What is a Mensh?

By Jason Zavaleta

I ask Jeremy:

My story is about my Grandfather, a gambling addict, married at 17, a father 18, he spent all his time hiding from his family, had a heart attack at 38, and finally went into recovery in the mid 70’s. At my Bar Mitzvah, he encourage me to be a “mensh”, and in his Gambler’s Anonymous speech in 1992, he said he himself was a mensh. So…


1.What is the meaning of the word “mensh”?

2.What did that concept mean to the people who believed in it, then and now?

3.How does it affect a situation where someone who has sinned comes out of a bad behavior and becomes someone who can face themselves?

4.Can mensh-ness be earned? Can it ONLY be earned?

5.From a society standpoint, does being a mensh define our life values?

6.If so, how does Jewish culture perceive and value a mensh? The Jewish version of Maslow’s pyramid, is that the best?



Gambling Shortcuts

By Jason Zavaleta

This past weekend, I interviewed my mother Denise. This was the first of five interviews about my Grandfather’s life; about being a gambling addict, going through recovery, and finally living the end of his life as a “mensh”.

My mother spoke about how she felt isolated from him when she was a child:

When it came to the end of the interview, and a few tears had been shed, I asked her is there’s anything else she’d like to say about her dad:

To Be Continued…

Looking Back: My First Interview

By Jason Zavaleta

This past weekend, I interviewed my mother Denise. This was the first of five interviews.

I found this interview to be quite inspiring. Although I had already known most of the information she told me about my Grandfather, I got to see and hear for the first time how she felt about my Grandfather’s life being a gambling addict, going through recovery, and finally living the end of his life as a “mensh”.

Our interview began and we talked about my Grandparents early relationship, I found out that for their wedding “cake” they each had an ice cream cone because that’s all they could afford besides a bus trip back to New York from Maryland where they eloped.

When I asked her about his gambling addiction and how it affected her life, and the structure of her family, she spoke about how separated they were when she was a child…

When it came to the end of the interview, and a few tears had been shed, I asked her is there’s anything else she’d like to say about her dad, and I was touched to hear her words…

So, I think this interview was a success. There’s still much to hear in my upcoming interviews in New York. I am eager to continue to discover who my Grandfather is, and how through a lifelong addiction, became a “mensh”

To Be Continued…

Chapter 4: A Re-examination

By Jason Zavaleta

I decided to look back at my Bar Mitzvah blessing, now knowing where my Grandfather’s words came from.

The line that now stands out to me the most is the one right after he tears up, “Be a human crutch to those who fall”. In the first few lines of his speech, he mentions the “human crutches” from his past, people who helped him get through those tough times. Then he said, “Be a mensh”, a man who contains “all the goodness of humanity”.

I think about how those words shape who I am today. Today, I want to do what I can to make a difference in the world. Starting at home, with my friends and family, I try very hard to maintain a lifestyle that makes people feel good, that fulfills my need to bring good things to the world. I think I’ve always have been that way, but I remember and can feel when I listen to his words, that he definitely help remind me of the direction I should be heading.

Considering his past, it makes sense. I think he suffered through feeling empty, and lost. I’m sure he didn’t want me to feel the same things he felt.

This blessing is now more personal, since hearing his speech. It was the one time I feel I made a connection with him that was more than just everyday talk about what I was doing and the weather difference from New York to California. I guess that if I were to talk to him now, and asked about his speech, what he wanted me to take away from it, would be his blessing. He said everything that he wanted me to be, and by doing so, perhaps I wouldn’t make the same mistakes as him.

I have a better idea of what this blessing means, but to fully understand it, I need to continue to find out more about my Grandfather’s past.

Chapter 3: The Tape

By Jason Zavaleta

Two weeks ago, I was introduced to a new element to my story I had not considered. I always knew my Grandfather was a gambler and he was in Gambler’s Anonymous (GA) for years, but that is all I knew. When I was home recently for Thanksgiving, ironically right around the time a year after my Grandfather’s death, my mother asked me if I had ever heard his GA speech. No, I hadn’t, I didn’t even know it existed.

My mom popped the tape in the car radio and his thundering voice echoed in my ear drums. For the next sixteen minutes, I laughed, cried, and remembered him. In his speech, he talked about how he married my Grandmother, how he wasn’t ready to be a father, and how gambling took over and destroyed his “treasures.” He finished with how he’d changed and how he finally become “a part of the map of life.”

I was in a silent shock when the tape ended. I didn’t even know what to think. All these years I knew him, flew out to see him, and him to me, I never knew just how much turmoil and tragedy he went through. I felt left in the dark, like he should have told me about this. It was from this speech that the words from my Bar Mitzvah blessing came. I always wondered why he chose those words and I am hearing them on a tape, after his death, the reason.

