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Miss Lichtman

 

Miss Lichtman’s hair was dark blond and curly in a way that her wig would never be. She’d have to settle for a coarse, honey colored sheitel that fooled nobody, so for now, in her last days as a single woman, she was vain about her curls. I imagined her standing in front of the bathroom mirror in the Brooklyn apartment she shared with two other orthodox Jewish girls. She’d spend hours wrapping the curls around her ring finger, just to feel the hair as much as she could before she had to shave most of it off.

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Miss Lichtman looked sort of like Cricket’s old friend Coco, but, you know, human.

I envied those curls. My hair was stick straight, bangs rubbing between my eyelashes. I wanted to be thin like her too, no hips. Everyone liked her, even the cool girls, even the girls who were Born Frum, born into religious families, unlike me. Miss Lichtman played basketball with the senior girls and giggled with the sophomores after class. I was too young to giggle with her, at twelve.

She was twenty-four years old and had gone on too many shidduch dates before deciding on the right man to marry. How else explain being 24 – so old! – and unmarried and still teaching Jewish Law to teenage girls.

I sat in the back of her class and listened to the list of rules I was supposed to live by, the rules she seemed to take in stride as if it were not humiliating to have to shave your head and wear a wig, as if it were not intolerable that boys had to do no such thing. And then I was crying. I cried quite a lot at home, but usually not in school, and definitely not at my desk where people could see me.

But Miss Lichtman could see me. She stood in front of the blackboard in her modest blouse that covered her elbows and collarbone, and her knee length skirt that cinched at the waist, and she raised her eyebrows and finger waved me outside. I followed, with my head down, and leaned into the brick wall while she stared at me.

I probably told her that I was having trouble with my best friend, who wasn’t talking to me that week. I could have safely told her that I hated school, and didn’t fit in with the other girls, and didn’t like most of my teachers, except for her, of course, which would have made her roll her eyes. But I couldn’t tell her the truth. She stayed with me for most of her next class, offering me her phone number and asking if I’d like to visit her brother’s house for Shabbos. She knew something was wrong and she stared through the back of my throat as if she could see the words piling up there.

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Butterfly has lots of words piled up in there too.

And then she cuffed my shoulder and told me to go back to class, and pushed her curious sophomores back into their classroom down the hall, and disappeared with them.

Our school provided a bus to take all of the interested girls to go to her wedding. It was awful to see my teacher all in white and looking terrified and not like herself. It wasn’t an arranged marriage or something she was being forced into, and most likely it was exactly the life she wanted for herself, but I was devastated. And then she disappeared altogether. From school. From New York. To Israel and her life and her husband and her own children.

Cricket has certain people who imprinted on her from her puppy year, especially a neighbor she hadn’t seen for years, who happened to be on the boardwalk at the beach one day. Cricket recognized her from thirty feet away and tried to break my hand pulling at the leash to get to her, long before I ever saw or recognized her in the distance, or remembered her name.

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“Hi!”

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“Hi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I took each of my teachers so personally that their limitations and flaws broke my heart, or enraged me, but even their smallest kindnesses stayed with me for years.

If I saw Miss Lichtman today, she’d be in her fifties, and wearing a wig, with who knows how many children, and maybe grandchildren too by now, but I’d still recognize her voice, or the rhythm of her speech, I think. I hope.

puppy in the leaves

“Do you remember me?”

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

65 responses »

  1. How poignant this is. I wonder if Miss Lichtman realizes the imprint she left on you. I love your last photo

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  2. This one broke my heart, tonight. — Skylar

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  3. What a powerful statement of the lasting impact teachers have! And I love the ‘Hi!!!’ photo!

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  4. This was beautiful and engaging. Thank you for writing it. What is the tradition behind shaving one’s head and wearing a wig?

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  5. I never get tired of dog photo’s!

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  6. How sad, and yet how honest. And I bet you would recognize her, in a second!

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  7. Have you Googled her? Are Orthodox Jews allowed to have Facebook pages? Great post, very touching.

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    • Lots of orthodox Jews have facebook pages (where else would you be able to kvell about your ten beautiful/brilliant children?!), but I never looked for her. Isn’t that strange?

