| Family Tempo |

Profiles in Greatness

Why not profile Ruchi Steinberg, eminently average Jewish woman? Don’t we struggling non-superheroes deserve to be represented in the pages of our magazines?

At first glance, Tzirel Gutfreund looks like your ordinary mother of 17. She greets me in her tiny but immaculate home with the graciousness of one accustomed to hosting, seating me at her worn but homey dining room table. (“These are the holy scratch marks made by my husband’s and sons’ shtenders as they learn during their 2 a.m. mishmar,” she tells me as she fondly caresses the indentations.) The table is laid with a crystal platter overflowing with assorted homemade cakes.

But as I meet her eyes, at once deeply caring and piercingly shrewd, I catch a glimmer of the powerhouse behind the ordinary facade. And as we talk, Tzirel slowly opens up, overcoming her innate modesty to share with our readers the inspiring story of the woman who was the CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation, gave it up when she realized she was sacrificing making her children home-cooked dinners, and then used all her savings to build a worldwide chesed empire from her home — but never at the expense of her husband or children, she assures me.

“I’ve always had a burning drive to help others,” she says, eyes gazing mistily in the distance. “I was eight years old when I ran my first chesed drive — I sold all my toys to raise money for a friend who needed new shoes.” She chuckles at the memory, and then lowers her head humbly. “But really, none of this is me. Everything I do, it’s all from Hashem. I’m just blessed to be His conduit.”

I ask her the question that’s surely on everyone’s minds: “Are you for real?”

I give a sardonic laugh and delete that last line. Then I head to the kitchen for a coffee break. Caffeine is essential when it’s midnight and I’m pushing deadline. But honestly, for writing profiles like these, chocolate is even more essential.

I grab a bar from my stash, and fill my mug. I used to find it inspirational, getting to meet women who’ve accomplished so much. Now, I just find it depressing. I look around my kitchen: the dirty dishes, not just from dinner but also from breakfast. There’s still spaghetti stuck to the floor where Chumi threw it and Tully smushed it this evening.

I head back to my computer, passing the couch where the telltale novel is still lying open. I’d sat and read this afternoon, while my children first climbed on top of me screaming, then eventually snuck into my office to watch three videos in a row. (They claim they asked me and I said yes. They might be right.)

I settle back down to continue writing about Superwoman.

 

 

Raising 17 children would be a 24/7 job in and of itself for most women. How does Tzirel manage to also run an international organization virtually single-handedly?

Tzirel laughs. “Really, it’s not so difficult, as long as you’re organized. It’s amazing how many minutes you can find in your day when you have things down to a perfect schedule.” She leans in confidentially, as if we were old friends. “And Batya, I’ll tell you a secret. There are many weeks when I buy my Shabbos cakes at the bakery. Challah, that’s a mitzvah that I’d never give up. But cakes… well, we women, we have to fargin ourselves sometimes.”

She winks, and I feel like throwing my notebook and pen at her

eating another bar of chocolate

standing up in the presence of her greatness.

*****

I’m so tired the next morning that I consider canceling my daily walk with my neighbor Ruchi, but after writing 4,137 words about the fabulous Tzirel Gutfreund, I’d feel like a pathetic failure doing that. (“Oh, of course I schedule in exercise every morning,” I can hear her saying, even though she didn’t actually say it because the topic of exercise never came up. But she does exercise, I’m sure. She also probably never touches any of the delicious cakes I’d eyed longingly throughout our interview.)

“You look like you barely slept last night,” Ruchi greets me cheerfully. “Kids kept you up?”

We start walking in the comfortable pace we’ve developed over the years that’s a shade past leisurely but not quite brisk. We’re both perfectly happy with our pace, and don’t feel at all insecure by all the other pairs of walkers who bound right past us, elbows out and chin forward. Not at all.

“Not my kids. Tzirel Gutfreund.”

She looks at me blankly. “Who?”

“You know, the founder of Yad L’Kulam. She calls to consult me about her most difficult cases, usually in the wee hours of the morning.”

Ruchi doesn’t answer, just throws me an uncertain look. As we sidestep a baby stroller, I wonder if I should be offended that she clearly doesn’t believe me.

