Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Daily Mensch

Shortcut: For the impatient, the key message of this two parter is you don't have to offer up your life for another every day to be a good guy. You need merely do the right thing time and again, even when it is a bit of trouble.

My move to New Jersey at 14 ended up joyful and Jew-ful. The latter is noteworthy, as coming from Southern Virginia, I knew very few Jews. In Danville, we rented an apartment in a mansion (770 Main) from one of the few Jews there. He was also my pediatrician.

In the summers, I stayed with my grandparents in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia, apple and peach country. The one Jewish family there, Dave Shear's, did not affect the culture of Romney. They went to temple 28 miles away in Cumberland, Maryland. Amusingly enough, Dave was the long-term mayor and ran the only menswear store in the county.

In Plainfield, New Jersey, however, my culture shock was much less adjusting to Yankees as to a very Jewish culture. Jewish foods, Yiddish phrases, intense girls, Talmudic arguments and learning how it felt to be the outsider were all parts.

That wasn't true for all goyim in my high-school class of over 600. I was on the swimming team and newspaper, both heavily Jewish. I was in advanced classes in those days of graded education and a high percentage of my classmates were Jewish.

In class, after school, on dates and with friends' parents, Yiddish and the related concepts of Jewish religion and culture were suddenly ubiquitous. One word I heard a lot was mensch — that ideal of the stalwart who lived integrity and honor, religious principles, and of course, respect for his mother.

I heard friends charged by mother or grandmother to be a mensch, and high praise came to those described lovingly in "He's such a mensch." That often followed a person performing a good deed, a mitzvah, particularly one that acted out a commandment of Jewish law.

The Epitome

Place and times can test us to the edge of heroism. Few of us can know whether we would risk all for others. Certainly, we are fortunate that life does not present such choices to each of us, rather only to a few and only occasionally.

We need look only to the nearly 22,000 honored as the Righteous Among the Nations. These are gentiles who risked their lives or at least all they and their family had, including their freedom, to protect Jews. Many of these were in Europe before and during WWII. A large number of these were in Poland, where it was a capital offense to hide or even help a Jew.

Moreover, the award goes to those, who Maimonides listed as, "Whoever among the Nations fulfills the Seven Commandments to serve God belongs to the Righteous among the Nations, and has his share in the World to Come." As an aside, those ancient commandments contain a couple of anachronisms, such as not eating live animals and being against homosexuality. The concepts of being moral and just to all remain. In fact, a prime continuing commandment is to maintain the legal system so that all may have justice.

Surely we should be happy that we do not face the situation where we have the dreadful choices that the Righteous Among the Nations faced. Yet, that does not give us license to ignore the condition of others. At our daily level, social awareness and action possibilities are common. You and I too can be a mensch...with a lot less effort and at a lot less peril.

Living Righteous

Somewhere between the extremes of righteous living is Rev. Victor Carpenter (to the right in a shot from the First Church in Belmont). He literally risked his life hundreds of times when he lived and worked in South Africa. He was among other things, a courier for Nelson Mandela and others in the anti-apartheid movement. Later back in the United States, he was extremely active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

As an amusing sidelight, he had a little family inheritance and never cared much for money. He donated his salary to various charitable causes when he was minister at the Arlington Church. Our venal IRS officials could not believe this. They audited him — perennially. No matter how many times he proved that all of his income went out to good causes, they kept demanding proof.

He was the minister who drew my family to the ASC. His preaching was powerful and personal, and demanding. He loved his roving microphone, which had an absurdly long cord and which he used to bring even those who thought they were hiding in the back of the huge nave into the conversation.

He also personally involved me in church politics and liberal religion. For example, not long after we began attending, he dropped by our little apartment on the North slope of Beacon Hill. He had been at the denominational headquarters at 25 Beacon Street and stopped by, as I recall, on his way to visit patients at Mass General. He directly asked me to reconstitute the moribund personnel committee and work on the dysfunctional staff.

Here was Victor's great gift. Not only did he recognize what needed doing and do what he could himself, he enlisted and delegated, charged and inspired others to do the rest.

In 2003, he received the UUA's Adin Ballou Peace Award. Many of us from his various congregations came to the ceremony to see him honored. As befitting his style, we ended up on the roving mic praising him ourselves. My primary message was that he went beyond what other socially active preachers did. We never left one of his sermons without homework. Every week, he gave us specific tasks to do, social, political or both, to make the world better.

Victor is no airy-fairy liberal. He is happy and driven to tell us what a mensch would do.

Part two returns to Romney to cite an ordinary man doing relentless good deeds. It looks like this one needs to end up at Harrumph! as well.

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Robin Gorman Newman said...

You might like to know of my book HOW TO MARRY A MENSCH. Details are posted on my site, Mensches are the best!! We need more of them in the world.

massmarrier said...

Well, I don't normally let in plugs like that, but this seems timely and apt.