http://orjewishlife.com/summer-reading-2019/ Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman (HCI; April 2, 2019) 240 pages; $14.95. The book speaks to character and what it takes to turn humanity around by being human. Rabbi Hammerman draws lessons from how the Hindu god of dance and how the Sabbath anchors the workweek, why A.A. Milne inspired his “The Torah of Pooh,” how the diverse cast in a high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” forced him to challenge his own views on intermarriage, and the temptation of the forbidden Oreo. Being a mensch means seeking justice tempered with compassion, understanding our human connection, serving a higher cause and living with dignity and integrity. In a time when every measure of civility is being overturned, being a mensch may be the only measure of character that truly matters. “If by sharing what I’ve learned, I can add a modicum of generosity, honesty and human connection in a world overflowing with cruelty, loneliness and deceit, then I’ll have done my job,” says Rabbi Hammerman.
“Mensch Marks” delivers a little wisdom for untethered times
By Stacey Dresner
STAMFORD – Rabbi Joshua Hammerman calls himself an “aspiring mensch.”
Spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford for the past three decades, Hammerman has also served as president of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut and the Stamford Board of Rabbis, and as chaplain for the Stamford Police Department.
While he would never actually call himself a mensch – true mensches don’t lack that kind of humility, he points out – Hammerman has written a new book in hopes of inspiring others to to work on their humanity a bit, in these times of uncivil discourse and hatred.
Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi is a collection of 42 essays divided into sections such as “Work and Worship,” “Loving and Letting Go,” “Pain and Perseverance,” and “Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness” among others.
Rabbi Hammerman was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1983 after receiving a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and a B.A. from Brown University. His journalism degree has come in handy – his column, “On One Foot,” has appeared regularly in The New York Jewish Week since 1994. His blog, On One Foot, is followed worldwide.
He is the winner of the 2008 Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism and the 2018 Religion New Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. He is a regular contributor to the Times of Israel, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Religion News Service and his personal essays have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post. He is the author of thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace and co-author of the children’s book, I Have Some Questions About God.
Hammerman serves on the Rabbinic Leadership Council of the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a member of the faculty of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He has been deeply involved in many Jewish think tanks, including JESNA’s Jewish Education 3.0 project, STAR-Tech and Synaplex.
Rabbi Hammerman spoke to the JewishLedger about his new book and his own goals of living a “more human” life.
JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Your book is very timely, given the divisiveness that seems to be consuming the world. Did you write it in response to this sense of global upheaval or have you been contemplating writing a book on becoming a mensch for a while?
JOSHUA HAMMERMAN (JH): I think it is sort of all of the above. The essays and ideas and thoughts that have gone into this book have been part of a common thread of my whole rabbinate over the last three plus decades, so in one sense I started working on this many, many years ago. On the other hand, in trying to pull together all of those themes, it all seemed to keep coming back to the notion of being a mensch and what it means to be a mensch. My father literally told me, “Be a mensch” – so I have always felt that to be the essence of my own message.
Of course, you are dealing with a situation where the world is coming apart at the seams, especially morally, and Judaism has so much to offer along those lines, and my own experiences have so much to offer. So, it all came together.
JL: Would you categorize this a self-help book?
JH: Yeah, I think so…it’s not a direct how to…do this and you’ll be a mensch. Its more of a “walk with me” – not even “follow me” because I’ve always felt that rabbis or clergy are not shepherds leading the way, but in fact fellow travellers. So this is my journey.
There are 42 short chapters – we call them Mensch Marks, sort of like bench marks of “menschiness,” which I know is corny but it fit well. The chapters correspond in a way to 42 stops that were made by the children of Israel on their way out of the wilderness as they headed from Egypt to the Promised Land. There were 42 stops noted at the end of the Book of Numbers and according to some authorities, like the Baal Shem Tov for instance, they correspond to 42 stages of a person’s life.
So, however you look at it, for me they are stages of growth, but not necessarily chronological. I don’t necessarily think I am a better person than I was 30 years ago. But they are thematic. The way they are drawn out in the book is that you have different sort of themes that have been the focus at different times of my life.
JL: You note in the chapter “Nobility of Normalcy” that one can be a normal person with a so-called boring life and that’s a good thing – that is mensch-like. Can you explain that?
JH: Yes, it’s been a key to Jewish survival over the centuries that it’s not always about what’s on the front pages. We spent about 2,000 years on the back pages of the newspaper. It’s the courage to do the little things, like get up in the morning, get married, have children, be kind, be careful, set limits and restrictions in your own life, sanctify one moment over another, etc. These are part of the essence of being Jewish, but also they are the kind of nobility that we should celebrate in a world that has gone so crazy.
It’s a way for each of us to find our own center; our own sense of purpose and that is done through just being grateful and showing appreciation and all of that.
JL: What has the response to the book been thus far?
JH: It’s been out for about a month and I’ve been getting some really nice responses from the Jewish community but also from non-Jews as well.
