Introduction to "Mensch•Marks"


“Man, the prisoner of nature, becomes free by becoming fully human.”
            - Erich Fromm           

In the Talmud, Hillel the sage states, “In a world that lacks humanity, be human.”  If you – like most people – are concerned about the rancor that has poisoned public life, you are holding in your hand an antidote.  In a world as dehumanizing as ours has become, simply being a kind, honest and loving person, a man or woman of integrity, has become a measure of. heroism – and at a time when norms of civility are being routinely quashed, it may be the only measure that matters. Hillel is saying that when everything seems to have become unhinged around you, just persevere with the singular focus of being the best human being you can be, and everything else will follow from that.  If you can get your own act together, at some point others will follow your lead.

It's like the story of the man outside the gates of Sodom, warning the people to stop their sinning, a legend popularized by Elie Wiesel:  “He went on preaching day after day, maybe even picketing. But no one listened. He was not discouraged. He went on preaching for years. Finally, someone asked him, ‘Rabbi, why do you do that? Don't you see it is no use?’ He said, ‘I know it is of no use, but I must. And I will tell you why: in the beginning I thought I had to protest and to shout in order to change them. I have given up this hope. Now I know I must picket and scream and shout so that they should not change me.’"

And, I would add, if we cultivate civility and integrity with dogged persistence, we will eventually change them too.

I’ve devoted my life to trying to become a more fully realized, morally evolved human being, a person of character. 

Jews have a word for that: mensch.

One isn’t born a mensch. Nor is it a status that one ever completely achieves; for to boast that you are mensch is, by definition, not to possess the requisite humility to be one.  Becoming a mensch is a life-long process, a journey, an aspiration.

Joseph Campbell writes in “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder – fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” 

For the mensch, the journey to moral maturity is no less heroic, if perhaps a little less dramatic and a lot less bloody.  But unlike with Campbell’s mythic hero, in the end there is no decisive victory, because this is a journey with no end.  Every Bar or Bat Mitzvah video notwithstanding, one can never stop, look up at the heavens and say, “Today I am a mensch.”  More accurately, the student should say, “Today, I have started the process toward becoming a mensch.”

While it’s unseemly to call yourself a mensch, for Jews there is no greater honor than for another person to call you one, indicating that, while the process of growth never ends, you’ve passed a threshold whereby others view you as a human of exemplary character.  I often use the expression when eulogizing someone, but never have I said, "She was a billionaire" or “He wrote a dozen best-sellers.” There is something about "mensch" that transcends professional success.  Our jobs do not define us; neither do our homes, cars and stock portfolios.  What defines us, ultimately, are our relationships, our integrity, the love we give, the love we receive.   

Leo Rosten, who wrote “The Joy of Yiddish,” defines mensch as someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character.” Dr. Saul Levine writes in Psychology Today, “The admirable traits included under the rubric of mensch read like a compendium of what Saints or the Dalai Lama represent to many, or others whom you might think merit that kind of respect. These personality characteristics include decency, wisdom, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, benevolence, compassion, and altruism.”

But one does not need to be a saint just to be a decent, thoughtful person. To be a morally evolved human being means in fact to be fallible and imperfect, but always striving to do better.  It means to seek justice but never at the expense of compassion.  It means to connect, to family, to one’s people and one’s home.  It means to seek transcendence, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, to love unconditionally, to serve a higher cause and live a life of dignity and integrity.

Incidentally, although in German the term clearly refers to males and connotes masculinity (or, in the case of Nietzsche, uber-masculinity) for Jews it is not gender-specific - a woman can be a mensch too. 

courtesy of Foxymug

In every respect, for her compassion, courage and ability to forge common ground with ideological opponents, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the quintessential wo-mensch.

So let me tell you about my life-path toward mensch-hood and how, while it may or may not have achieved the notoriety of Campbell’s mythic heroes, in some ways it’s been downright biblical.

