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Uncommon Threads

With her custom-designed tashmishei kedushah, Aliza Blizinsky helps Jews the world over serve Hashem with their own color and flair


Best Job in the World
I

 

always tell people that I have the best job in the word: I custom-make items used for kedushah, which is unbelievable. I make people happy, I make G-d happy, and I help support my family. I’ve got all my bases covered.

There’s something very special about a bar mitzvah boy putting on tefillin for the first time. His tefillin will obviously be special to him, but when he’s designed the tefillin bag, when he got to choose every part of it, they become extra special.

People tell me the craziest stories about their tallis and tefillin. My bags are made with love, and everyone who’s ordered from me tells me that they feel it. I feel very privileged to do what I do. I get to see G-d working through me every day.


Sew On

My parents are creative people: my father’s a chemist, my mother used to sew. My husband and I are Chabad, and when we were newlywed, we went on shlichus. The place we were living was hit by a very bad recession, and when I needed maternity clothing, I couldn’t afford to buy them. G-d put the idea into my head to start sewing my own clothes. They were horrible.

But I kept at it, and after a while, the clothing I sewed started to look really nice. When we returned to New York, I started sewing clothing for my children.

Twenty-three years ago, the first home embroidery machine was rolled out. I told my husband, “I don’t care what it takes, I’ll do whatever I need to do to get it.” It cost $7,000, and I did alterations and other small jobs until I’d earned enough to buy it.

After a while, I said, “Hey, why not make my son a tefillin bag?” I made him a leather tefillin bag, then his friends started asking for them. As more people saw my bags, more and more people started asking for them — first from the neighborhood, then shluchim from other places, and eventually people from all over started calling with requests.

At that point, I had nine kids, and I was working, teaching, baking, and sewing, and doing my custom work in my “free” time. It was getting busier and busier, and I wanted to do this full-time, but it was hard to give up a sure thing. I had no idea if the business would take off, but eventually I realized I’d never know unless I tried.

I opened an official workspace in the garage; within the year, we had to take over the whole first floor of my house, that’s how fast we were growing. We went from one tiny sewing machine to having three large, commercial embroidery machines.

Now we have four full-time employees, and we make items for people from all over the world. I’ve made a tallis bag for Rav Lau, and a challah cover for Bibi Netanyahu. Why was I zocheh to such success? I’m a mother of nine living in Crown Heights! I know where all that brachah comes from — everything is from G-d, and I thank Him every day.


Quality Assurance

I was raised to do something 100 percent — or not bother. I want my bags beautiful: beautiful construction, quality leathers, strong zippers. I tell all my customers, “I’m a frum Yid and you can trust me; I’m completely honest.” But, you know, I deal with a lot of New Yorkers, so I get a lot of skeptics.

I need another line for those naysayers, and so I tell them, “If I make you a beautiful tallis bag, when you go to shul or out in the street, someone will come over to you and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful — where’d you get it?’ For business purposes I need to make your bag gorgeous, I need you to love it.” Everyone, even the skeptics, buys that.


By Design

When a man comes in, I look at his shoes, his watch, his glasses. Those are usually the things he’s chosen himself, and by studying them I get an idea of his style. I also look at his coloring. If you have blue eyes, for example, it’s very rare that you won’t like the color blue. People tell me that’s “goyish.” Of course it’s not! It’s just the opposite: If G-d made you with that coloring, of course it looks good on you and looks good to you.

I watch my customers, pay attention to what they select, which samples they like. Wives have asked me, “Hey, how did you know that?” when I tell them that their husband likes stripes or polka dots. I just listened to them!

I used to buy clothing that was in style but didn’t look good on me. Then I went to this woman who told you what the best colors for you were. Now I spend less time contemplating what to wear; I know what looks good on me, I know what to wear on the second day of Yom Tov so I don’t look awful. I use what she taught me about color to help create my custom designs.

I spend a lot of time with my customers, making sure every decision is based on them really feeling it, not a spur-of-the-moment whim. I want my designs to have staying power. When a bar mitzvah boy comes in, I tell him, “You’ll have this for ten years — don’t pick something that screams, ‘I’m 13.’ ” Then there are those who truly want something wacky.

I have customers from both ends of the spectrum — the ones who come in saying, “I have no clue what I want,” or are colorblind, to the ones who are so detail-oriented, they have a tape measure and say things like, “Move the trim one-sixteenth of an inch to the left.”


Building a Businesswoman

I’ve had to grow into being a businesswoman. I started out very heimish. That was great, until the first person stabbed me in the back. I said to myself, “Aliza, G-d is telling you something — He’s telling you that you have to treat this like a real business.” So today I have order forms, and I won’t move forward until I’ve received a deposit and the customer has confirmed the details of his order to ensure there are no miscommunications. This isn’t just to protect me, but my employees and vendors — I need to be able to pay them.

Though I made my business official, I decided to keep it in my house. I grew up as a latchkey kid and hated it. Working from home has its ups and downs. The benefit is that whenever I feel like it, I can come downstairs and work. If my children are sick, I’m always home for them. But the drawback is that people think they can always drop in; this is Crown Heights, I could have people dropping in every night after 11! I used to be more easygoing about my hours, but my children started to complain, so I’ve made official store hours — I’m not going to disturb my family’s time for this.

Roots and Reasons

A man once came into my store and asked me, “Why do you have to be so modern? Why can’t you use velvet, like my zeidy did?” What was I supposed to say? I told him, “I don’t see the word ‘velvet’ anywhere in the Torah, but the Chumash says Hashem told Bnei Yisrael to take the hide of an animal to use in a Mishkan.”

He said, “You’re a woman, what do you know?”

I said, “Eibeshter, please, I need kosher nekamah. I know I can’t take revenge, but I want to teach him!”

I had to wait two years, but G-d sent me the answer. I still get the chills when I remember it. A sofer walked into my store to pick up the tefillin bag he’d ordered for his son-in-law, and said, “You know what you’re doing is a hiddur mitzvah, right?” I said, “Are you telling me that my bags are beautiful, or that they’re a hiddur mitzvah?” He said, “Both.”

Then he showed me the sefer Minhag Yisroel Torah, and read aloud “Haminhag etzel rabbanim... — the custom among rabbis and the children of the holy ones is to make the bag for tefillin out of calfskin.”

The tikkun for Cheit Ha’eigel, the Sin of the Golden Calf, is tefillin. The four parts of tefillin — the retzuos, batim, klaf, and thread — are all made out of materials derived from a cow or calf, and making the tefillin bag out of leather is a hiddur. I teach this to everyone who comes to my shop to buy a tefillin bag. It’s an extra step — you’re not just binding yourself to G-d, you’re being mesaken Cheit Ha’eigel.

That man came in with the complainer a couple of years later, ready for his shtick. I’d kept a printout of the sefer in my store to show customers, and I showed it to him. He wouldn’t talk to me for ten minutes, he was so busy trying to find a loophole!


Inspired

I get inspiration from everywhere; designer bags, men’s shoes. People have asked me, “When are you going to stop with all these ideas?” But when you stop, you go backward. I hope I keep going forward.

I’ll be looking everywhere to source a new material, and then someone will come in holding it and say, “Lw ook what I found — can you use it on my bag?” I know some people will give me that look, but here’s the thing: G-d wants me to do this business, and He keeps helping me out, sending things my way, putting ideas in my head.

I have a wallet that I bought years ago with Van Gogh’s sunflowers printed on it. Every time I looked at it, I tried to figure out how they did it. I spent years searching online for a place that could do that for me. Then, one day, I went down to a shop to fill something for a client, saw their setup, and was like, “You print on leather?!”

“Of course,” they said. This added a whole new level to my work. We can create beautiful art by printing paintings on leather (giving the artists a commission). One product we make, for example: I print a painting on a challah cover, which has two hooks on the back. On Shabbos, you use it on your table; during the week you can hang it on your wall as beautiful artwork.

I also get ideas from customers. A man once told me that he had a Ferragamo bag with a luggage strap; I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s brilliant!” Now I can add a luggage strap to tefillin bags; you can go through the airport carrying a hand luggage and know your tefillin are secure.

Tastes and styles have changed. A lot of places are modernizing their looks, moving away from heavy tassels and lions. We’re even making Torah mantels out of leather; it’s a very fresh look, and it’s much more practical since it doesn’t wear out. Don’t think that I don’t do velvet — I do all fabrics — but most of my work is with leather. I probably have 500 hides in stock.


I never leave the house without ________.

I never leave the house! My business is here, I never go anywhere. I make these beautiful bags, and one day I said, “I’m making myself a purse.” Then I said, “One minute, where am I going?”


__________ is the new black.

Teal—I love that color, and it looks gorgeous on every woman. But really, being true to yourself is the new black; any color that’s your new favorite color is the new black.


My secret household management tip

That line they feed us — balance — does not exist. There’s no way to balance everything: Do the best you can do and forgive yourself. You also need to know your strengths; I don’t need to clean my own toilet, I can hire someone to do it. Know where you’re needed the most, and go there.


I’d do anything to avoid…

Math. I always use a calculator. G-d gave me a tremendous creative side, and said, “Don’t be greedy.” I’ve learned what my strengths are — and I’ve hired people to help me with the things that aren’t my strengths.


I’d tell my younger self

Believe in yourself! We’re our own worst critics. If you really feel something is your calling, you need to try it, you need to give it a go and invest all your energies into it. That’s the only way you’ll ever know if it will work.

Book on my night table

I love fiction, anything with spies or action. My favorite thing is anyone who got back at the Nazis somehow.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 663)

 

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