November 20, 2019

Mensch: A Feminist Response Where There Might Not Need to Be One

Each year following the Mensch issue, The Jewish Journal is besieged with letters noting that the word mensch is literally translated as man. If The Journal is going to include women on the list, as it rightfully does, what are the feminist implications?

Before you get your gatkes (underwear) in a bunch, let’s examine the etymology of the word more closely. Yes, mensch is translated as man (and, oddly, as employee) in Alexander Harkavy’s Yiddish-English dictionary, the go-to source for Yiddishists. That said, man isn’t the word’s actual meaning. Rather, this translation is merely reflective of a societal prejudice — the way mankind is used to encompass all human beings, or “every man for himself” also includes women.

“The Yiddish word for man is man,” confirms Hinde Ena Burstin, honorary research associate in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney, whose research is on gender, power, equality and justice in Yiddish poetry by women. “Mensch literally means person. Mensch is also used to denote a particular type of person: a humane, respectful and decent human being who is concerned for others. In either sense of the word, mensch can describe a female or male.”

Burstin acknowledges that there are some people who argue that mensch literally means man. “These tend to be the same people who do not notice women’s strengths, humanity, achievements and contributions to society. Women are invisible to them. They do not recognize women in the word mensch because they do not recognize women.”

As such, there is no need for a new term. “A word already exists that is applicable to women as well as men,” says Burstin. “There is nothing gender-specific about being a mensch, so a gender-specific word is not needed. If we artificially created a feminized form of mensch, or a new female-specific word, this would serve to exclude women from the internationally recognized term mensch and would further marginalize women.”

The problem, Burstin maintains, is not in the Yiddish word, but in the roots of the word’s faulty translations. “What is needed is not a change in the terminology, but a change in attitudes toward women. Women are still undervalued and underrepresented in many Jewish organizations, particularly at executive levels. Women’s contributions to society also receive far less recognition than the achievements and contributions of men.”