Debbie Lechtman had a burning secret. On Instagram, under the beautifully curated pictures of her jewelry creations, rested an unquenchable need to share with the world her pain.
Before 2020, Debbie only held one identity online. She was a relative newcomer artist wandering through the dense waters of the sparkly jewelry scene on Instagram. Then, on May 15, after two years of selling her craft, rooted in multiethnic motifs, she felt a sudden urgency within herself.
A raw post about her struggles with OCD followed. In it, she openly wrote about the hardships of dealing with the disorder: the compulsive hair-pulling episodes, the excessive obsession with imaginary future scenarios, and even her suicide attempts.
In the following weeks, Debbie fully embraced her new role. So did the thousands of followers of her brand, Rootsmetals. For the first time, the 29-year-old Jewish Latina, who has made east Los Angeles her creative sanctuary, found her guiding moral purpose as a creator and prominent voice within the online Jewish community.
Nowadays, the native Costa Rican no longer sees herself as a mere businesswoman but as an uplifting educator whose medium just happens to be business. Today, her brand Rootsmetals is more than just a jewelry shop; it is a classroom, a diary, and a safe space to talk about mental health, antisemitism, Jewish history — and of course, jewels.
I recently chatted with Debbie over Zoom to learn more about her inspiring story.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
As someone with a multiethnic background myself, I understand firsthand the constant annoyance of having to explain my identity to people. How do you handle the lifelong struggle of telling people you are a “Jewtina,” and what do you wish people asked you more about?
I think that a lot of people are confused by it, which I don’t really understand why. In the last four years, more people have become aware of intersectional identity. Usually, the people that have a problem with it are antisemites that cannot comprehend that being Jewish doesn’t just look a certain way.
The questions that are the hardest for me are from people asking me to tell them my whole story for them to understand who I am. I just wish people wouldn’t do that.
At the beginning of your entrepreneurial quest, your purpose was to promote your jewelry business. But over the course of 2020 you made a radical shift, turning your feed into a classroom and a platform to fight antisemitism and the stereotypes underlying mental health disorders. What inspired you to start using your platform in that way?
In the first year of my business, I had some awful experiences with the mental health system and felt I had to keep that under wraps because I was just trying to be professional. I was trying to have this business account, but it was very, very hard to be going through these awful things and not be open about the fact that I was struggling.
After I had overcome a terrible situation with an abusive therapist, I couldn’t keep up with this front of being “super professional” and “everything is great” and “let me promote this brand” while at the same time, going through something so awful. At the time, I had like 13,000 followers, many of them also small business owners who I knew also struggled with that balance, so I started being honest little by little.
Some of the traumatic experiences and stories you share come from followers and friends who have confided in you. What does it mean to you to have this platform to tell authentic stories?
It’s a big responsibility. I work very hard to make it a safe, inclusive space for everyone. Sometimes I fail and make mistakes, and I try to own up to that as much as I can, but I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I feel very honored that people are willing to share their stories with me. I’ve learned to set strict boundaries for myself because it does take a toll on you to read these horrible things all the time. Many people tell me they’ve never shared those stories with anyone before; obviously, if they want to remain anonymous, I honor that. I’m thankful that they want to share those things with me, and I hope that I’m doing the best to make it safe for everyone. The only way to talk about these things is to start talking about them.
The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others have inspired a new generation of political and social activism online, specifically on Instagram. What do you make of this new wave of social media activism?
I hope that it’s not just a trend that people don’t get bored and stop. I hope they give others space to learn. But the way to learn isn’t by silencing everyone else. I’m very strict about what I can and can’t speak on, so I’m not going to speak over anyone. I’m going to share posts that I find enlightening and informative. I have the platform and stuff, but I’m not going to pretend that I can teach about racism because I can’t. I’m light-skinned, and I have not ever experienced discrimination because of my skin color, so I’m not going to step on that lane. I wish other people would do that sometimes.
What do you make of the current rise of antisemitic rhetoric and narratives within the U.S.?
It’s following the course of history. Antisemitism is cyclical, not a straight line. It’s not like it was really bad at first, and it started getting better and better. It had always surged during times of unrest. So, right now, you got COVID, a crazy [sitting] president, and police brutality. It’s just a natural recipe. And I think American Jews, for the most part, have been very fortunate to be pretty stable in terms of their safety, but to me, it doesn’t surprise me because that’s just the nature of how it goes.
You recently asked your followers on one of your stories to stop sending you requests to follow your personal account due to concerns for you and your family’s safety. What have you learned about the best way to mitigate scary trolls and antisemitic attacks?
I had to change the way that I run my business. I have a newsletter that goes out — just strictly jewelry, business-wise — and I had to change all the contact information on it because you never know. I’ve had to stop talking about my personal life just for safety concerns. I had to change how I run things, and I still worry sometimes, but I think I’m doing what I can to stay safe. A lot of harassment is just noise. It’s easy to harass people when you’re anonymous online.
Nowadays, you are a hybrid of many different roles: educator, jeweler, and activist. How do you find a healthy balance to devote time and soul to each one of your life facets without losing perspective?
I was just talking to my therapist about it. I’ve never been a 9-to-5 person. I always felt I was doing something wrong, that I was being lazy. I realize I work differently than a lot of people. As I’ve made it very clear, I have some bad mental health struggles, and I need to do things a little differently to be able to keep up with it.
I finally found a stride in terms of my jewelry. I have a very strict schedule when it comes to the collections that I put out. And as far as the other stuff, to be honest with you, I work on it when I’m inspired, and I think that is just the way that I am.
Browsing your feed, it is evident Judaica inspires many of your designs. Can you tell me more about how your craft draws on classical Jewish aesthetics, and how do you keep it fresh and original?
My goal with my jewelry is to make things that I would want to wear. I think everyone is influenced stylistically by the things that are important to them or the things they grew up with. For me, hamsas and evil eyes are just a normal part of my childhood and what I find comforting. They had a lot of significance to me, and so it’s easy to draw from that. But I do think a lot about how to keep it original and different.
Do you ever draw inspiration from Costa Rica?
As I was saying earlier, for me, I’m a Jew first, and so that’s definitely very central, but I do draw inspiration from Costa Rica. I have pieces based on legends and stuff like that. Also, even my style of drawing is very Costa Rican folklore. If you look at those designs, it just kind of has that flavor.
As someone who is no stranger to the severe impacts and effects of mental health caused by the lack of a work-life balance, what are you doing to unwind and recharge your batteries?
The things that are very helpful to me is doing something with my hands, which is why jewelry works so well. I love coloring books, too. If I’m not okay, I just color.
I’m also a rock climber; that’s the number one thing for my mental health. I would spend three hours at the climbing gym, and then I would come home and work. I really miss it. It was very good for my mental health because it’s goal-oriented. Hopefully soon, I can get back to it. I know that’s going to be helpful, especially now that I’m dealing with all this harassment stuff.
It is no secret that Instagram can be a toxic place to be, especially for an empowered Jewish Latina woman like yourself. What advice would you give to someone wanting to use social media to fight, teach, and support a cause or a movement?
Before you start, think about if you have something new to add to the conversation. That’s really important. It kind of bugs me when I see people with an activist account, and they just screenshot posts from other people and share them. The platform is already so saturated. If you’re going to do this, make sure you have something different and new to say or a new strain.
If you are marginalized, if you’re Jewish, LGBTQ, or Black, make sure that you take care of your mental health. It’s important that you set boundaries. I’ve learned this the hard way. You can’t be giving 100% of yourself to everyone.