The word "mensch," in the Yiddish language, means a good and giving person. And "menschlachkeit" is the expanded term that denotes this total behavioral approach that is concerned with doing the right thing for humankind and community.
I have long been an ardent advocate for buying local and supporting the main business corridor in one's community. There has been a terrible hit to America's traditional "downtown" businesses as the Category Killers took their places in malls and alongside our highways and last but by no means least, the myriad online opportunities for easy commerce emerged. Price has come to supplant place.
I was born in a small city in Southwestern, Ontario with a population of some 50,000 souls.
My father was a second-generation downtown merchant. My grandfather who arrived in Canada from Europe in 1921, started as a junk peddler who then went into selling second-hand furniture until morphing his store during the Depression into a full-fledged furniture store, literally selling everything for the home. It was a sweet enterprise that supplied a working-class clientele with affordable new furniture; in a community known as the Chemical Valley of Canada, by the presence of many of the major petroleum foundries and their associated businesses.
Sarnia, Ontario was your classic mid-century Canadian small town, not unlike countless parallels in Downtown, USA. There were solid businesses of every type. A beautiful and memorable annual event was its "Downtown Days." Before the age of pedestrian malls, this was a chance to spill into the streets and try out the merchandise from the outside displays in front of every store. There were rides that included a double-decker bus and horse and buggy. It sounds like reminiscences from the dark ages to the contemporary reader. Indeed it was 60 years ago. But these were bright times. There was spirit and sharing in this Main Street commercial district.
Such close associations with local merchants who had their roots and personal interests in the community fostered a great sense of social capital.
The Harvard scholar Michael Sandel writes of this key element for social cohesion. In his book, "Democracy and its Discontents," he describes the concerns when A & P first came to town. It was a major threat to the local family-run businesses. There would be less interest and investment in the needs and personality of the local community coming from a company with a head office elsewhere.
Robert Putnam's lament in his classic, "Bowling Alone," of a diminution of civic and social engagement as evidenced by fewer organized group activities, bowling leagues being but one example, also emphasizes the importance of social capital. Living and doing business with your local merchants had its benefits and still does. The local store is more apt to give better service than today's big box stores. Just think of the family-owned hardware store where they "nail it right the first time. " There is a true interest in and concern for the customer. Local merchants sponsor and coach little league teams and a good year on Main Street benefit the public with local investment in community projects. "Main Streets" are places and businesses where "everybody knows your name." Shopping is a positive social experience. By being local merchants, they are real stakeholders in the community.
If there are problems in town you cannot lose them in a commute; they follow you home at night.
So I not only lament in so many situations the disappearance of Main Street in so many American towns and smaller cities but I call and cry out for our embrace of those places that can still boast a Main Street. It is worth the perhaps slightly higher prices for the positive purchasing experiences and the attending benefits that accrue to the local landscape.
There is in my mind a serious degree of the false economy with our ramped-up use of the internet for shopping when the same could be achieved and obtained locally.
Where and when there is a local ferment, the community benefits. That ferment rises from a local population that understands the positive offshoots of a strong local business artery and economy. It requires a certain effort to develop and support the needed menu of local businesses. "Doing good in town," is an ethical imperative.
It is interesting to note that in the Jewish Talmud, the Scholars teach that one should not live in a town that doesn't have basic amenities including a doctor and open green space. Main Street is one such cornerstone amenity.
Without our "menschlschkeit for Main Street," we not only deny ourselves a local business area but we also seriously and often permanently diminish the opportunity for meaningful. communal engagement and tear irreparably at our social fabric.
The ethics of buying local need to be better appreciated and, when still possible, followed. Otherwise, our communities in the true holistic sense will atrophy and die.
There is at least a meta-Halakhic, Jewish legal imperative to care for and promote acceptance of this mandate.
I am sure my friends in other faith communities wish for and want to pursue the same.