The Mendele Review: Yiddish Language and Literature
A Companion to Mendele
Contents of Vol. 01.005
May 13, 1997
1) Reflexions on the Yiddish lexeme mentsh (Leonard Prager)
The prestigious Israeli daily newspaper Ha-arets of 3 March 1995 (p. 5b) carried a half-page article by Avi Katsman entitled "'Mentsh' be-iro" ('A "Mentsh" in His City'). Why, the author asked, had almost300,000 mourners followed the funeral bier of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman
Auerbach (Yiddish: Ho-Rav Shloyme-Zalmen Oyerbakh), a rather colorless and uncharismatic religious scholar, minor yeshiva head, but immensely respected halachic posek ('decider of halachic questions'). No halachic liberal or reformer, Rabbi Auerbach issued rulings with unquestionably orthodox rigor; his decisions were universally accepted in the haredi world. He was especially noted for his personal modesty and his eschewal of honors and perquisites. His halachic judgements revealed an uncommon sensitivity to human needs. Thus we find Rabbi Ram HaCohen saying that Rabbi Auerbach possessed the fifth part of the Shulkhan arukh, a work which only has four parts: "Ha-khelek ha-khamishi hu ha-adam." ('The fifth part is humanity/the human person/mankind’) Many non-haredi Jews, and not secularists alone, would fail to be impressed by the humanity of a rabbi whose last acts included, for example, a call for an end to physical education in the haredi talmud tora (see Shachar Ilan, "Ha-rabanim ha-kharedim osrim hishtatfut banim bekhugey amanut umalekhet yad," Ha-arets 5 March 1995). But whether or not Rabbi Auerbach was a mentsh by this or that criterion is not for discussion here. My focus is purely lexicological. Narrow though it be, however, it has several parts: 1) What brought a Hebrew newspaper in Israel to use a Yiddishism in an article heading? 2) How did an epithet expressing the quintessence of humanistic yidishkayt get tagged to a representive of the most rigorous ritualistic Judaism? 3) How and when and where did mentsh with the sense 'very decent human being' arise?
For the sake of brevity and to help sharpen the debate I will propose a hypothesis for which I frankly do not possess adequate proof. A proper historical account of the word mentsh in Yiddish requires a large corpus of examples in context, attention to the translation of Hebrew ish and odom in khumesh-taytsh, and equal attention to both Germanic and Slavic cognates. It also requires an intimate knowledge of the social history of Yiddish in the New World. My hypothesis is that the ideal sense of mentsh, while latent in earlier Yiddish was born and further nurtured in American Jewish English. From Jewish English it was reborrowed into American Yiddish and it reached Israeli Hebrew through Israelis who assumed, like the American Jews from whom they learned it, that it was Yiddish. I claim that mentsh, which seems so authentically Yiddish in the sense 'extremely decent human being' is a relatively recent denizen of the Yiddish lexicon, not perhaps as young as the favorably-colored Jewish-English (and increasingly General American) chutzpa (to be contrasted with the higly negative Yiddish khutspe and Hebrew khutspa). But in Israel I have already heard Israelis using khutspa in the Jewish-English sense! That words are dynamic creatures who alter their meanings we know full well. Mentsh is especially interesting because it illustrates both pejoration and melioration, the depths of physical humiliation and the heights of spiritual self-mastery -- two poles of human experience.
Perhaps a useful starting point for our investigation is Uriel Weinreich's main entry for in his splendid Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, a copy of which every Mendelist should own (if only to save us from repeated elementary queries!). UW gives four sense categories: man, human being; person; responsible/mature person; helper, employee. He also gives the phrases zayn a mentsh ('behave well, act one's age'), vern a mentsh ('settle down'), vern oys mentsh ('collapse, go to pieces'). In the 1950s, I dimly recall, there was a comic routine in which a speaker of "broken-English" says "Tenk yu veramentsh" mimicking English "Thank you very much!" and presumably transcending his linguistic handicap by a kind of ethical superiority. This is probably not the first time we meet "Ver a mentsh!" qua ethical imperative, but it is surely significant that in UW, the only meaning for "Ver a mentsh" is implacably "bourgeois" or at least pragmatic, conformist and largely materialistic. And in Yiddish, when you cease to be a mentsh, when you become oys mentsh, you do not behave immorally or unfeelingly, you simply stop functioning, physically or mentally. In UW's four sense categories, only the first two are possible candidates for linking with highly positive characterological traits. The third sense is closely linked to the phrase "vern a mentsh" and its usual context refers more to realizing one's own needs rather than sensitivity to those of others. UW's fourth category "helper, employee" is underreported and deserves a chapter in itself, one which has great ethical significance but not of the sort one might expect.