“Joking, I wrote up a profile about her last night.”

“Ah.” Her face clears. “She must’ve been a fascinating person to meet.”

“Yeees. Really incredible.”

I pause, wondering if I should leave it at that. We turn a corner, walking our familiar route through the neighborhood, and pass the bakery. The trigger is too much for me.

“Ruch,” I burst out, “am I a loser because I buy bakery cakes every week? And challah? And that even though I only have five children, cooking a meal for the local Neshei frazzles me for an entire week?”

Ruchi is reading an ad on the store window as we walk past (okay, I’ve already said we’re not the fastest horses on the track), and it takes her a minute to process what I said.

“Two-for-one babka this Shabbos, amazing, we’re having guests.” She frowns. “I hope it includes the chocolate this time and not just cinnamon, it was ridiculous what they tried to get away with last—” She blinks and turns to me. “Wait, did you just say something?”

I repeat what I said, though it somehow loses its spontaneous-cry-of-angst punch the second time around.

She laughs at me. “Faigy from the Neshei called and made you feel guilty? I keep telling you, just do what I do. If you say, ‘No, sorry,’ with firmness and no excuses, then they’ll leave you alone.”

“Easy for you to say,” I mutter.

Though I still haven’t figured out why that’s so. Ruchi is no busier than I am; she works part-time like me and has four children. But she’s very secure in knowing her limitations and establishing her boundaries. She’s my hero.

A pair of women walkers strides past us, breathing fast, and I follow their shrinking backs as they quickly leave us in their dust. Ruchi doesn’t even seem to notice.

“And what in the world do you mean by ‘only five children’?”

“I mean not 17,” I mumble.

She gives me a pitying look. “Batya, these profile pieces you’re writing are messing with your brain.”

She grabs my arm so that we both stop walking. “Listen to me. Women like Tzirel what’s-her-name are not normal. Not. Normal. You hear?” She squeezes my arm. “You’re normal! I’m normal! And that’s just fine!”

I wrench my arm away. “Yeah, but if you haven’t noticed, nobody’s writing glowing magazine articles about you or me.”

*****

 Batya, up for another profile?

There’s this woman in a small yishuv up north, she and her husband moved there to do kiruv, and in just three months they’ve convinced 50 families to be shomer Shabbos. She hosts all of them for Shabbos meals each week. She also runs a fashion design business on the side, manufacturing her own line of tzniyusdig clothing. Pretty impressive for a 22-year-old, huh?

3,000 words, by next Thursday. Let me know.

I get the e-mail from my editor while I’m in the middle of reading a bedtime story to my kids. (I should not check my phone while I’m with my kids, I should not check—)

“Mommy, why did you make that funny noise?” Chumi asks.

“What funny noise, sweetie?” I’m still scowling at my phone — and at the unknown wonderkid.

Chumi does such an accurate rendition of my snort that I can’t help but laugh, which pulls me back to the present. But an hour later, when my children are all blessedly asleep, I sit down at my computer and scowl once more.

I need to answer my editor, but what should I say? Sorry, but I think meeting a 22-year-old girl who’s accomplished more than I can ever hope to in ten lifetimes might make me throw up.

Or maybe I should play it cool. I don’t know, the charismatic-kiruv-professional-cum-fashion-designer just sounds so overdone to me.

I grit my teeth. Why can’t they assign me some pleasant article about the shidduch crisis?

I walk over to the kitchen because I always think better with chocolate, but stop when I remember I’m fleishigs. Arrgg. Now what?

It’s not that I don’t like writing profiles; I love meeting new and interesting people. Only, it would be nice if those new and interesting people didn’t knock me out with a severe case of inferiority complexitis.

I picture what Ruchi would say right now if she could hear my thoughts. Batya, it’s perfectly fine to be normal. Hah! They should profile her. That would inject a nice, whopping dose of normal into the proceedings.

And then I start to giggle, because a wild idea has occurred to me. Why not? Why not profile Ruchi Steinberg, eminently average Jewish woman? Don’t we struggling non-superheroes deserve to be represented in the pages of our magazines? The magazines that we read with such mesirus nefesh, disregarding children, dinner, even laundry.

