Miriam Schwartz

The Voice of the Bnos movement in the Bais Yaakov Journal

The section “Bnos Pages” (Bnos-bleter) was launched in issue 105 of the Bais Yaakov Journal, published in May-June 1933. The first essay, which introduced the new section to the readership of the journal and explained its purpose, had no byline, but it was probably written by the editor of the journal, Eliezer Gershon Friedensohn, who was also the founder of Bnos, the youth movement of Bais Yaakov. As the essay explained, the new section was an initiative of Beile Tziporah Gross, who worked at the journal; Gross was critical of the way the journal often failed to address difficult issues in the movement. Although the journal readily published articles and essays by the young women who led Bnos, these articles tended to shy away from controversial subjects. But the adolescent Bnos members regularly dealt with difficult and neglected issues and often struggled with questions and doubts. According to the introductory article, the goal of “Bnos Pages” was to address those questions head-on: open discussions of these difficult problems might help Bnos members to find the answers they were looking for. The essay ends with an invitation to Bnos members to contribute material to the new section, and thus let their voices be heard. 

Gross’ article in the same issue delves into some of these neglected issues: she discusses the Bnos’ members and the crisis of young people who feel unhappy, search for a higher purpose in life, and are uncertain of their futures. For Bnos’ leaders and members, the crisis might arise from their sense of failure to live up to Bnos ideals. If a member feels she cannot live up to those ideals, she might quit the movement entirely. One possible solution to this problem would be to publicize how individual chapters dealt with these challenges, and develop an overall approach for a pedagogy of the movement.  

Issue 105, May-June 1933

With this admirable goal in mind, the section—at first sporadically—became a regular feature of the journal. In issue 109, after two issues with no “Bnos Pages”, the section appeared again with an explanation that the goal was to publish in each and every issue, a goal that was stymied by two main issues: the first was the organizational difficulty of editing and maintaining a new section, and the second was the lack of appropriate materials. The “Bnos Pages” section aimed to feature the voices of Bnos members and other young women, and most of the texts published in this section were indeed written by women. In this article the editorial staff put out another call again for submissions, explaining that they were not looking for literary texts, but rather for articles that discussed controversial issues in accessible language, the same language someone might use in talking to a friend. Despite these clear intents, some of the articles were still written by the largely male staff of the journal, and in particular by its indefatigable editor-in-chief, Friedensohn. 

Issue 107, August-September 1933

Although the articles and call for submissions explicitly expressed the need to discuss difficult subjects, and the Bnos ethos included open discussion and debates, the discourse was actually limited and self-governed. In her book Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, Naomi Seidman demonstrates those limits through a reading of the autobiography of a young woman writing under the pseudonym ‘Esther’, which was submitted to the YIVO autobiography contest. ‘Esther’ was a teacher in a failed Bais Yaakov school, and a member of Bnos. In her writing she describes the Bnos ethos of conducting a debate following the Talmudic model but reveals its underlying goal of reaffirming the correctness of their way. Her Bnos group was unhappy with her, since she too often opposed the expressed mainstream opinions of the movement. As Seidman notes: “The taste for passionate debate was constrained in Bais Yaakov (and Bnos) culture by unwritten rules about how far one could go.”1

Perhaps because the Bnos Pages discussions were in fact all aligning with the ideals of the movement and reaffirming them, it was embraced by the head of the movement. In issue 107, which did not include the new section, Sarah Schenirer dedicated an essay to the new “Bnos Pages”. For Schenirer, this initiative was the best gift for her upcoming fiftieth birthday, as she writes: “It is my pride and joy, that during the month I turned fifty, I had the honor of hearing public expressions by my children, ideas that expressed my most intimate dreams”. To see her students become teachers, along the path she had paved and dreamed of, was a blessing for her. In the next “Bnos Pages” published in issue 109, Rivkah Horowitz (who would later become an important figure in the rebirth of Bnos and Bais Yaakov in the Buchenwald Displaced Person Camp), thanks Sarah Schenirer for her words, and expands on what “Bnos Pages” means to her. It was her hope that the section should help to promote the work of Bnos, and instill the movement’s values and ideas into the consciousness of its members. 