According to the Book of Numbers, the Israelites made forty-two stops as they wandered from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Jewish and Christian commentators alike assign this number spiritual significance, some associating those way stations with what medieval Kabbalists believed to be the forty-two letter name of God.  The father of modern Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, said that the forty-two stations represent the stages of a person’s life.  Rabbi Simon Jacobson, noting that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, also means “narrow places,” writes, “All the forty-two journeys are about freeing ourselves and transcending the constraints and limitations (Mitzrayim) of our material existence which conceals the Divine, subduing and sublimating the harsh “wilderness” of selfish existence, and discovering the “Promised Land” – a life of harmony between body and soul.”

In the following pages, I share forty-two stepping stones along my own path of growth, with each challenge yielding significant insights that have helped me to bring God’s love into the world. Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a 10th century Jewish philosopher, wrote, “Days are like scrolls...write on them only what you want remembered.” This book represents my personal Torah scroll, the sacred text of my life experience, incorporating lessons I have learned during my winding, tortuous journey through the Wilderness.  These way stations have been the nexus where the mythological trials of Campbell’s hero have met the all-too-real predicaments of a current-day rabbi, the drama played out not in the belly of a whale but in the aisles of Walmart, their sacred lessons emanating not from within a Joban Whirlwind but from the creamy interior of an Oreo cookie.  The roadmap through my forty-two stations is best depicted not by Waze or Rand McNally, but through the Periodic Table of Being a Mensch that you see below.  

 The table was created by Tiffany Shlain and Let it Ripple Film Studio ( for the ten-minute film, The Making of a Mensch.  It incorporates Hebrew categories of character development popularized by the 19th century movement known as Mussar, a philosophical school that is gaining renewed popularity today. These twenty-four qualities meld neatly into the forty-two stepping stones of my journey.  This table is not like a game board, where the boxes may increase in value as you progress along the selected path.  Rather, these character traits are of nominally equivalent value and they need to be cultivated simultaneously, for they interact and reinforce one another.  A sense of justice is enhanced by accumulated wisdom and courage, and humor and humility go hand in hand.  This periodic table is really an interactive 3-D network of human strivings, presented here imperfectly on a one-dimensional grid.

The brief essays in this book are organized into categories of character, benchmarks of “menschiness” (or, to use the Yiddish term, menschlichkeit).   Each chapter describes a Mensch•Mark, one stepping stone toward spiritual maturation.  This search for personal grounding chronicles how I’ve struggled to transcend pain, to overcome the errors of youth and the perils of aging, to grow from failure, to balance the parental and pastoral, to navigate the shifting tides of post-Holocaust Judaism, to cherish the sanctity of life and the holiness of the everyday, and to overcome my own innate cynicism, seeking a purer faith of affirmation, trust, kindness – and forgiveness.

These themes have been guiding principles of my life’s message, each one becoming dominant at various times, and at other times receding into the background while they also interact and reinforce one another.  These Mensch•Marks, (OK, please indulge me if you think the term is corny), presented thematically rather than chronologically, are the points of reference through which I have constantly recalibrated my compass, and they are the life-lessons through which my journey will be assessed by my children after I am gone.  I hope some of these Mensch•Marks will inspire you as well. 

If at the end of the day, I have helped to nurture and raise a family – and a congregation – filled with real menschen (the plural of mensch), that will be just fine with me.  If by sharing what I’ve learned, I can bring just a bit more decency to a world that has lost its moral moorings, a modicum of generosity, honesty and human connection in a world overflowing with cruelty, loneliness and deceit, then I’ll have made it to my personal Promised Land.  I’ll have done my job.

I’m an optimist.  I believe that we can turn things around, one mensch at a time.
Being a rabbi has helped me to help many others – and myself - along the path toward finding wholeness and holiness on a human level.  For my very job is to be human – and to show others how.  As I wrote in The New York Times Magazine back when I was 28, which is now (gasp) over three decades ago:

As I see it, I am a spiritual leader simply because I want to refine my own spirit, to stretch myself, using the texts of my tradition for guidance, and, in doing so, possibly to inspire others to do the same.

I love my work because, in an age of self-driving cars, computerized Jeopardy champions and ubiquitous robocalls, mine is one of the few professions that can never be outsourced to a machine.  There is no Rabbi Robot.  When it comes to nurturing human qualities, rabbis and other clergy have a distinct experience advantage that can be very helpful in helping others to confront contemporary challenges to civility and integrity.