All I wanted to do was call him on the phone and have a lengthy conversation on everything he said, but I couldn’t.

Aunt Nicole and my Grandfather a few years ago

At one point in his speech, he said that when my Aunt Nicole was 28 years old, she went to a GA meeting with my Grandfather and there she sat with tears “welding in her eyes”, “Father I never recall you saying ‘I love you’.” I couldn’t believe that was true. How on earth does a parent never tell their child that they love them? For 28 years…

My parents tell me they love me almost everyday. Being reminded that I am loved is something I take for granted but it’s like a battery that I’m unaware of, it keeps me going. Hearing that they love me keeps me sane. It prevents me from losing control because it’s easy to feel out of control when there’s no love to balance out the difficulties of life.

My Grandfather’s difficulties with gambling caused the almost sure destruction of his family. Somehow he realized that needed to change and he made those changes.

Now, I will use his speech to guide me to help uncover more about who he was, bringing me that much closer to feeling connected to my Grandfather.

The Beginning: My Side.


By Jason Zavaleta

I grew up in California, and my Grandfather lived in New York.  Every year, at least once, from the time I was a year old my family would go out to visit my Grandparents. When I’d see him, I’d get bombarded with hugs and kisses, and all I wanted to do was play. He used to tell me inappropriate jokes that my mother would always scold him for. Some things were special though. He loved chess, and I’d always challenge him to a game after dinner at his house. Of course, I’d always lose, but it was fun to test my skills against the champion. Then there was the famous “Grandpa Tickle”. Which was a combination between a massage and a good scratch on your back while lying down, and every time he did it to me, I’d be asleep within five minutes. My Grandfather always made me laugh, and I know I made him laugh too. I loved him, and I know he loved me too. Every holiday, no matter how small, and often I didn’t even know it existed, he’d send a cute card with a note and a gift. Then when I got older, things changed.

When I was ten or eleven, my Grandmother got sick. A still unnamed neurological illness caused her pain and forgetfulness. My Grandfather now had to spend all his time taking care of her. Soon, when I came to visit, I was doing work, I was helping, and listening to the many conversations he was having with my mom about my Grandmother’s health. I was left pretty much in the dark. Year after year, she got worse, and soon, so did he.

By the time I was 14 my Grandmother was in a nursing home, and not doing well. The last time I went to New York before her death, my Grandfather had pretty much become a stone. No laughs, no “Grandpa Tickles”, and he had grown to ill and tired for a chess game. I was angry, and I felt like going to New York had become a burden. Suddenly my Grandmother decided to stop living, and I flew out to sadly, see her pass. After that, my Grandfather was not the same. He kept talking about how he wanted to die, and our conversations on the phone were short and insignificant.

Meanwhile,  a important event in my life was taking place. I had gotten into a relationship with a girl, Alex was her name. Her and I had been friends on and off for about two years, until suddenly in 2007, we started to date. We were working on my first high school film together. Her the leading female role, I the director. It was a great experience, and it somehow brought us together.

Alex in the Mirror

A picture of Alex I took on set, before we were together...look closely...

We connected in that special way very fast. We were both into humanities and social service and doing work to make a difference. Our spiritual paths were almost on the same page, while still different, we connected on multiple levels. I would always think about her and my relationship like that of my grandparents. Met young, at 16, got married and 17 and lived together the rest of their lives. I thought her and I would be the same way. But ironically, the deaths of my grandparents caused harsh changes in Alex and my relationship.

When my Grandmother died, I thought it would be a lesson to help me treasure her even more. And it did for a long time, but when my Grandfather passed. I felt like all the hope had been sucked out of the hope of the relationship as Alex and I were in a rough time, right around when he passed. We had been together for almost two years. It was so sad, that with the death of both of my Grandparents, it was like that love that I idolized so much that they had, faded, and my relationship too, faded.

From my eyes, this story is starting to unfold…


By Jason Zavaleta

By Jason Zavaleta

Everywhere, everyday, refections appear in mirrors, water, windows, and so on. It seems though, that these images of ourselves looking back at us from these numerous surfaces, doesn’t seem to have a meaning. So often do people just glance to see if their hair is fixed right or if their tie needs adjusting, and looking at everything in the reflection but what’s important. Themselves.

Reflections provide you with a chance to stop for a moment, and question yourself. Is this who I want to be? Do I like who I am? Could I be better? All these questions come up when I see my reflection. Looking at yourself and evaluating that image in that reflection is probably one of the hardest things to do. Continue reading