I’d seen her before, of course, but the first time I formally met Jane was at my engagement party. I’d just turned 21 and had already seen many of my close friends make the pilgrimage toward the chuppah. Jane had been at all of their weddings. I was relieved when, on two separate occasions, she had draped a scarf over my bare shoulders before I marched down the aisle as a bridesmaid.
My future mother-in-law hired Jane for the night of the engagement party. It was probably one of the first things she did after confirming the date. I soon learned to be grateful when, halfway through the party, I felt the halter strap of my dress dislodge from around my neck. Just as I was fearing a Nipplegate moment, I felt the full force of Jane behind me.
“Go,” she ordered.
I used my newly liberated hands to hold the dress against my chest as Jane deftly maneuvered me through the 500-person crowd.
“Keep movin.’ ” Jane stewarded me forward. Even the hardwood floors seemed to cower as her black Naturalizer shoes schemed us out of the hall, into a covert nook by the women’s restroom. This was far from her first rodeo.
“Drink, baby.” She handed me a glass of water, not a drop short. I did as I was told, while she lifted the 5 extra pounds of fake hair that had been clipped tightly to the flesh of my head and dabbed the base of my neck, where it seemed all of my anxiety had pooled together like toilet bacteria in a Lysol commercial.
Jane then turned her attention to the black fanny pack perpetually secured around her waist. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to find the ruins of Atlantis in the abyss of that bag. Some things you might find along the way? Advil, earplugs, feminine products, hairspray, static guard, Q-tips… The carry-on suitcase she rolled into the venue contained everything else: shoe insoles, a hammer, a portable steamer, hot hair tools and about a thousand other things that could be used to either make up or clean up a body.
Jane rooted through her bag until she found what she was looking for: a needle and some thread. It took three minutes for her to sew me back into the dress, her body serving as a buffer as her hands traipsed across the stage of my neck with hurried precision. It wasn’t long before I landed back on the dance floor, where a swell of family and friends threatened to swallow me whole.
Jane—that’s how she’s known, by one name—has worked as a bridal attendant in my Syrian Jewish community for nearly as long as I’ve been alive. She immigrated to Brooklyn from her native Ukraine in 1996, and since then her praises have been sung from the rooftops of the homes that line our southern slice of Ocean Parkway. Admiration for her technique and, above all, her work ethic has placed her in high demand. She’s so good that she has overcome the hurdles placed before outsiders; an Ashkenazi Jew, she has ably adapted to the specific customs of our Middle Eastern culture. Often the only speck of blond in a sea of deep brunettes, Jane has enmeshed herself within the fabric of our community, where family and tradition come before all else.
Jane began working on the wait staff at Shaare Zion at the age of 16. The synagogue, sitting centrally on Ocean Parkway, has served as a place of worship and celebrations for the surrounding Syrian Jewish community for over 50 years. Jane admitted that, at first, she wasn’t prepared for the frequent weddings that took place in the synagogue’s main hall. The large, boisterous affairs can test the stamina of even the most ardent CrossFit types, and the incessant dancing, hobnobbing, and funneling through the crowd has left me breathless on more than one occasion.
Jane and I sat opposite one another on my couch. She had a rare day off, and for the first time since I’ve known her, we could talk in the absence of a fondue station. Her young daughter, Mia, sat a few feet away, nursing a bowl of peanut butter Captain Crunch. She shares her mother’s fine blond hair and blue eyes, which she kept trained on us as we spoke. When I initially told Jane I’d like to interview her for a story, she laughed her incredulous laugh and asked me why. I believe what she actually said was, “Why me?”
A fair question, since Jane’s celebrity comes mostly from her work behind the scenes. Jane is a self-professed workaholic. She always has been, and she regrets that her crazy hours keep her away from her three young children. She’s often lucky to clock fours hours of sleep, after turning in around 3 in the morning.
“When I started, we used to sleep in the linen closet,” she said. “Oh, we were so busy.” Jane rolled her eyes, pausing to remember the days when the staff would arrive for a wedding, work into the early hours of the morning, sleep for a few hours and then wake up for a bris, only to repeat the same routine the next day.
“It was a family business,” Jane continued. “I met Alex, my husband, when I was 17.” She stole a quick glance at Mia. “Everybody was a couple there. Simon, our boss—his mother-in-law worked the coat check.” Jane began to rattle off a list of names, nostalgically.
Over the course of her 25 years working in our community, Jane has come to know many of her brides and their families intimately. She’s gone beyond simply working as a bridal attendant and is now called in to manage everything from weddings to dinner parties to weeklong shiva calls.
“I’m nervous every day,” Jane said. “Every job. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bar mitzvah, wedding, or I come to a party at your house. … Because I don’t know what’s going to happen. Or what if I’m not going to do this right? Or what if the dress is going to break? Or what if the bells cannot come off? Or I burn the sambusak? Which has never happened!” Jane laughs.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine that Jane once had to learn the intricacies of our community. She bakes sambusak nearly as delicious as my grandmother’s. She can hum the pizmonim sung beneath the chuppah from memory and recall the branches of my extended family tree better than I can. I, like so many others, feel so close to her. And yet, as she continued to speak and my questions mount, I realized how little I actually know about her.
Jane offered her own explanation: “You see me, but you feel me more than you see me. Do you understand?”
“If Jane will come in pajamas, nobody will notice!” She slapped her knee.
Mia was growing restless, but before our conversation came to a close, I had to ask one more question.
“What’s your last name?” I never knew.
“Shulman.” She spelled it out for me: “S-H-U-L-M-A-N.” An easy enough name, but in a tight-knit community wherein it sometimes feels as though we all share one of four surnames—Cohen, Dweck, Mizrahi, Cohen again—Jane’s stood out as “other.”
I rode the elevator down with Jane and Mia, who was visibly excited to have her mother all to herself. Like Jane, she was charming and tough, fluent in three languages: English, Russian and Georgian. She held Jane’s hand possessively. They would spend the rest of the day walking around the city together.
“Boy!” Jane remarked, eyeing my own growing belly. “You see how it sticks out? Like basketball.”
“Maybe. You’ll be the first one I call.”
“The mohel second!” Jane joked
“And you?” I asked. “I can’t remember you ever having been pregnant!”
“Nobody sees it!” Jane laughed. “I gained 65 pounds—high-risk.” Jane worked up until she was nine months pregnant, obscuring her growing belly beneath her trademark suits and, occasionally, a puffy North Face jacket. The doctors had ordered Jane to take to her bed for the last trimester, but Jane doesn’t take orders.
I hugged Jane goodbye, although it wouldn’t be long before I saw her again. We would see each other at no less than three events in the coming week: a 21st birthday party, a bris, and a Manhattan wedding.
“Wait!” I stuck my arm out between the closing elevator doors. “What would you call yourself?” I asked. I meant how should I describe what she did for a living. “Bridal attendant” didn’t cut it.
Jane looked at me. Her expression turned from confusion to amusement, in a way that made me think she had everything wrapped around her finger.
“I’m just Jane,” she said plainly. “It’s me.”
In other words, don’t you worry about it.
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Esther Levy Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.