although for the safety of all involved I haven’t tried fixing any cars.)
There are countless ways to be a basic mentsch. It might mean sending someone a condolence card when they’ve lost a loved one, or shoveling your elderly neighbor’s walkway. Maybe your buddy needs someone to just listen to him kvetch about life.
Then, there’s performing macro mentsch acts to enhance your community and world. Perhaps donating your time to an organization that feeds hungry children, or you and your family making “blessing bags” for the indigent. Or serving on the board of an organization that strives to protect the environment. Or writing a check that provides vital resources to a philanthropic endeavor. The great thing about mentschlikeit is it knows no boundaries.
The five community members profiled in this month’s cover story donate their time and resources tirelessly for tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. They give their hearts and souls, and for that we celebrate what I would call these real mentsches. Thankfully, they’re not the only ones in Charm City.
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief