Nanny & Me

“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

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

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

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

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.   

A Nanny’s Story

There are a thousand stories in the naked city of Los Angeles, but when it comes to nannies, there are at least a million – nannies who have a free reign of the household, nannies who make good salaries, nannies who get help from their employers to buy cars or put a down payment on a house. But there are the other stories as well – the nanny who works long hours for little pay, with no holidays, no sick days, no breaks. “I knew when I was here without papers, I didn’t deserve to be here,” says nanny Carmen Davis, “but still, that didn’t mean I deserved to be treated without respect.”

Davis, 33, from Colima, Mexico, is registered with Nana’s World, “the best professional service for all your domestic needs,” in Sherman Oaks, owned and operated by Esther Matalon, a Sephardic Jew from Chile. Matalon is a straight talking, tough-minded businesswomen who has built her agency from the ground up, placing Latinos, Israelis and east Europeans in well-off families from the Valley to Pacific Palisades; about half her clients are Jewish. Since she started in business 14 years ago, she has seen her employees walk a thin line between the good, the bad, and the ugly – between trust and mistrust, between closeness and contempt.

“There should be a code of respect for nan-nies,” she says. “If [an employer] trusts a nanny enough to take care of his children, then he should trust [her] as a person. They should treat her like a human being,” Matalon says in a challenge to her clients.

The story about Davis is a happy one, although she admits it wasn’t always that way. Through Matalon, she worked for three years with a Jewish family in Agoura Hills, one of the best job experiences she ever had.From day one, Carmen’s employers (who wished to remain anonymous for this article) tried to make Carmen feel at home. “They really cared about me, always asking about my family, always nice and polite about the way they treated me,” Davis says. “If I got sick and needed to have a day off, or whatever, they understood.”

Davis’ employer felt the same way. “I hired her because her attitude was upbeat and because of her philosophy – that the child was the most important thing. We developed a really close bond. She gave my [child] a real comfort zone – safe and secure. My wife never worried once when she was at work.”Davis, who is married with no children, began her day at 5:30 a.m. to arrive at work by 7:30 a.m. She started right in. “I would feed the baby, change her diaper, play with her, take her for a walk,” Davis recounts. “When she was growing up, we would go to the park. We made a lot of friends there.”

In the park, Davis and her young charge would find five to seven other nannies with young children to play with. The majority of the nannies Davis met were Latino live-ins who worked for Jewish families. Most were without papers and spoke little English. Their situation was different from Davis’, who had a car, spoke English and insisted on time off to go to school (she is studying child development and English).These nannies worked from early in the morning until late at night, often getting up during the middle of the night to care for children. They had no time for themselves, no paid sick days, no holidays off and no privacy. They were expected to clean the house as well. All for $30 to $50 a day.

One of the women in particular, Davis says, was staying on, not because she liked the family, but because she didn’t want to leave the children. “The family didn’t treat her bad, but they didn’t really care for her. They didn’t even realize how good she was. If I was the mom, I wouldn’t even be able to pay for the love and care she put into those kids.”

How much, then, does a good nanny cost? Matalon reveals that a typical salary for a nanny who owns a car and has papers ranges from $500 to $750. For nannies without papers and with little English, a typical salary can fall as low as $150 to $250 a week. (Matalon’s minimum is $200.)

Davis commanded the top-of-the-line salary. For her friends at the park, though, she realized their options were limited, as hers had once been.

“Once I worked for a lady [when I was first here and spoke little English]… I said, ‘You know what, you make a lot of mess in the morning when you make breakfast; you make a lot of mess at noon when you make lunch (and I wasn’t making this up either) and you eat dinner really late; I can’t stay up this late and get up really early, so we have to have a schedule here.’

“She said, ‘Well, I hired you as a live-in nanny,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but I don’t have to stay up this late.’

She got really upset and told me if I didn’t like this job I could go look for something else. I said, ‘Okay, if that’s the way you want it.’ I went to my room, and less than an hour later, she [knocked on my door] and said, ‘You know, I’m sorry, you were right.’ “

Davis contemplates a few unalienable rights she would like to see granted to nannies, even if they don’t have papers or speak English.

“Give us a separate room. Provide for us food. Make a schedule for the nanny. Just because you have a live-in nanny doesn’t mean she is available 24 hours a day. We should have sick days, a paid vacation. Why not? Nannies like holidays, too.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re trapped. Employers should have flexibility. Once I worked for a woman who wouldn’t let me do anything. I asked her if I could go for a walk after I had finished my work. She said ‘No. I might need you.’ I told her, ‘Once I put the kids to bed, it’s my own time. You know what, I’m not a slave.'”