Before I have time to think it through, I quickly respond to my editor, Sounds nice, but I have a better idea. I know a woman who — I drum my fingers as I think carefully how to word this — who’s developed a revolutionary approach to life. Something that will speak to frum women everywhere.

I leave it at that because honestly, I have nothing else to say, and press Send.

*****

The problem with mornings is that, seeing things in the light of day, you tend to regret the impulsive things you did the night before. All I can hope for is that my editor will ask for more details, and when she hears them, she’ll nix this faster than I can say, “Please save me from my own stupidity.”

But they must be desperate for articles because, to my shock, I get an e-mail back with only three words: Go for it.

Ahhh…

I try to think this through logically as I lace my sneakers. I have two options now: I can write back to my editor and tell her that Ruchi refused to be interviewed, and get out of this with honor intact. Or I can, um, actually ask Ruchi if she wants to be profiled.

She’ll laugh at me. She’ll assume it’s a big joke, especially after our conversation the other day. But then again, she’s a sport, and she might even have fun going along with it, especially when she realizes that, really, it is one big joke.

I head out the door. I’m going to ask her, I decide. We’ll have fun working on this together. It’ll be like a Purim shpiel.

“Good morning!” I greet Ruchi, a shade too cheerily, apparently, because she looks at me suspiciously.

“You’re smiling like you just heard some really good news. Did you win the sheitel in a Chinese auction or something?”

“Nope, guess again,” I say as we begin our walk. And then, “On second thought, forget it, you’re never going to guess. I just got my newest article assignment and you’ll never believe who they want me to profile.”

“The queen of England?”

“Someone even better.” I give her a huge grin. “You!”

She doesn’t even break her stride. “Hah, hah. Seriously, who?”

“Seriously, my friend. They want me to profile you.” I’m laughing at the look on her face, which is an amusing cross between incredulousness and bewilderment.

“Batya, stop joking,” she says uncertainly.

“I’m not joking! My editor sent me an e-mail this morning and gave me the go-ahead to write a profile about you. I can show it to you if you want.”

She stops walking and stares at me. “But… I don’t understand. Why?”

“Because I suggested it.”

“You did?” Her brow furrows.

I grin as explain. “Yeah, you see, last night, the editor e-mailed me asking if I wanted to profile some 22-year-old kid who’s saving the world, and I was like, no, really, I don’t, and then I thought of you, and—”

I’m about to explain the joke to her, but my voice trails off at the funny look on her face. Her cheeks are pink.

“Batya, you actually suggested me as someone to profile in a magazine? I— I don’t know what to say. I’m so touched.”

Touched? Hold on a second, something’s weird here. Ruchi’s not supposed to feel touched. She’s supposed to laugh along with me as we plot how we’re going to pull off this stunt.

I clear my throat. “Um, no, you see, I—” But then I stop. Because what is there to say? My friend thinks I wanted to profile her for real, and how can I tell her that I suggested her as a gag? As the epitome of your ordinary woman who has no stand-out accomplishments and does nothing worth reading about?

Ruchi’s eyes are shining. “When do we start the interview?”

*****

Our interview is set for the following morning. Ruchi suggests I come straight home with her after our walk. I enter her apartment, which still has toys scattered around from last night, and she waves me to sit down on her couch, pushing aside some unfolded laundry to make room. I can’t help but laugh. The contrast between her and Tzirel Gutfreund hits me in all its absurdity.

“What?” she asks.

I shake my head. “I love how normal this is. Not like all those stiff, formal interviews I do.”

She grins. “Why would I suddenly clean up for you when you know exactly what it usually looks like? Or put on a sheitel and makeup when you see me every day in my snood?” She jumps up. “Oh, wait, I forgot to bring out the homemade biscotti and Perrier.”

She heads into the kitchen and I take advantage of her absence to jot some notes. Hmm, setting: Ruchi’s living room gives off a warm, lived-in look, telling you that this is a home where children come first. The decor itself promotes this child-friendly vibe — from the chipped wooden coffee table to the couch cushions sunken from vigorous jumping to the artwork on the walls.

Just then Ruchi returns, carrying a bottle of water and a bakery container of babka.

“Left from Shabbos,” she says cheerfully as she cuts me a thick slice. “Turned out, the sale did include chocolate this time, baruch Hashem.” She hands me the cake on a disposable plate and cuts another slice for herself.

“You’re smiling again.” She squints at me suspiciously.

“Nothing, let’s start.” I wipe the grin off my face as I write some more notes: We enjoy a rich, chocolatey babka together, which she unapologetically informs me is bakery-bought.

“Why’re you writing if I haven’t said anything yet?”

Ignoring her question, I place my recorder on the table between us and turn it on. I’ve prepared a list of questions that I hope will succeed in ferreting out some kind of story I can use.

“Okay, let’s start with the basics. Ruchi Steinberg, married with four kids, oldest is nine, works as a speech therapist in a preschool. Um, what made you decide to go into speech?”

“Well, I’m no good with graphic design, so it was pretty much that or special ed.”

“Mmm.” I try again. “What is it about your job that you find most meaningful?”

“Knowing that I’m helping young children improve their language skills, which gives them confidence and sets them up for success in life.”

I dutifully write this down and she raises an eyebrow at me. “That’s what you wanted to hear, right? ’Cuz truthfully, it’s just a job to me. A nice, feel-good job, yeah, but I don’t, like, see being a speech therapist as my life mission or anything.”

So much for the speech therapy angle. I seize the opportunity. “What do you see as your life mission?”

She lowers her voice dramatically. “Making sure that my children survive childhood.”

I squeeze my pen as I record these words, wondering if there’s any way to milk some metaphorical meaning out of them.

“So, you’re saying that a mother’s greatest mission is to shepherd her children through the ups and downs of childhood while helping them develop into thriving young adults?”

Ruchi smirks. “I’m saying that my greatest mission is to make sure that my kids don’t kill each other before bedtime.” Waving at my notebook, she adds, “But you can write it your way if you want.”

I do. I like the noble ring of my phraseology. It’s the type of thing a Tzirel Gutfreund would say.

I finish writing and look up. “Okay, give me a picture of your world. What does a typical day in the life of Ruchi Steinberg look like?”

She cocks her head to the side as she thinks. “Well, I wake up at 6:45. Uh, no, I set my alarm for 6:45, I usually wake up at 7. And then I help Shmueli and Esti get dressed, and I make sure Moshe and Faigy are awake, it usually takes a few tries. I make lunches, and sometimes there’s even time for a bowl of cereal, but usually I just send the kids off with bags of cornflakes. Then I—”

I’m glad the recorder’s running because, honestly, my eyes are starting to glaze. Her day is exactly like my day — and exactly like thousands of other Jewish mothers’ days. Why in the world would anyone be interested in reading this?

Thankfully, she’s already reached bedtime (“I read them a book and then I lie down with Esti. Esti doesn’t always fall asleep right away, but I do.”). I learn that she calls her grandmother every night, which is beautiful, but not exactly the stuff you can build an article around.

“What about, um, any community involvement?” I’m grasping at straws, I know.

Ruchi straightens her shoulders. “Not much. As a mother of young children, it’s hard for me to find the time. I believe it’s not fair to do chesed at the expense of your kids.”

I try to find some sign of insecurity in her body language — eyes shifting away from me, twisted finger — but there’s none. As I suspected.

I lean forward. “But don’t you ever ask yourself how is it that all these other women are somehow managing to find the time to accomplish so much even with their busy lives and family?”

She smiles at me sympathetically, and suddenly I feel as pathetic as I did the other day. “Of course, I do. But then I tell myself that no one can do everything. If a woman’s very involved in community projects — or in her job, or in anything — it means she’s less involved in another area of her life. Of course, I’ll also admit that Hashem just gave some women more energy than others. I can only use the tools He gave me.”

She says it so simply, as if she didn’t have a thousand doubts running wild in her mind, shouting that she’s too lazy, she’s too disorganized, she doesn’t care enough about the problems taking place outside of her living room.

Ruchi apparently senses what I’m thinking, because she says impatiently, “Listen, Batya, you heard my daily schedule just now. Tell me where I should pencil in the time to start an international chesed organization?”

I blush. “I’m not saying we all have to run international chesed organizations.”

She thrusts a finger at me. “But you’re saying that if you don’t have some major accomplishment to your name, then you’re nothing to write home about!”

