The neo-con recasting of 'mensch'

The most jarring phrase, to my ears, during the recent election, was: "Many people say Stephen Harper is a mensch." I heard it on a radio panel about rising Jewish support for Harper. In some heavily Jewish Toronto-area ridings, Tories defeated long-term Liberals (Joe Volpe, Ken Dryden) based largely and perhaps solely on Harper standing "four-square behind Israel." Harper's support for anything Israel's government does has indeed been more automatic and unflinching than any other government's. But mensch?

The term comes from Yiddish, the language of East European Jews, many of whom, including my family, immigrated here a century ago. It means a person, but of rare quality. Yiddish authority Leo Rosten says it connotes "noble character." Others talk about rectitude; I'd add: soulful. Calling someone a mensch is the highest compliment. It derives from German, where the word meant "human being" but became part of the 18th century enlightenment, which envisioned new levels of human unity, as in the French Revolution's equality and fraternity. The poet Schiller wrote that all "menschen" shall be brothers, which Beethoven dropped into the climax of his ninth symphony.

In Stephen Harper's case, the meaning seems closer to "unshakable ally" or: "He has our back no matter what we do." It lacks the essential moral element. I'm sure Harper and his supporters would say it's all based on Israel being in the right, but it's hard to imagine anything Israel could do that Harper would fault. In fact, I'd like to hear him name something.

This Harperization of Yiddish reflects larger historical shifts among Canadian Jews. They once were immigrant, Yiddish-speaking, poor or working class, vulnerable and left-leaning. As they succeeded economically, they grew less vulnerable but also, I'd say, less soulful, and moved politically to the right.

In global terms, with Israel's rise, Jews seemed less an insecure minority in many countries (where they'd made vast cultural contributions); they had a state of their own now, like "all the nations," and a new language: Hebrew.

So why revert to Yiddish terms like mensch? Because in the process of advancing economically in Canada -- or internationally through establishing Israel -- there can be losses as well as gains. One is more secure but may feel less . . . vital; there had been triumph in persisting against "oppressors" for millennia. And diasporic existence wasn't all suffering; it included great achievements and "golden" eras. So you try and hang onto that past, through nostalgic plays like Fiddler on the Roof, or Montreal's upcoming festival of "le mood" or resurrecting Yiddish. But this can be a tricky, self-contradictory process, as in the neo-con recasting of "mensch."

My cousin, Ben Orenstein, turns 90 this weekend. He was CEO of Holiday Inns throughout the Commonwealth, and Harbourfront's first chairman. Since retiring, he and his brothers meet daily, ostensibly to do business but really to "kibbitz." His generation has deep roots in that past.

For decades, till the recent death of his wife, Joyce (née Salutin), he hosted a huge Passover seder at a Holiday Inn. One year, perhaps after Israel's massive assault on a nearly defenceless Gaza, I pondered a section during the ritual that counts the plagues God visited on all Egyptians to persuade their ruler to free his Jewish slaves -- culminating in the indiscriminate slaughter of every first-born child. During those millennia of insecurity, I thought, it may have provided symbolic comfort; but now when a Jewish state has the world's 11th strongest military and the region's only nuclear arsenal, it resonates more ominously. Later, Ben came over and asked how I was doing. I said I'd been thinking about some of that language. He knew my views differed from many who were there. He paused, then said, very mildly and nonjudgmentally, "It's barbaric." It was as if he'd climbed inside my thoughts with me. Then he took my arm and steered me toward another room, where dessert was being served.

That's a mensch.

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.

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