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      • Are you looking for her now? Sometimes it’s better not to look back (advice that would have been handy for Lot’s wife). Recently, I looked up a former boyfriend of 30+ years and he’s better-looking than ever, has four beautiful young-adult kids, a wife of 30 years, and a life that I really envy (at least, judging by his photos). I felt kind of sick after I looked at his pictures (and a little dirty for spying on his life).

  8. When I was a young man I was always amazed at the contrast between the men and the women in and around London’s Golders Green. The men all wore black with black hats and white shirts, and had spiralled plaits dangling at the sides of their heads; the women, on the other hand, even with several children in tow, were very glamorous with amazingly coiffured hair. I asked a Jewish friend about this. He explained the Hasidic payots and wigs. This seemed an awful thing to impose on women.

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  9. This is very touching! A wig is a wondrous thing, we’ve come to feel; it’s surprising more women don’t use them, making bad-hair-days a thing of the past!

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    • A good wig can be very expensive! I’ve listened in on long drawn out discussions of the differing values of ten cheaper wigs versus one beautiful wig.

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      • Funny thing, though, often the most expensive one is less effective/comfortable. K S has one (now never worn) which was hand-made by a professional; her favourite is man-made fibre and just the right cut, style – much nicer.

  10. Teachers can really shape children’s lives as this one did yours. They can see into our souls in a way that sometimes our parents can’t. Thanks for sharing. And once again, your dogs are a window into your soul too–as is my remaining pup! ❤

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  11. This is beautiful, Rachel. It warms my teacher heart.

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  12. A couple of teachers remind me of your experience. They were the ones I loved to sit in class and listen to as they made the subject play out in my mind.

    Evocative post that sounded great on a text reader (it means, the writing has to be good). 🙂

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  13. A loving, touching tribute to someone who impacted your life.

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  14. what a beautiful post, Rachel. Sad and sweet, but just beautiful.

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  15. Well-written and informative post, as always – I never knew about Jewish women having to wear wigs after they are married.
    Gorgeous doggy pics! Dogs never forget a friend.

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  16. “…as if she could see the words piling up there.” A wondrous and brilliant use of words, Rachel.

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  17. This was quite tender & lovely. I have certainly learned a lot about Jewish customs/rules. I had no idea about the hair shaving. I had Jewish friends growing up but not a lot of them were figure skaters. And yet so many people assume I am Jewish when they meet me. 🙂

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  18. A lovely story, Rachel!

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  19. In late again…….but better late than never.
    I had O idea about the wig wearing thing, how sad for miss Lichtman, but maybe she didn’t find it sad at all>
    I remember my French teacher as school – Miss Todd, who also had very curly hair and wore amazing scarfs.
    I once asked her about the ‘tu’ form of a verb and she told me not to bother about that as I would never use it – hmmmm she obviously couldn’t envisage me living with a Frenchman.
    But I thought she was so glamerous, sadly she smoked, so aged 15 I took it up also (I have since stopped you’ll be glad to hear)
    I love the likening of Miss Lichtman to Coco, I look more like Cricket xx

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    • I do not like the sound of this french teacher, how does she know you’d never have an informal conversation in french?

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      • Ha ha Rachel, she did not have a very high opinion of us – I am wel behind with the ‘Sunday Papers’ and everything else as I am in the process of temporarily moving back to the UK as my mother hanot been great and I need to sort he hose out.
        I am moving into my own flat that usually rent out, but as it was empty for decorating, I took this opportunity to stay – as you can imagine it is a bit chaotic (and the cat is still in the cattery – goodness knows how she will settle………)
        I wish you awonderful creative 2016 and look forward to continuing our friendship in the coming year
        Much love
        Lindy

      • Thank you! Happy new year!!!!!!

  20. So interesting, thanks for sharing.

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  21. What a lasting impression your teacher made on you… I remember only a few of my teachers, and just one name…

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  22. Who knows? Maybe she’s out there,, somewhere, reading your blog.

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  23. That imprint on Cricket’s mind of that neighbour, reminds of the Sara my sister’s Yorkshite Terrier , she wouldn’t see me for a year or two , but wow that welcome and excitement never left her. She lived to the grand age of 20 years and what wonderful memories I have of her.

    Loved the story of the teacher mmm.

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  24. Is this custom widely practised? Can the woman grow her hair again after she gets married?

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