Look what’s happened to leisure time, which many consider to be a fundamental human need.  Rabbis know all about the loss of leisure time—we had to be on the job 24/7 long before the rest of America began seeing their working hours seeping into vacations and weekends.  Now, just about everyone must deal with emails elbowing their way onto our beach chairs, barbecues, and soccer sidelines.  How can we carve out opportunities to stop and smell the roses, experience transcendence, and take in the inherent beauty of life?

Mensch•Mark 19 will help show you how.

What about privacy?  “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.  But over the past several years, Americans have seen a precious wall of privacy crumble before their eyes, with so much information about each of us now being shared in social media—or more surreptitiously. Rabbis saw those barriers crumble long ago.  Long before Facebook, our lives were already an open book.  As one who grew up in the fishbowl as a PK (preacher’s kid), I know!  And I can help you cope with it.  See Mensch•Marks 1 and 13, for starters.

And when it comes to promoting mindfulness in daily living (something so many people are trying to do these days), or seeking kindness in an increasingly cruel landscape, or, at a time of unprecedented mobility, yearning for a sense of rootedness—well, rabbis have a two-millennium head start in dealing with all of these.  A whole bunch of Mensch•Marks will help you understand that; you can start with Mensch•Marks 4, 32, and 41.

Face it, with little privacy or downtime and a whole lot of moral challenges to juggle, you are all becoming a lot like me.  These days, everyone’s becoming clergy—and we clergy have lots of lessons to share about being human in the twenty-first century. 

Unlike a tell-all memoir, there are parts of my life that will not be all-told here.  An important yardstick in building a menschlicht life is the ability to preserve a smidgen of privacy in a world where so little of it remains.  My marriage, which has been incredibly stable and loving, is primarily off-limits here.  I speak a lot about the challenges of parenting, but my children’s adult lives are also allowed to recede respectfully into the background. My pets, however, are fair game.  And the marriage between myself and my congregation, which also been long and stable, is detailed here very selectively and (I hope) sensitively.  I’m not writing this to settle scores or to feed into the lurid appetites of an insatiable zeitgeist, but rather to respond to my father’s clarion call to me: “Be a mensch.”

So, given what I’ve just written, I must include this disclaimer right from the start.  My life has been b-o-r-i-n-g, at least by Hollywood standards.  I’m a serial monogamist in both my marriage and work.  While I’ve had a brush or two with death, I’ve been lucky enough, thus far, to avoid wars, natural disasters, or dreaded diseases.  I’ve experienced anti-Semitism and hate, but only in a manner that would have made millions of martyrs chuckle.  Ironically, rabbis are somewhat immunized from the kinds of overt anti-Semitism that might infect other workplaces; because we are so identifiable, people are usually on their best behavior.  I’ve had some vexing moments professionally that have tried my soul, but most of the crises I’ve faced would not have made the cut for your average Lifetime movie or Oprah interview.

But that’s precisely my point.  There is nobility in normalcy, especially in untethered times such as these.  There is a gallantry in overcoming everyday challenges that cuts to the essence of what the ancient rabbinic sages had in mind when they rescued Judaism from the rubble and ashes of another crazy apocalyptic era 2,000 years ago. 

As A. A. Milne taught every child equipped with a honey jar and an imagination, you don’t need wizards and dragons and secret portals to Narnia to find adventure and purpose in a Hundred Acre Wood.  The Milne quotes sprinkled throughout the book act as a unifying thread, a reminder that boring can be beautiful.  With a nod to Benjamin Hoff’s classic 1982 introduction to Eastern religion, The Tao of Pooh, one might call this sacred life-poem that I present here, “The Torah of Pooh.”  There’s a lot of dignity to be gained in the drudgery of daily life, and in the counted days of a single well-lived life.  Such a life is, in its distinct way, heroic.

I came into my profession with a great deal of ambivalence.  But with all the bumps that have occurred along the way, the “what ifs” and excruciating moments, I can now say, unequivocally, that being a rabbi has helped me grow into a far better human being than I would have been otherwise; a far more caring person, more appreciative of the precious legacy that I’ve been charged to reenergize, and more amazed, every day, at the simple dignity and courage of people, great and small.  My sacred work has enabled me to make a small difference in the lives of some, maybe even more than that, but it has undoubtedly enriched my own life to a far greater extent.  Here I share some of that enrichment with you.

