A Good Mensch Is Hard To Find

International Women’s Day is almost over, but before it ends I would like to introduce a new term which, as far as I know, has not been used before.

When we say that someone is a real mensch, we express admiration for a person who is better than most of us, he/she is a cut above the rest. The term “mensch” in Yiddish means a person of integrity. A mensch is someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong and in general is the sort of person other people look up to. According to the dictionary in English the word has come to mean “a good guy.”

The word “mensch” in German is the equivalent of “man” which is male grammatically, but refers to a general person not a male one. Since all the definitions in the dictionaries refer to mensch as a male — a man of integrity, perhaps it is time to revisit the term.

Although we admire a mensch, when was the last time that we used that word to describe the good qualities of a man? It seems to me that it doesn’t happen often; finding a man who is a mensch, as a partner, a colleague, a lawyer, a friend, an advisor is not easy.

Yet, I was sitting with a woman friend and we were discussing an upstanding young woman who, we both agreed, was a real “mensch.” That young woman is a person of integrity; she is responsible, principled, honest and sympathetic. She is proactive, volunteers in the community, in short, she is a [wo]mensch.

Literature is full with examples of women of integrity: Dorothea, the protagonist of Geroge Eliot’s Middlemarch, is a real womensch. She has a good sense of right and wrong and is brave enough to stand up and fight for her beliefs. Since she comes from a privileged background, Dorothea sees it as her duty to help the poor in her area by planning and building cottages for the workers and by promoting the building of a new hospital.

In real life we also don’t have to look hard to find womensch; going through the list of my friends I realize that they easily fit the definition of a womensch. Otherwise they would not have been my friends; who would like a friend who is not a woman of integrity, or as the dictionary states: unwomensch, is evil or a cruel person.

So how come there are so few men who are mensch and so many women who are? It seems to me that the qualities of a mensch are not compatible with those of a successful man. We need not forget that if in our society when we want to compliment a business man we often say that “he is aggressive.” I believe that while we have fewer demands of men, especially those who are successful, to have moral qualities, we would not want our children to be raised by women who lack integrity.

So in honor of International Women’s Day of 2015 I suggest that from now on we take over the term and refer to ourselves as womensch.

And although it might suggest being less successful, in my own life I would always prefer to be surrounded by wo/mensch, whether they are men or women.

About the Author
I hold a PhD in English Literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, specializing in writing about issues related to women, literature, culture, and society. Having lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994), I bring a diverse perspective to my work. As a widow, in March 2016, I initiated a support and growth-oriented Facebook group for widows named "Widows Move On." The group has now grown to over 2000 members, providing a valuable space for mutual support and understanding.