Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter



Turning Tides: Something from Nothing

As told to Leah Gebber

When I get older, I promised myself, I’m going to be a person who has her eyes open to people who need help. Here’s what happened

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

 Mishpacha image

GIFT OF DIGNITY People might say that I go over the top; that I’m feeding into today’s extravagant standards. But I’m not out there to change society, just to make kids feel like human beings within that society. And I know firsthand how one good outfit can be a hatzalas nefashos — it saves a girl’s dignity. It makes her feel like a human being

D on’t think that growing up on a farm is about wide,open spaces and cattle lowing in the fields. It’s not. It’s about money.

My great-grandfather thought he would give his descendants security when he took his hard-earned money and bought a plot of farmland down in Georgia. Maybe it worked for a while, but by the time my parents took on the farm, it was all about applying for government grants and taking out loans, selling off first cattle, then fields, then negotiating desperately with the bank, which wanted to foreclose.

It wasn’t just that I grew up with no money. I grew up with parents who were so desperately fighting this financial battle that they had no headspace to think about our needs. There was no point in asking for things — there was no money to buy anything; I knew that too well.

I looked a mess. My clothing started off cheap and ill-fitting, and soon grew worn and ill-fitting. My shoes had holes. I was heavy and socially awkward, and an undiagnosed learning disability meant that I flunked my way through each grade.

But I cared about Yiddishkeit and decided that I wanted to go to a Bais Yaakov high school, which meant dorming away from home. Take a farm girl and put her in Brooklyn, where all the girls have just the right bag and shoes, the right haircut, and a uniform that fit them just so.

I’d look at girls who had trendy earrings or high-quality tights or designer shoes and think, So nice. I didn’t even want them; I knew there was no way. But it was more than just the stuff. Those girls had lives. They went places. They had cousins, went to simchahs.

They were carefree. Happy.

Every evening I returned to the family where I boarded; sometimes I spoke to them, sometimes I didn’t. I was lonely, desperate to be noticed, but whenever a teacher showed some warmth — “I’m here for you if you want to talk” — I had no clue how to react, so I just gave them attitude. Once, a teacher called me to the side: “You shouldn’t wear ripped tights,” she said. I was a kid. I didn’t have it in me to say, “I don’t have money to buy tights.”

At times, I’d make up questions, ridiculous questions, just to get a teacher to pay attention to me. I had no friends, and I failed every test. But I was still a good girl. I listened to the rules, and I davened a lot.

For the last few years, we’ve been able to give out hundreds of thousands of dollars before Yamim Tovim. Where does it come from? Who knows?

In 11th grade, we read a story about a homeless lady who went to the store. She filled up a shopping cart, and as she walked through the aisles, she would nibble on the bunch of grapes, and chew on the loaf of bread she’d put in there. When she came to the checkout, she exclaimed, “Oh, my wallet! I forgot my wallet!”

I remember the reactions: “Geneivah!” “She stole!” “How devious!”

And I remember my own reaction: “That woman is so smart. She figured out a way to take care of herself, to get some food.”

It made me realize the vast gulf between me and my classmates. No one around me had any concept of what it meant to survive. They had no idea what it was like to have to find a babysitting job to be able to buy a bottle of shampoo.

I wanted to speak to my mom once a day, and I used the phone of the family where I stayed. At the end of the month, they confronted me with the bill. “Could you ask your parents to send an extra $40?” they asked. I knew I couldn’t ask my parents. My dad never liked it when he saw my mom on the phone. Asking them for money would make him lay down a rule that I could only call home once a week. So instead, I offered to babysit for the family, just to be able to call my mom.

High school ended, and I continued in Brooklyn, this time in seminary. Things didn’t get easier. Once, a girl left a $20 bill on my night table. “In case you need it,” she said. I wasn’t a fun person to help; I didn’t know how to respond, I wasn’t socially “with it.” But the question gnawed at me: Doesn’t anyone see me? Doesn’t anyone realize I need help? Doesn’t anyone notice me at all? When I get older, I promised myself, I’m going to be a person who has her eyes open to people who need help.

Winter arrived on a blast of cold wind and snow. I had no money to buy a sweater. I got great at putting on a big smile and saying, “I’m not the type who feels the cold.”

One February morning, a well-respected teacher looked around the classroom and her eyes rested on me. “Shuli, where’s your sweater?”

“I’m not cold.”

“Shuli, go back to the dorm and don’t come back without a sweater.”

I went back to the dorm and sat down on the floor. I put my head in my arms and cried. “I don’t know how to continue living like this,” I prayed. “Please help me. If You help me, I’ll become a person who sees people and helps people.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 536)

Related Stories

Rent-a-Bochur

Zivia Reischer

“No, seriously!” My mind lit up with a thousand ideas. “Rent-a-Bochur. That’s what we’ll call oursel...

Dancing in the Kitchen

Estee Rabinovicz

My mother made a decision: If she wanted a home fueled by love, light, and happiness, no one could c...

How to Train Your Husband Not to Buy You Jewelry

Bashi Gruber

Months after our wedding, when my birthday rolled around, my husband gave me a gold and diamond pend...

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.
CAPTCHA
Message


MM217
 
What’s in a Name?
Shoshana Friedman “What does Writer X have to say this week?”
Atonement — Fake and Real
Yonoson Rosenblum White confessionals and faux rituals
Four Walls Coming Full Circle
Eytan Kobre All the while, there’s been a relationship in the offing...
And Yet We Smile
Yisroel Besser We are the nation that toils to be happy at all costs
Out of This World
Rabbi Henoch Plotnick Dirshu Hashem b’himatzo — we are in Hashem’s company now...
Steven and Jonathan Litton
Rachel Bachrach The co-owners of Litton Sukkah, based in Lawrence, NY
Tali Messing
Moe Mernick Tali Messing, engineering manager at Facebook Tel Aviv
Sick Note
Jacob L. Freedman “Of course, Dr. Freedman. Machul, machul, machul”
Avoiding Health Columns Can Be Good for You
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Only one reliable guide for good health: our Torah
Endnote: Side Notes
Riki Goldstein Most Jewish music industry entertainers have side profes...
Me, Myself, and Why
Faigy Peritzman Where there’s no heart and no love, there’s no point
Can’t Do It Without You
Sarah Chana Radcliffe When you step up to the plate, you build your home team
Eternal Joy
Mrs. Elana Moskowitz The joy of Succos is the fruit of spiritual victory
The Appraiser: Part III
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer Make sure your child knows his strengths
Hidden Special Needs
Rena Shechter You won’t see his special needs, but don’t deny them
Dear Wealthy Friend
Anonymous There’s no need for guilt. I am truly happy for you