My journey has taken me from my hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, to Brown University, where I majored in religious studies, a path that brought me closer to my own faith tradition; then to the Jewish Theological Seminary for rabbinic training and New York University for journalism, then professionally to Beacon, New York, then down the Hudson River to Peekskill, and finally to Stamford, Connecticut, where I’ve spent the past three decades at Temple Beth El, a progressive, inclusive, Conservative congregation that was, for me, a perfect place to unpack and stay for a decade or three.

When I left Peekskill, an artist presented me with a gorgeous, framed paper cut with the Hebrew line from Psalm 90, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  I hung it on my office wall in Stamford and stare at it every day.  If I’ve nothing else to share, let me share that lesson through the pages of this book.  Count your days and make every day count.  That’s what I’ve tried to do. 

I dedicate this book to my father, Michal Hammerman, who was one of the nation's most renowned cantors when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of sixty on New Year’s Day, 1979.  He saw me enter rabbinical school and then left us three months later.  This book is in no small measure a chronicle of my struggle to fulfill this dangling relationship, a bond that was severed so abruptly before it had had the chance to truly form.   

I also dedicate it to my mother, Miriam Hammerman, who, living into her mid-nineties—the last three decades with one lung—taught me through her struggles how to cherish each moment of life.  She passed away just as this book was being completed.  Formerly a concert pianist, she treasured every breath just as she used to caress each key.  The ravages of Parkinson’s robbed her of her ability to make music, but not of her smile, which still flashed nearly every time I visited.

And now, as I have passed the age of my dad’s passing, I can sense that mortality will not allow me unlimited opportunities to get this right.  So, this attempt to reclaim my father’s legacy leads me right back to his clarion call to me and the overriding theme of his life:  Being a mensch.       

As an aside, you may be wondering why the unusual punctuation for Mensch•Marks.  For one thing, I wanted the word “mensch” to be singled out, as I hope it can become the next big Yiddish thing to enter the English vernacular, like “chutzpah (recently accepted into American English by Webster’s),” “schlep” and “kvetch” (which memorably made it into the screenplay of Norma Rae), following in the footsteps of Americanized Yiddishisms that people no longer even realize were once Yiddish, like “klutz,” “glitch” and “bagel.”  Mensch is essentially untranslatable and it’s a word our culture needs, and it is my fervent hope that this book will go a long way toward naturalizing it as a full citizen of American English, where it currently is still branded as a foreigner, a loanword, by being italicized in some style manuals.  Mensch needs to be trending, not just in Bar Mitzvah speeches and eulogies.   It needs to become a thing.

Additionally, that raised dot has an interesting name in English.  It’s called a “middot,” as in, “a dot in the middle.”  But in Hebrew, that word connotes God’s thirteen attributes of love, the middot, and more generally, precisely the kind of ethical qualities that a mensch embodies.  An entire Jewish discipline, the aforementioned Mussar, has been built on the cultivation of these middot in our lives.  For those who feel that religion has been rendered irrelevant—and especially those younger Jews who have fallen away from Judaism—there is nothing more germane, life-affirming and profoundly useful than the middot conveyed in these life lessons.   It was the founder of modern Mussar, in fact, Rabbi Yisrael ben Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin, better known as Rabbi Israel Salanter, who summarized the purpose of his discipline precisely as I wish to frame this book:

At first I tried to change the world and failed. Then I tried to change my city and failed. Then I tried to change my family and failed. Finally, I tried to change myself and then I was able to change the world.

The guy outside the gates of Sodom could not have put it better.

Finally, since my job is not simply to share, but to inspire, prod and occasionally cajole (it’s what we rabbis do best), as you enter this very personal accounting of mine, I hope you will take it as a stimulus to chronicle your own Mensch•Marks, the encounters that have molded your character and helped you to navigate your way through your own Wilderness, bringing you closer living a life—a fully realized human life—in God’s image.