You know, as ubiquitous as it seemed to be during the past few holiday seasons, I wasn’t really aware of the Elf on the Shelf until about three years ago.
Let me rephrase that. I knew it was there. You couldn’t help but trip over them in stores. But I didn’t know what it was all about. I just figured it was a cute little decoration for your house. Then the Mensch on the Bench came out, and when I heard about him, I learned about the Elf…and quickly decided which one I liked better.
Turns out that the premise of the Elf on a Shelf, is that the elf sits in your house every day, checking on you, to give a report back to Santa on whether you’ve been naughty or nice. A lot of people have criticized this as being a little creepy, and just one more case of the “surveillance state” creeping into our lives. Some have simplified the elf’s job as being there waiting for you to do something naughty, that he can then report back to Santa.
The Mensch on the Bench comes with a different premise. First of all, let me explain what a mensch is. In German it simply means a person, a human being. But in Yiddish it’s so much more than that. In Yiddish a mensch is a person of good character, a person who is always looking out for others, a person you should strive to emulate. When I heard the creator speak about on NPR back in 2013, I came away with the impression that the job of the mensch is not to catch you when you mess up, but to watch over you while you do good…to encourage you to be more like him. And he reports back to no one.
Well…I immediately knew which one I liked better. The elf reminded me just a little too much of every tattletale I’ve ever dealt with (especially those I’m related to). The mensch was more like a silent cheerleader to do good.
With the results of this year’s presidential election, a lot of us who voted for Hillary are in Elf on a Shelf mode…just waiting…hoping even…for Trump to screw up, so we can say, “I told you so.” But maybe this is counterproductive. Perhaps, instead, we should be more like the mensch, waiting, hoping, for the new President to break the caricature we have of him…and it’s every bit as much a caricature as the one that “they” had of Hillary…and offering encouragement along the way.
Several years ago my wife gave me a t-shirt for my birthday that had “mensch” on it, written in the Hebrew letters that Yiddish was classically written in.
You’ll find me wearing it, and sitting on my bench.