It is difficult to miss the recurrent use of the word mentsh 'employee of lowest order' in stories by Dovid Pinski and others where class struggle or inequality are the themes. This word had another sound for former generations and signalled dependency and inferiority. Most Jews loathed the idea of being someone's mentsh. Khane at the end of Pinski's "Oysgefirt" wishes to say something as hurtful as possible to her husband's humiliators: "Zi hot zey alemen gevolt vintshn, zey zoln arbetn af fremde vershtatn, zayn 'yenems a mentsh'". (‘She wanted to wish that all of them would go to work in strangers' workshops, be "somebody's mentsh"'.) I thought I had made an interesting discovery in Pinski's use of the word, until I learned that Khayim Liberman had written an essay on the subject seventy some years earlier (see Khayim Liberman, "'Mentsh' in Pinski's dertseylungen," Dikhter un veltn, Berlin, 1923, pp. 139-147).
Ironically, English-speaking Jews today regard the word mentsh as almost talismanic, the quintessence of humanistic Judaism as incorporated in the injuction "Zay a mentsh" ('Be a decent human being'). At a certain point this sense of the word pushed the other back, or social conditions altered and there was less need for the other sense. Once workers were organized in unions they were employees and not somebody's "mentsh."
If you look at the forty-nine proverbs with mentsh in Ignaz Bernstein's Yudishe shprikhverter un redensartn (Waraw 1908), you will see that all but one refer to mentsh in the primary sense of a human as distinct from an animal being, with virtually no ethical overtones or affect. Most are critical, satirical, cautionary, pious or reflective about humankind. Thus we have sayings like "A mentsh iz vi a flig" (15) and "Der mentsh iz dokh nor a boser-vedom,"(24) which acknowledge man's weakness. The sole proverb suggesting that the human condition possesses value in itself is the ambiguous "A mentsh is umetum a mentsh."(12) Human value is explicitly undermined in "Volt der mentsh nor azoy fil vert gevezn, vi got ken helfn" (35). We find only one proverb with the admonition "Ver a mentsh!" and it is addressed to a spoiled child, promising him that if he behaves he will get to sit in the sukkah at Sukkot time: "Zay a mentsh, vest du zitsn in suke." (41)
In early Yiddish literature I have never found an instance where "Zay a mentsh" is an appeal for decency or goodness as distinct from behavior becoming an adult. Since I'm determined to be iconoclastic I will extend my hypothesis (I don't have a shred of evidence for the following). I suspect that secular American Yiddishists who were critical of orthodoxy saw mentshlekhkayt as a higher madreyge ('spiritual level') than mere yidishkayt. Rousseauean ideas of the basic goodness of man had been absorbed into the highly literate Jewish anarchist movement and to a
lesser extent the Jewish socialist movement. If Man was fundamentally good, the quintessential man, the mentsh, was certainly so. The abstract noun mentshlekhkayt seems to have entered Yiddish from both New High German and Slavic, containing the main senses from these cognates. One who possessed mentshlekhkayt was a mentsh, which word gradually became an honorific, especially in Jewish English. The lect which we call Jewish English (or Yinglish), behaving like an organism, instinctively understood it could not digest a large Yiddish lexicon and so it selected items it regarded as comic, gustatory, phonotactic or as idealizing the culture of parents once mocked. It was inevitable that mentsh, alongside shlep, nosh, kvetsh, beygl, etc. would play a major role in Jewish English and help propagate the notion (illusory?) that Jewish culture is profoundly ethical.
I believe that mentsh is the single most discussed word in Mendele in all six years of its existence. There is, I have learned by scanning past volumes, an academic piece on the word by Mark Kaminsky (which I confess I have not read). The following list of mentions of mentsh in Mendele is not complete, many of the mentsh 'person' instances being omitted. But there is a small database of information and opinions in the following corpus.
Vol1 : 25, 31, 151, 165, 166.
Vol2 : 73, 75, 143, 157, 161, 164, 166, 167.
Vol3 : 10, 16, 28, 38, 80, 91, 141, 148, 150, 160, 163, 246, 248, 255, 272, 280, 282, 322, 345.
Vol4 : 25, 41, 78, 82, 92, 103, 104, 115, 141, 142, 146, 239, 305, 310, 312, 320, 321, 324, 325, 339, 340, 346, 371, 373, 417.
Vol5 : 70, 72, 88, 111, 158, 167, 305.
Vol6 : 38, 41, 43, 45, 48, 61, 78, 101, 107, 189, 272, 301.
The Mendele Review
Editor: Leonard Prager