Maybe it’s her unfortunate choice of words, but she suddenly frowns. “Can you explain something to me? Why, exactly, did you want to profile me?”

I busy myself looking over my notes and pretend not to have heard her.

“So,” I say hastily, “tell me about your childhood. What were some of the formative moments of your youth?”

*****

I squeeze my hands on the edge of my computer desk. This is insane. My deadline is tonight, and I still haven’t figured out how to approach Ruchi’s profile. I have a few possibilities for the opening, but none of them are going anywhere.

At first glance, Ruchi Steinberg looks like your ordinary mother of 4.

I grit my teeth. This isn’t Tzirel Gutfreund. Ruchi is your ordinary mother of four!

Growing up in Brooklyn, the oldest daughter of a respected accountant, Ruchi Steinberg followed the typical trajectory of a Bais Yaakov girl. She never would have imagined that one day, she’d be profiled in an international magazine.

Yeah, and if she weren’t fortunate enough to have a really stupid friend, she still wouldn’t be.

Back when Ruchi Steinberg was in second grade, she’d spend every Tuesday afternoon at a speech therapy clinic, learning how to say the letter ‘R.’ Little did she know that, years later, she’d be sitting on the other side of the table —

I feel like crying. I stand up; I need a break. I need chocolate. I open the door of my office and find two pairs of hopeful eyes looking up at me.

“Mommy, are you done working yet?” asks Chumi.

“Our video is finished and we want to watch another one,” adds Tully.

Before I can respond, Meira, my ten-year-old, comes running over. “Chumi, Tully, why are you bothering Mommy? Didn’t I tell you that she’s really busy right now?”

I swallow. I’m a terrible mother. Have I mentioned that before?

For some reason, Ruchi’s face suddenly pops into my head. (Well, the fact that I’ve been trying to write about her for the past three days probably has something to do with it.)

“No one can do everything,” I hear her saying. And, all at once, it hits me.

I will not feel guilty. Because I’m doing the best I can, and I don’t deserve to feel guilty for that.

I channel my inner Ruchi and speak with as much self-assurance as I can muster. “Meira, sweetie, you’re amazing for watching them. I still need to work some more, so I’m going to let Chumi and Tully watch one more video, and then we’ll have dinner. Okay, guys?”

Chumi and Tully run off, delighted. Meira throws me an incredulous preteen look, but then walks off as well.

I turn back to my computer screen. After sending my kids off to a different screen, to watch a second vid—

Okay, I’m feeling guilty. Guilty and conflicted and stressed and all wound up inside because really, what am I supposed to do when I have to work but also parent, and make dinner too, and sometimes, yes, even read a novel because, sorry, I’m not Tzirel Gutfreund — I’m just a normal human being with normal needs and sometimes those needs include crashing on the couch when the demands in my life get too overwhelming.

And now I’m hearing Ruchi’s voice again: “You are normal! And that’s just fine!”

I take a deep breath, relax my shoulders, and repeat the mantra to myself. I am normal. And it’s fine to be normal.

I think of all the balls I’m juggling in my life. They may not include a save-the-world kiruv organization or a private fashion line of tzniyusdig clothing, but I’m raising children who are for the most part emotionally healthy! I’m working to help support my family! I’m managing to put dinner on the table every night, and yes, macaroni and cheese counts as dinner!

I sit up straighter in my chair and feel a smile slowly edge across my face.

Ruchi Steinberg, you are a genius.

I am not just normal. I. Am. Great.

*****

 When you meet Ruchi Steinberg, the first thought that crosses your mind is, “But she’s just like me!” Yes, speaking with Ruchi, she manages to appear so comfortable and relatable that you could be excused for thinking she’s just an ordinary woman.

It’s hard to imagine that the woman sitting across from me, cutting me a generous slice of chocolate babka and eating one herself, possesses a surprising wellspring of greatness inside, which, despite her natural modesty, I manage to uncover over the course of our interview. She’s that rare woman who’s discovered the key to happiness and self-fulfillment in life. Now, in her first-ever public interview, she’ll be sharing her life-changing tips with our readership.

Oh, and she also exercises every day. Really.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 689)

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