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Still Trying To Be a Mensch
Character is a lifelong work in progress.
by Jack Stern

When I was five years old, a life-threatening infection in my right hip necessitated three successive surgeries. The procedures left me with a right leg that was shorter than the left and limited mobility of the right hip. When I eventually returned to school, my right leg was casted from foot to hip, and a wheelchair was my mode of transportation. After a year had passed, I could stand and walk on my own but with a noticeable limp. Since baseball had been a special passion of mine, my friends allowed me to wield the bat. When I made a hit, a team member would run the bases in my stead.

The experience of that illness and its aftermath have had a defining influence on my character development. Even though the ordeal had to be traumatic for my parents (they had already endured the loss of two young children and I was close to being number three), they managed to treat me not as essentially handicapped or disabled but as a normal kid. Through all the years since, whenever I come into contact with someone who is disabled, I try, not always with total success, to relate to that person as a normal human being who simply happens to have a handicap.

During successive surgeries, I received extraordinary kindness and support from my doctors and nurses. Consequently, at the age of ten I decided to become a doctor and provide to others the same nurturing support extended to me. But some years later, when assigned to dissect a starfish in a high school zoology class, my hand trembled so uncontrollably that then and there I decided to seek an alternative outlet for my nurturing aspirations. And that's how I later determined to become a rabbi.

* * *

I grew up in Cincinnati, gateway to the South, where "Negroes" were perceived as inept and inferior, and were to be kept "in their place." Nonetheless, our backyard handball game always included Frankie, the Black son of the janitor from the house next door. During one of our games, a tenant in our building called out from the window of her apartment: "I just spoke to the landlord (unfortunately, my own grandfather), and he said that Frankie should go home and he can't play in our yard anymore." To this day I visualize Frankie, humiliated, slinking on his trek from our yard to his. I must have felt my own share of disgrace because years later, as a student at the Hebrew Union College, I joined with my classmate Michael Robinson and others in sit-ins at restaurants which refused to serve Blacks. We also participated in protest marches at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, which soon thereafter admitted Blacks into its student body. And during the early years of my rabbinate, I addressed the local Rotary Club during Brotherhood Week. In the course of my remarks, I pointed to the fact that there were no Blacks at the luncheon. How, I asked, is it possible to speak on the theme of brotherhood when you exclude human brothers who were not born with white skin? Several Rotarians stormed out of the room.

And yet, all these years later, if I am annoyed by someone's ineptitude, and if that person happens to be African American, the old stereotype springs up and takes me by surprise. Despite all my commitment to human equality and to a lifetime of acting on its behalf, the ghosts still have a way of jumping out of the closet. What I do then is call them for what they are and send them off packing--because I still remember Frankie.

* * *

When I was in my teens, an uncle of mine who served as a judge in Family Court in Cincinnati invited me to attend and observe. That day a teenager was standing before the judge on the charge of stealing. "What do you have to say for yourself?" my uncle asked him. The young man replied, "I did it, Judge. I know I've got the punishment coming. So just put me in jail." At that moment the boy's mother stood up and berated her son: "You just can't stand there and say that you did it and should be put in jail--because then they'll let you out of jail, you'll do it again, and you'll go to jail again. That's not why I clean houses every day from morning 'til night and hold so many jobs, not so you can stand there and say, 'I did it and put me in jail' and then get out and do it again. You're going to shape up and account to me."

I have never forgotten that woman, who called her son to account for setting his moral bar so low. I have tried to apply her message of moral responsibility and accountability to my own life and rabbinate. That has meant telling congregations that they are responsible for conducting their affairs on the highest ethical level: in the way they deal with staff, in the compassion they extend to their members, and in the conduct of their financial affairs. We fulfill our own ethical responsibilities not only by avoiding the big pitfalls (cheating, exploiting, stealing) but also by minding the smaller potholes (causing embarrassment to another human being, not heeding a call for help, not listening with our total selves). Whenever I trip into some of these potholes, I hear the voice of that mother calling her son to account.

* * *

Criticism hurts, whether over something I did or did not do, or over something I said or should not have said. From early on, Priscilla--my loving wife and, when necessary, my loving critic--helped me sort out the merits of an indictment. Was I fair in what I said or what I did? Did I take into account what the other person might have been feeling? And from those helpful questions, I was able to keep my mind open and to evaluate the accusation that had been leveled at me. Even when the harshness of the criticism might have been deemed unjustified, I was still able to look for a kernel of validity and, if I found one, to redirect myself accordingly. What I have striven for is a degree of humility--not self-effacement but self-honesty. As I have learned from the Midrash, a person should have two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. One of the papers reads: "I am created in the image of God" and the other reads: "I am but a particle of dust." It is for us to determine which piece of paper to take out in response to a particular time and situation.

* * *

Last November, I was scheduled for surgery (the hip again). Having proceeded through all of the pre-surgical testing, I was lying on the gurney in a surgical gown all ready for the operating room when one of the medical personnel noticed a sore on the back of my thigh. The surgeon then announced that he could not perform the operation for fear of infection. I was devastated. "What do I do now?" I asked him. "You get dressed and go home, and we'll reschedule." After recovering from the shock, I asked myself the same question: "What do I do now?" I answered my question: "I'll reschedule for three weeks from today, which means that I will be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family."

It goes back to the vigor of my survival instinct that was an outcome of my childhood illness. I learned early on to make the best of what starts out as not so good. It's not just the human power of positive thinking, but the power of positive acting. It's not so much as seeing the glass half full instead of half empty, but of looking for a way to refill the glass that circumstances have emptied. Some glasses, however, can never be refilled. When my wife died, the glass was shattered altogether. But by now there is yet another glass, filled with memories, with family, with friends, with life, even as that first one still lies in broken pieces. It's the attempt to make the sun shine even on a dreary day. It's the energy to search out the redeeming qualities in people from whom we would otherwise keep our distance. The highest compliment I ever received as a rabbi: "You make us think we are better than we are, and that makes us try to be better."

* * *

When it comes to character development, I'm still learning. Not long ago, on a day when I was experiencing much physical discomfort and feeling discouraged, I had to call the office of an organization that finds affordable housing for the homeless. I serve there as a board member. The woman who answered the phone said, "How are you doing, Jack?" "Oh, I'm still on crutches," I replied with a real kvetch in my voice. She exclaimed, "Good for you!" I felt viscerally annoyed at her response, but said nothing. Sometime later, I recalled that the woman I had been talking to is permanently confined to a wheelchair. From her vantage point, "Good for you!" is a loud cheer for someone who is able to walk on crutches. I had placed before me my own stumbling block--feeling sorry for myself--and, as a result, I had totally misconstrued the encounter. Suffice it to say that character is not simply a list of attributes to be enumerated but, for each of us, a work in progress.

I'm 79 years old and still trying to live by the earthly Jewish advice that rises to the power of a command: Try to be a mensch.

Rabbi Jack Stern is rabbi emeritus of Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York.


Union for Reform Judaism.