Jewish Journal

Nanny & Me

A new class teaches Latina nannies about Jewish customs and traditions.

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

Posted on Jan. 23, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"Ana," a Catholic Latina nanny working for a Jewish family in Studio City, was afraid to ask her employers whether she could buy a holiday gift for their young son. She was torn between wanting to give the child a present and worrying about insulting the family. Like many foreigners, Ana (not her real name) was unsure of proper holiday protocol.

"It's hard for these women to know where to draw the line," said Davina Klein, who teaches a class at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood for Latina nannies working for Jewish families. "They don't want to ask questions because they don't want to rock the boat. I think that comes from a different mentality."

The working relationship between Jewish families and Latina women who care for their children often presents a unique communication gap -- and it's not just the language.

Nannies or maids care for just under 10 percent of Jewish children ages 5 and under -- some 2,400 children -- according to a 1997 survey of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles service area (which does not include the San Fernando Valley, Long Beach or East Los Angeles), said Pini Herman of Phillips & Herman Demographic Research. Herman estimated that more than 90 percent of the women who work as caregivers for this group of children are Latina. While many speak fluent English, cultural differences and stereotyping between Jews and Latinos often create conflict in their employer-employee relationships.

Klein, a young Jewish mother with Cuban roots and a doctorate in educational psychology, teaches "Me & My Nanny," a pilot program at Adat Ari El's early education center. The 12-week, one-hour class is like a Spanish version of "Mommy & Me," only with Latina nannies and Jewish toddlers. In the first half of the class, Klein leads the nannies and children in playtime, art, singing and Jewish holiday celebrations. In the second half-hour, she holds a discussion in Spanish where the nannies get to ask questions and compare experiences. Topics vary from week to week, focusing on toddler development, fostering self-esteem, setting limits, toilet training, sleeping, eating and playing. The goal of the class is the bridge the cultural gap.

An expert in early education and the Latino culture, Klein said that some of the most common issues between Latina caregivers and their employers revolve around setting limits, eating, sleeping and gender roles.

"Americans in general have an idea that kids should be independent, while the Latino culture is much more nurturing," she said, adding that many Latino families sleep in the same bed, rather than encouraging a child to sleep by himself. This closeness, she said, fosters security. Along the same lines, the Latino culture favors holding and comforting a child whenever he or she cries, while many Americans view the ability to self-soothe as an important step in becoming more independent.

Gender roles are more skewed for Latinos. The idea that little boys shouldn't cry and the concept of hitting a child as punishment are widely accepted. Rina Gonzalez, a 35-year-old nanny from Valley Village, has worked for a Jewish family for the last seven years and has noticed the difference in mentality.

"Instead of spanking," Gonzalez said, "[Jewish families] let the child use more words. [In Guatemala] we tend not to let them express themselves."

When one 34-year-old Jewish mother from Santa Monica was hiring a Latina nanny to care for her then-infant son, she had certain concerns because of her childhood experiences with housekeepers and nannies.  As a result, she was very specific in instructing her employee to limit her son's intake at mealtimes.

Esther Matalon, the owner of Nana's World, an agency for caregivers in Sherman Oaks, said that 50 percent to 60 percent of her clients are Jewish and that many of the women she employs are Latina. As a Sephardic Jew from Chile, Matalon feels that many Americans are uninformed about the Latino culture.

"People are so ignorant here," she said. "When they say 'Latin,' they think it only means Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras." Many of her nannies come from the "European countries" within South America, including countries like Argentina, Chile, Spain and Portugal. These women, she says, are often highly educated. As a result, many clients are happily surprised.

On the other end of the spectrum, many nannies have predisposed beliefs about Jews. Sandy Algaze, owner of Family Matters, an agency in West Los Angeles, said that 60 percent to 70 percent of her clients are Jewish. While many of the caregivers embrace Jewish customs, Algaze admits that some request to not be placed with a Jewish family.

"This is a very prejudiced business where people are quite honest about who don't want to work for," Algaze said. "I think there are some stereotypes that Jewish people are more demanding. They know exactly how they want the children to be raised and they're very into education. They'll set a certain agenda of what they expect of the nannies."

Matalon has had similar experiences with her own business. "Some of these women hate Jewish people," she said, explaining that she's gotten complaints of poor sleeping quarters, low pay and leftover food.

"If [someone is] good enough to take care of your family, they're supposed to be good enough to live a normal life with you and not get treated like [they are] three steps down," Matalon said.

Still, many nannies have great relationships with their Jewish employers.

Annemarie Raizman, a mother of three, has nothing but positive feedback about her nanny, Gonzalez.

"She feels like part of the family," said the former teacher from Valley Village. Because she worked with a Jewish family before the Raizmans, the family was impressed with her knowledge of their traditions.

"She knows the Shabbat prayers and my son is teaching her Hebrew right now," Raizman said. "She's very open to [learning about Judaism] and enjoys doing that with my kids because it's part of who they are."

Rhea Turteltaub of Encino has had a similar experience with Silvia Virula, who has worked for her for almost five years.

"I've learned a great deal from her and she tells she learns from me," said the mother of two, who works at UCLA. In fact, the Turteltaubs have attended Virula's family celebrations, including her daughter's Quinceanera (Sweet 15) party. Virula, who is affectionately called "Bibi" by Turteltaub's young sons, has embraced the Jewish holidays and songs.

Gonzalez and Virula spend time together each week at the "Me & My Nanny" class.

While both the nannies and parents involved rave about the new class, Matalon is skeptical that sooner or later the nannies might compare notes regarding pay and opt to leave for higher-paying gigs. Still, it's hard to put a price tag on what, for many, can deepen from an employer-employee relationship to a family relationship.

After discussing Jewish holidays and the concept of gift-giving in class, Ana decided to give the child she cares for a holiday present during Chanukah. In addition, the idea of open communication with the parents is a little less intimidating.

Cultural barriers aside, some parents still feel that actions speak louder than words. Turteltaub notes that Virula was the least proficient in English of the nannies she interviewed to take care of her newborn four years ago. "No one else came close to [Silvia] in the amount of love they had in their eyes when holding our son," she said.

For information about the "Me & My Nanny" class at Adat Ari El's Rose Engel Early Education Center, call (818) 766-6379.   

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