Income about $19,000 (1999)
Health Insurance none
Basya Schechter has had 57 jobs since she was nine. That’s not counting all the office temp positions or the music gigs—she has two bands and plays in two others.
“I’ve just done everything,” Schechter, 30, says one Tuesday, sitting in a classroom in the Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park where she just led two-year-olds in singing “Old Menachem Had a Kibbutz.” “When I was 26, I was a traveling salesperson selling diapers. I was the editor of the homeless-poet page for Street News for a week. I once walked a dog for a drug dealer in Brooklyn. I office-managed for Glatt Yacht, the kosher dinner cruise. I sold imitation Zippo lighters in Johannesburg. I used to make these pendants called ‘Angst on a String.’ I sold them for $10—but not very many.”
We make some lists and figure that right now she has 11 day jobs. But it is not as though having 11 rather than one or two jobs brings in more money to support her singing, composing, and performing. “I could get just one temp job, but I made a commitment almost a year agonever to go into an office again. I’m allergic to the air in the buildings. I’m always sneezing. All I want to do is make as many phone calls as I can. My best friend thinks I’d be a lot saner if I just had one job, but even the thought of it makes me very anxious. It’s been like this a few years. Even when I make a record I say, Wouldn’t it be great if I make seven records? If I start with just one band, I have to be in four bands. I can’t just play one instrument. I have to play five.
“In the morning, I get up, meditate, write in my journal, go swimming for 15 minutes. But some days it’s just five more things to do.”
Lately, in addition to leading the toddlers in song, she gives private Hebrew and bat mitzvah lessons, plays percussion for Friday night services at Synagogue B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, and is finishing up the administrative work from a two-week job in Portugal where she helped run a mentor photography program. There may be another job on the horizon. While playing the oud at the Jewish Museum café, she was discovered by a board member of a synagogue in Westchester. Now they want her to be their music director—”part-time.” Phew!
“I’ve always worked. I grew up in an Orthodox family in Borough Park. I made these crocheted doll clothes and sold them at school. I was nine.” That was the year her parents got divorced. “I went to live with my father. He remarried when I was turning 14. The woman he married had kids. They had more kids. I can’t say how many because it’s like the evil-eye thing.”
Is she so resourceful because she was on her own in the midst of a lot of people? “It has a lot to do with it. Growing up Orthodox, everyone has a strong structure. You finish school at five, Saturdays you’re in synagogue. But because my family was broken, there were cracks. Unlike most people in the community, we had a TV. I watched soap operas. I wanted to be a child star. I spent my mornings calling ABC, NBC, saying, ‘I want to be on your show!’ ”
Instead she went to Barnard. “My father helped me, but I still have about $22,000 left in loans to pay. My band Pharaoh’s Daughter—a mix of Middle Eastern and West African and Jewish and folk and pop and rock—just got a one-record contract with the Knitting Factory. Music is the most important thing to me. I always loved to sing. So did my father. We used to sing together when we walked to the synagogue on Saturdays. He always wanted to be a singer-songwriter. He was, for a short time. Then he worked at an accounting firm for 30 years.”