I think “mensch” is a word whose time has come. There are a lot of Yiddish words that have made it into English – like bagel, chutzpah, kvetch, things like that. Mensch needs to get up to that level where you don’t even think of it as a Yiddish word, where it is trending, where it is something that we are all striving to be. And I’m hoping that we can get there.
JL: Is there anybody out there in public life whom you would like to send the book to? Someone who might benefit from working on his or her “menschiness?”
JH: There are a lot of names. More than one of my endorsers has said that every politician in America should read this and that every rabbi should read this. Senator [Richard] Blumenthal wrote a beautiful endorsement – he is a member of my congregation. So he also agreed that people in public life should read it.
There comes a point at which rabbis and clergy have to take stands; they have to have principles. And so one of the aspects of being a mensch is to be able to call out, to speak truth to power directly, saying when things are wrong, and certainly there are things that are wrong right now.
I have a very large congregation and it’s a big tent. There are people who don’t agree with me on every issue, so I need to be very respectful of them. But I think it is possible for a mensch, or an aspiring mensch, as I try to be, to both be civil and principled and chew bubblegum at the same time.
I think that every student who graduates rabbinical school should be given this book – and should be asked to read it twice.
Because the first time they read it, they won’t really believe it is true, or that it applies to them. They will think that the practice of turning the rabbi into some kind of a superman or some kind of a divine messenger ended in the Middle Ages, and that their rational and liberal congregants won’t do that to them … but they will. Just yesterday, I wished one of my congregants a happy birthday, and he replied, “Thank you. May your wish go directly from your mouth to God’s ears. After all, for you it is a local call, isn’t it?” I just winced inside and smiled. What else can you do?
To say that this is a book meant for rabbis is to limit it unjustly. It is meant for all those who want to lead a purposeful life and have not yet found the way to do so. It is meant for all those who have experienced love beyond their deserving and who want to share it with others without appearing vain – or even worse – ‘religious’. It is meant for all those who know how cruel this world can sometimes be, and yet want to do what they can to seek out and to explore the love that is within it.
I read this book twice: once as a rabbi looking for sermonic material, and one as a human being who hopes to become a mentsch.
The first time I marked many passages for future reading, for Joshua Hammerman is not only a rabbi; he is also a journalist, and so he knows how to write with imagination and skill. For instance, how do you talk about Halacha from the pulpit if you are a rabbi? Do you say that it is the term for Jewish Law or do you say that the dictionary says that it comes from a root that means ‘the way you should walk’? You can do that if you want to, but if you do, you will see their eyes closing and their heads dropping before you get any further, for they have heard you and they have heard other rabbis say these clichés many times.
Rabbi Hammerman does it this way: He talks about how they trained their dog not to go into the yard of their next-door neighbor and cause havoc there. How did they do it? By buying him a neck collar that gave their dog a jolt whenever he tried to climb out of their yard. After a few tries, their dog learned to stay where he belonged … And that is the function of Jewish Law.
It sets off a jolt when the child reaches for a package of cookies in the supermarket, and then reads the ingredients, and reluctantly puts it down. It sets off a jolt when a father is tempted to buy a copy of the National Enquirer at the cash register and then realizes that he shouldn’t. And it sets off a jolt when a husband is tempted to engage in an extra-marital affair, and then decides not to, tempting as it may be. He refrains because, if he does, an invisible whistle goes off in his mind, and he remembers who he is and what he stands for, and what he can and cannot do… And that is what we mean by Halacha.
I bet his people sat up when he used this image to explain the purpose of the law. And I think my people will too, if I should ever quote it from him.
There are a great many such examples of creating writing in this book that will make the sermons of his colleagues much better. But that is not the main purpose of this book, far from it. The purpose of the book is to tell the story of how he gradually came to comprehend the role of compassion and love and menshlichkeit in his own life, and how he gradually learned how to share these insights with his people – both in words and by example.
The most moving chapter of the book, at least for me, was the one in which he talked about his own failure. He watched the football player, Tim Tebow, winning game after game, and he saw an almost messianic fervor among his fans. Tebow was a devout evangelist, and he and his fans began proclaiming that his victories were the work of God. Hammerman was so disturbed by this phenomenon that he sat down and dashed off a blog blasting fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and all such faiths as superstition.
And then came the reaction! He got hate mail by the hundreds on his computer. He got editorials condemning him for his bigotry in newspapers from coast to coast. Even some of his congregants turned against him for having offended their Christian neighbors. And he realized that they were right. He had written a hasty and a foolish blog, in which he had labeled whole communities that he really knew little about as backward and as potentially dangerous, and there was no way that he could make amends for it. He realized that the more he talked about it, the worse it would be.
