Meet Chaya Milchtein, the Queer, Jewish ‘Mechanic Shop Femme’

Chaya Milchtein is a lot of things. In addition to being a Jewish, queer automotive writer and educator, she enjoys using her platform to talk about clothes, style, love, and so much more. “I talk about all these different parts of me because I want women and queer folks to realize that there’s so much more to them than the one thing they do,” she tells me over the phone. 

Living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chaya is the founder of Mechanic Shop Femme, a two-year-old platform in which Chaya writes and produces educational automative content, all while modeling and wearing extremely cool outfits. In a time when the automotive industry is still largely male-dominated, it’s really no wonder Chaya has over 14,000 followers on Instagram. Her content is approachable and enjoyable, while her outfits show that being plus-sized is not a limiting factor to what one can wear.

Alma spoke with Chaya about her unique Jewish upbringing, how she got into working in the automotive field, and how style has played a part in shaping her identity.

I’d love to start by hearing about your upbringing and how your Jewishness has played a part in your identity.

I was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’m the oldest of 15 children by Hasidic Lubavitch parents. They were radicals even within the community itself. My father was excommunicated. So, I grew up with a very interesting, very strict, very over the top view of what Judaism, community, and family were. I was raised in an abusive home but I wasn’t taken out of my home because my father was a rabbi, so he could do no wrong. Eventually when I was 16 I was removed by child protective services. So it was a bit of an uncomfortable situation and it distanced me from being Jewish. I just didn’t believe in Judaism the way it was taught to me.

Eventually I went to live with a well-known, female Jewish educator and I was lucky that I was able to see a whole other side of what being Jewish meant to people. That’s the tradition I want to explore and that I continue to explore. Occasionally I’ll go to services when I have time. But I’m 24, there’s just not enough time in the day for everything I want to do. Judaism is still very much connected to who I am and that’s to her credit.

How did you get into the work you’re doing now?

Years ago, I met someone who knew the hiring manager at a Sears department store and she interviewed me and asked, what department do you want to work in? And I was like oh, I don’t know, whichever one makes the most money. She said, well, there’s appliances or there’s the auto center. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I had never touched a car. I had never driven a car. I mean, I knew nothing about cars at all. So in the next few weeks, I got a driver’s license and then I got the job and then I bought a car and then it all kind of went from there.

Now, Mechanic Shop Femme is my platform. It’s an automotive education platform. And my goal is to educate the regular, everyday car drivers, not the person who’s doing DIY repairs to their car; not the automotive professional, but just the regular driver. Just like me, my audience is mostly LGBT or plus size women and nonbinary folks with the occasional queer guy. 

What inspired you to launch this platform?

I was working with a career coach and I was feeling very stuck, but I was in a relationship that I loved. I needed to figure out a way to make more money and I wanted to do something that was going to sustain me, both monetarily and also something I actually felt good about. And she told me, you should start a blog. English wasn’t my first language though. I didn’t know how to write, and because of the way I was raised, I was missing a large chunk of basic education that Americans get.

So I was like, I don’t know how to write [a blog]. I can’t write. She goes, you have so much to say, maybe people won’t care. And I was like, shit, fine, I can write a few things. And then she was like, you have all these pictures of you. At that time, I didn’t even know that the body positive community existed because I was a workaholic. I worked, I dated, and I slept. And I was like, okay, I guess I can put my pictures on the internet, maybe it’ll help somebody. And people were like, oh my God, I like your clothes. And I was like, well, maybe I can combine this stuff and share fashion for an alternative body, not just being fat, but being an inverted triangle, having my shoulders be four sizes larger than my waist. 

Then one day, I shared an article I had written — it was a comprehensive guide to oil changes — in an LGBTQ group, and people told me I should teach classes. Now, I teach virtual live classes through Facebook that are all [on a] sliding scale.

Why do you think what you’re doing is resonating with people so much?

I think people want this knowledge, but even when they go on Google, there’s so much contradicting information that they’re not sure what is right. I also think people want to learn from people who are like them. They trust me because I’m a woman in the industry. I’m not just teaching classes, I’m giving lots of free content and information via the blog and my Instagram. People are tired of being screwed over when they buy a car. They’re tired of leaving the repair shop and feeling like their money was stolen from them.

How has your style played a part in shaping your identity?

When you walk into a room, the first thing people are going to see is your makeup and your clothes. They’re going to be your first impression before you even open your mouth. Growing up, wearing long shirts and tights all the time and long sleeves, people knew that there was something about me that wasn’t the same as everybody else. 

Now, I like wearing incredible clothes. I like my clothes to be distinct and noticeable. It’s a way to communicate with people and it’s a conversation starter. This is how I talk to people everywhere on the train, going into the mall, walking down the hall. I will get stopped by people because of my clothes and start conversations with people that I would have never spoken to. That seems like a good enough reason to wear clothes.

I don’t think I should just talk about cars. I want to talk about the whole self. I talk about love, I talk about my clothes, I talk about all these different parts of me because I want women and queer folks to realize that there’s so much more to them than the one thing they do. They could do more, they could do multiple things. They could have a passion and a hobby and a job and all these things make up a whole unique person. 

What is it like being a female working in a male-dominated industry?

I have found that as a woman in a male-dominated industry, it’s best to work for short periods of times for many companies and get the absolute most amount of knowledge that I can at each before I burn out. I know that these companies are not going to move me up and they’re not going to promote me. And I mean, that’s not the best way to go about business. I wish that I could have opportunities for growth, but at the end of the day, that’s not what’s out there.

What do you like most about cars and this type of work?

I like that cars are very black and white to a degree. I like that I am able to take the knowledge that I have and teach people what I know. I live for that spark in somebody’s eye when they finally understand what I’m teaching them. Now when people take my class and they email me a picture of them in their car and they go, “I saved $1,500 on the car” and “I bought a car that was really good quality without any major repairs needed,” I think, wow, I’m really making it so they can get it.

Image via Chaya Milchtein’s Instagram/by @bearrunner88

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