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  • Writer's pictureHeather Sherman

Be a 'Mensch,' Especially in Tough Times

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

If you’re looking to pay someone the highest compliment - the ‘Nobel Prize’ of praise - a ‘mensch’ is how you would describe them. The term originated from the German word for ‘human being,’ later becoming part of the Yiddish language, and through the years, the word ‘mensch’ has transcended both religion and pop culture.

So, what type of person is a 'mensch'? Imagine Mother Teresa times Ghandi, throw in a pinch of Tom Hanks - and then triple it.

A 'mensch' doesn’t just help you to your car with your groceries, they pay your bill because they know you’ve had a tough month (and they'll never admit it). The best part - ‘mensch’ is a term that must be bestowed upon someone. It’s not a title you can simply give yourself.

And now, thanks to Elisa Udaskin’s book ‘Be a Mensch: Unleash Your Power to Be Kind and Help Others,’ we have a play-by-play guide to do exactly that. Udaskin says that once the idea for the book sparked, she was so inspired, she’d wake up at 3:00am and start writing. “I felt like my whole life has led me to this book,” she says. “My Jewish heritage and love for Yiddish, mixed with my desire to help people, I learned a lot along my journey and wanted to share that knowledge with others.”

Read my Q&A with Elisa and click here to visit her website, where you can buy the book!

In your mind, what truly makes a ‘mensch’?

A mensch is a good person, a good, honourable person. Someone with integrity. I believe that most people are mensches, and most people do mensch-like things. But sometime we have our ‘putz’ moments. It’s a choice, really. In the book, I talk a lot about everyday interactions that have happened to me, how I reacted at the time and how I wish I had reacted if I’d had my ‘mensch’ hat on. Road rage is one example. I mean, how many times have you been cut off by another driver and your immediate reaction is to get angry and shout at them? Rationally, we know that we’re still going to get where we’re going. So why does it bother us so much? What if we all just took a deep breath, had a bit of patience and realized that maybe that driver is going through a hard time, or rushing to get somewhere because of an emergency? Being a mensch means making a conscious choice to do that, to take that breath, have more patience, more often than not.

What are some things you’ve noticed over the past year, since Covid hit us?

Many people continue to struggle, now, eighteen months later.

Relationships have taken their toll as well. It can be more confusing than ever and tricky when trying to get together with family and friends. People have different levels of comfort regarding being with others indoors, outdoors – there really is no “going back to how it was before.”And this can be stressful on relationships when people have vastly different and strong opinions. My advice is, the best way to navigate these situations is to try your hardest to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and always be respectful of their stance. If you can come to common ground on seeing each other in person, that’s terrific. But if you can’t, it’s more important to keep your relationships dear. Suggest that you will have dates on the phone, on Facetime, outdoors, and when the person who is not so comfortable being with others in person is more comfortable, then you will get together. Mutual respect and understanding, even if you hold a completely different point of view, is crucial to maintaining those sacred relationships.

Many people are also struggling in each of our communities – with job losses and mental health issues exacerbated by the pandemic. We can support people, those we know and also those we don’t know, by checking in regularly, dropping off meals, donating to fundraisers when we hear of people in our community that need an extra bit of love and support.

It is so crucial right now to let people know that you care about them, and it doesn’t have to be in person. My whole message of the book is that we have to get away from thinking that everything needs to be a grand, heroic gesture. Sometimes a phone call or a text can make someone’s day and make them feel less alone. Just, ‘Hi, how are you?’ or ‘I’m thinking about you’ can make all the difference.

What can we do to help children truly understand the essence of kindness and being a ‘mensch’?

There are a few stories in the book that have a similar theme - and this is it. I don’t believe that you teach kindness, I believe in modelling kindness. It’s all about modelling behaviour. If you’re in a restaurant and you’re rude or yelling at the waiter because your food is late, then your child is going to model that behaviour. We have been blessed to have done a lot of traveling as a family. Once, when we were in Cambodia, we had just had pizza for dinner at a restaurant, and there were leftovers. I saw a group of children outside who were selling gum. I said to my son who was 10 at the time, ‘let’s give our pizza to those kids.’ He felt embarrassed to do it himself, so I did it. A couple of days later, we were in a different city, and again, we had pizza, and there were leftovers (yes, we eat a lot of pizza!). This time, it was my son’s initiative to give our leftovers to a group of tuk tuk drivers. I watched him walk it over. They didn’t speak the same language, but it didn’t matter. They graciously accepted the meal and nodded thank you. When he came back over, I didn’t make a big deal, but he knew I was proud of him.

In the past year I involved my son when I made a meal for a family. I shared with him why I was doing it and then he rode with me while I dropped it off. In this way he saw what our family values were in action and how we can always do nice things for others.

So, what are some tangible ways that we can unleash the power to be kind and help?

I really think it’s through actions and behaviours.

When I was working on my website, I sent our surveys to people to try to understand the motivation behind reaching out to help - or not reaching out - when someone is going through a difficult time, or when there is a death in the family. I wanted to understand how people saw their own limitations in these situations. So many people who had lost a parent answered that it was only after they went through it themselves, that they realized what they needed to do for others.

I also think many people hesitate to reach out because they are afraid of offending or overstepping at a delicate time. What if they do the wrong thing? But the truth is, you can’t do the wrong thing if you are genuine and want to help. What is the worst thing that can happen if you send a meal to an acquaintance or neighbour who is going through a tough time? The best thing is that they’ll feel loved. I personally feel so guilty about all of the times I had good intentions but didn’t follow through on them. I still have it with me that I wish I had done more. We’re all human and I know now that it’s ok to feel that way, as long as next time, I make an effort to do things right.

So, what are some tangible ways that we can unleash the power to be kind and help?

Truly, there are so many things you can do to help - and the beauty of the book is that many or most of these things, you can do with your children, or your family. Here are a few examples and there are many more in the book!

-Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line

-Send flowers to a friend just because

-Tip BIG!

-Sponsor a child in need

-Hold the door open for someone

-Shovel your neighbour’s driveway the morning after a snowstorm

-Teach children to be kind, empathetic

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