| Pinpoint |

Out of the Black 

Stick a pin in the phonebook. See where it lands. Make the call. Does everyone have a story? Five writers find out


In a world of blue surgical masks, Charna is the rose-gold sequined one. She texts to let me know that, so I can identify her at the pizza shop she likes to frequent. New Jersey has just recently reintroduced indoor dining, so this is an exciting first. But though de-masking for eating is now okay, you still need to wear masks while you’re, say, sitting around waiting to meet a journalist.

As I slide into the booth across from her, I immediately chastise myself for falling into the trap of snap stereotyping that I’ve always deplored in others.

When Miriam Milstein told me to pick a name at random, I was fairly certain I knew what to expect.

I’d struck out only once before getting an easy consent from Charna. I noted the address — typical Lakewood development. I got this. I figured I could probably write the story before meeting her. Mid-thirties or forties, kollel wife or recent-ex-kollel-wife, six kids, a Sienna, a townhouse, and a job in medical billing or special ed.

But from her unhurried, thoughtful diction to her expressive gestures, from her bobbed sheitel and handmade beaded necklace to her denim pencil skirt, it’s clear that Charna is no cookie-cutter cutout.

Charna’s parents, both baalei teshuvah, met in Tampa, then spent several years moving among Tristate communities in their search for a welcoming neighborhood and good school. They ended up in Lakewood around Chanukah time 26 years ago, when there were three girls’ elementary schools to choose from (today there are more than 30).

Not knowing the accepted way to apply, Charna’s parents dressed her nicely and knocked on the door of the principal’s office. Back in the day, a move like that could still end in acceptance, so the family was officially settled.


They put down roots in New England Village, famously home to the late Rabbi Shlomo Gissinger. Though currently considered centrally located, the neighborhood was then the town’s southern frontier, and some classmates teased Charna for living out in the boondocks.

The family’s proximity and close relationship with Rabbi Gissinger proved to be an anchor when Charna’s father passed away when she was only 19. The rav would frequently drop by to visit the family, inspecting the orphaned boys’ lulav and esrog on Erev Succos, and generally buoying their spirits.

After graduation and local half-day seminary, Charna worked in the baby room of a day care center, a job she loved. It cemented her dream to stay home with her own babies when they arrived.

Yanky Deutsch, a good friend of her father’s, stepped in as a father figure to the young orphans. He took them ice skating and boating, joked and teased and laughed with them. One day, out on the Delaware River, a skittish Charna spotted a spider in her boat, and reacting like any young lady would, she shrieked and dropped her paddle overboard.

Determined to pay her back for losing his paddle, Mr. Deutsch pranked her by suggesting a shidduch idea that he knew she’d never consider: a chassidish bochur he’d met in the camp kitchen where he was cook.

“I always said I’d never marry a chassid,” says Charna, “but everything I said I’d never do has happened. I’ve learned to never say never.”

After marrying Ushi, a plumber, Charna continued to work until the birth of her first child Shimon. She remembered all the promises she’d made about staying home to raise her own children, and learned a new way of life. A fiercely protective parent, she remembers how “my neighbors threw a party the first day I put my baby down in a stroller outside instead of holding him on my shoulder.”

With time, the family found their rhythm, and soon Shimon was joined by a brother and then a sister. Charna remained a homemaker, although she did start a small business selling her handmade jewelry from home.

Did the schools of two decades ago promote a kollel lifestyle? And if so, where did Charna find the backbone to choose a different path for her family?

“The talk was all about supporting your family,” remembers Charna. Kollel was a big thing, and even if you didn’t go that route, it was assumed you’d be contributing financially and needed to be prepared for that reality. “I came from a family where I’d come home from school and my mom was there to greet me with a smile, with supper cooking on the stove behind her if it wasn’t already on the table.” Charna knew that she wanted to recreate that model in her home.

Her stint as a day care provider, while enjoyable, reinforced that commitment. “It was upsetting for me to see the kids being dropped off and raised by teachers.” (Who were absolutely wonderful, she hastens to assure me.)

“I ran out on my lunch break to buy something for the kids whose mothers forgot to send them food.” As well-tended as the babies in her care were, Charna knew she wanted to be the main presence in her own children’s lives.

“When everyone else is working and you’re home, you definitely get looks,” she says.

The neighbor at the bus stop is busy texting her babysitter about the day’s schedule, the therapist zips by with her sensory equipment, and you’re going home to make the beds and reorganize the playroom closet.

You can feel the superiority coming off them in waves: What does she do all day? Sometimes, it seems like we’ve nudged the Yiddishe Mamme off her pedestal to clear a space for Superwoman.

But with time, Charna’s learned to disregard the judgment of others. “You do you.” Charna is fiercely protective of her family, and has the clarity of purpose to know that she’s doing what’s right for them at this point.

It helps that she has nonjudgmental neighbors. Her basement apartment’s landlady is her yeshivish former fifth-grade teacher. A Sephardic family lives next door, a Gerrer family lives across the street, while Charna loosely describes herself as “modern chassidish.”

Although Charna’s family is ready to upgrade from a basement apartment — the oldest is already a sixth-grader — they are loath to leave their friendly cul-de-sac. They’re fully aware that not all neighborhoods share the same camaraderie.

In Lakewood, developments keep popping up, each identified by the “type” who live there. A real estate agent recently asked Ushi what type he is — does he learn, or work and learn half day, or what? Ushi replied that he’s a plumber.

“Sheigetz!” exclaimed the realtor.

After a brief silence, Ushi realized the agent was joking, and they shared a good laugh. But beneath every joke, there’s a kernel of truth, and this is a town that was built on kollel, and there are some who evaluate by that yardstick.

Her life story is still unfolding, and Charna is eager to see where it will take them next.

We bentsh and I thank Charna for sharing her brightly colored view of the black-and-white monolith that is Lakewood. We then replace our masks and become faceless strangers once more.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 712)

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