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Kaminsky, M. (1994). Discourse and Self-Formation: The Concept of Mentsh in Modern Yiddish Culture: Cultural Difference and the Concept of Person. Am. J. Psychoanal., 54(4):293-316.

(1994). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 54(4):293-316

Discourse and Self-Formation: The Concept of Mentsh in Modern Yiddish Culture: Cultural Difference and the Concept of Person

Marc Kaminsky, C.S.W.

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its societal and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures.

—Clifford Geertz, “‘From the Native's Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding”

My research on the concept of mentsh had its beginning in a thought that came to me suddenly and full-blown while I was reading Clifford Geertz's famous essay “on the nature of anthropological understanding.” Here, Geertz constructs the “concept of person” as an object of inquiry and defamiliarizes our notion of what being a self consists of by describing the astonishingly different forms that personhood takes in three different cultures. As I read this, the word mentsh flashed through my mind, evoking a sense of abundance, a “rush” of feelings linked to my memories of that imaginary shtetl which was itself built out of memories and which was rendered more vivid and palpable than the actual Bronx, where I was a bicultural commuter between worlds, by the power of words—Yiddish words, the words in which my grandparents and parents lived what they deemed their real lives and enacted what they felt to be their true selves.


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