Eventually, the affair blew over. The local ministerial association wrote a letter to the newspapers defending him. And people went on with their lives. But he decided to speak about what he had learned from this mistake that he had made on Yom Kippur. He spoke about it, not in order to defend himself and what he had done. He spoke about it so that he could tell his people what he had learned from experiencing failure, and so that he could tell them that they, too, would be better off if instead of gloating over their successes, they faced up to their failures. He brought examples from Silicon Valley and from other such places where people have learned from their mistakes, but he focused primarily on his own – and on theirs. And his people came away that night with two important spiritual lessons. The first was that their rabbi was human and could mistakes. And the second was that they, too, were fallible, and that their task – especially on Yom Kippur – was not to deny their faults and not to cover up their shortcomings, but to learn from them
Is that not a powerful lesson that all of us need to learn?
I know some powerful and successful executives and I know some powerful and successful rabbis who have not yet learned this lesson – but we should – and therefore, I urge all those of us who have ever failed – in other words – all of us – to read this book and to learn this and some of the otherwise lessons that it contains.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of two new books: “Finding God in Unexpected Places” and “The Day That I Met Father Isaac at the Supermarket.” Both are available from Amazon.com.
Cantor Hammerman and his son Josh in 1978 COURTESY PHOTO
I became a rabbi on a wintry evening in the late 1960s – a year or two before my bar mitzvah. It was Chanukah and my dad, a beloved, long-tenured cantor of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, had procured two coveted tickets to a Bruins game. Hockey was king back then and I had been anticipating this best ever Chanukah gift for weeks.
We headed to the game but needed to make one stop on the way – at a hospital in Chelsea to light the holiday candles. With each traffic light slowing the already snail-like traffic near the Tobin Bridge, I sensed that we might be late for the game. But once we reached the hospital, I was drawn like a moth to the dancing flames of those colorful candles, as reflected in the tearful eyes of the patients, many of whom were wheelchair bound.
When we finally got to the Garden, the Zamboni was preparing the ice for the second period. But for me, it didn’t matter that we were late. I felt so lucky to have shared that moment with my father. I can’t for the life of me recall the final score of the game, or even the opponent; but I’ll never forget how, on an icy evening along the shores of the Mystic River, my dad’s summons came through loud and clear.
Cantor Michal Hammerman
“Be a mentsch.”
The last thing I ever expected to be was a rabbi. I had seen what being a clergy kid had meant for my family: life in a fishbowl, scrutinized from birth, talked about in the aisles of Marshalls, waiting in the car as Dad popped over to plot seven for a quick unveiling before heading to Grandma’s for lunch.
But his call became my calling.
On New Year’s Day, 1979, Cantor Michal Hammerman died suddenly of a heart attack. He was just 60 years old, and I was in the first year of rabbinical school. So his message to me, as powerful as it was while he was alive, became amplified exponentially with his passing.
“Be a mentsch.”
What is a mentsch?
Dr. Saul Levine notes in Psychology Today that a mentsch’s personality characteristics include decency, wisdom, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, benevolence, compassion and altruism.
But that’s not the half of it. If Eskimos have 50 words for snow, Jews have a single word that embodies at least 50 divinely inspired character traits, including optimism, curiosity, forgiveness, kindness, creativity, gratitude, discipline, enthusiasm, principle, perspective, love of learning, humor, bravery, teamwork, civility, social conscience and perseverance.
There’s more. You don’t need to be a saint to be a mentsch. To be a mentsch in fact means to be fallible and imperfect, but always striving to do better. To be a mentsch means having to say you’re sorry.
So you can see why it has become my crusade to naturalize this term so that it becomes as much a part of our vernacular as other Yiddish imports, like “kvetch,” “chutzpah” and “bagel.” Our world needs mentschen, now more than ever.
My dad’s greatest legacy to Boston Jewry went beyond his magnificent voice. Just a few years before he died, his effort to find a suitable long-term home for my brother Mark, who has Fragile X syndrome, culminated in the establishment of a community residence just across the street from Kehillath Israel. His work on behalf of people like Mark brought my father into close cooperation with religious leaders like Cardinal Cushing and politicians like Senator Kennedy and Governor Dukakis, finding common ground in their shared compassion for the disabled.
For years my dad lived with a debilitating heart condition, one that he knew would likely end his life prematurely. At times, he was embittered and impatient; fearing that when he died his work would remain undone. But he also possessed that particularly Jewish ability to laugh in the face of even the darkest situations. And as result of his resilience, the house he built for my brother 45 years ago is still Mark’s home today; it’s now part of the Barry Price Center.
On April 30, I appeared at the Brookline Booksmith to talk about my new book, “Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi.” For me it will be a return to the neighborhood that I last inhabited when I left for college – but it never stopped being home.
I’ve dedicated this book in memory of my father, on the 40th anniversary of his passing; and also to my mother, Miriam Hammerman, who died last October at age 95. Formerly a concert pianist, the ravages of Parkinson’s robbed her of her ability to make music, but never of her smile.
With my parents as inspiration, I’m hoping to help change the world, one mentsch at a time.
An award-winning journalist, Brookline native Rabbi Joshua Hammerman has served Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. for over 30 years.