For the remaining years of the Bais Yaakov Journal, which published its last issue (157) in July, 1939, “Bnos Pages” was an important part of the journal. The section was the primary one in the journal that emphasized its role of providing a platform for young women’s voices, and devoting attention to the work of the movement, which relied so heavily on the energies of young women. As Friedensohn had hoped, writers indeed debated difficult issues, discussed strategies for the movement, published calls for action, and encouraged young members to be more active and take leadership roles in the movement. Despite the male leadership of the Bais Yaakov Journal and the fact that most of its writers were men, at the initiative of a young woman the journal not only addressed a female readership but also worked to promote young women’s voices openly discussing issues of concern to them as an inseparable and inspiring part of the publication.2 

Bais Yaakov Journal Issue 105, 1933

Bais Yaakov Journal Issue 107, 1933

Bais Yaakov Journal Issue 109, 1933

 1 Seidman, Naomi. Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement : A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, Liverpool University Press, 2019. P. 125.

2 All issues of Bais Yaakov Journal are now available on our website: “Bnos Pages” (Bnos-bleter) appeared in twenty-five issues in total: 105, 106, 109, 110-111, 112, 114, 116, 118, 119, 128, 130, 131, 133, 134, 135-136, 138, 139, 140, 145, 146, 147, 148, 150, 156, 157.

Heroines of the Bais Yaakov Journal

The story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls from the Krakow Teachers’ Seminary who committed suicide rather than be taken as prostitutes by German soldiers is well known in Orthodox circles. But before it was created, perpetuated, and commemorated in various ways, there were other stories of virtuous women that taught young Orthodox girls how to become good Jewish women, wives, and mothers. Reading the Bais Yaakov Journal, I was often struck by the extravagant if not impossible ideal that was presented to young women: these were stories that recommended that they not only live a Jewish life, but also be prepared to die a holy Jewish death. 

The story of Odl in issue 58 (1930) of
Bais Yaakov Journal

One of these stories about a “holy martyr” who died “a terrible death” in order to “sanctify God’s name” is the tale of Odl, published in prose in Issue 58 (1930), and as a ballad in Issue 110-111 (1933).  It is the story of a woman from Lemberik (known as Lemberg, and today as Lviv), which took place in 1718. Odl was a bright girl with the best of qualities, from a good wealthy family. She was married off by her father to a promising young scholar, whom she financially supported so that he could devote his time to learning Torah. But the Christians envied her business successes, and they crafted a plan incriminating her in a blood libel: on the eve of Passover, they bribed her Christian maid who helped them enter the home, where they planted the body of a dead Christian child, and claimed that Odl had killed the boy. She was sentenced to be dragged around the city by horses until she was dead. Her final request was just for a few pins: Odl’s act of devotion to God was to pin her dress to her legs, so that even while being dragged through the streets her dress will continue to cover her legs, thus keeping her dignity and modesty intact.

This same story, it should be mentioned, appears in a slightly different form in I.L. Peretz’s story, “The Three Gifts”, where the secular writer ironizes this tale of ultimate sacrifice by having the angels who collect the pins after the girl’s death pronounce them as “useless” but beautiful.

1945 staging of Peretz’s The Three Gifts [From the New York Public Library]

But there was nothing ironic about how the story was retold in Bais Yaakov, not only in the interwar period but afterward, as well. The grotesque and pious story may have left an impression, as well, on the unfortunate young woman who (it seems) threw herself out of a high window in the Krakow Seminary in the autumn of 1934. One piece of evidence reported by the Polish Jewish press suggesting that she had committed suicide rather than had a terrible accident is that the body was found with a dress wrapped around the legs, as if, even in the extremity of her emotional situation, the young woman still upheld the archetypal Bais Yaakov value of modesty. Read our blog post about this incident » 

The Jewish holidays were also an opportunity for the Bais Yaakov Journal’s writers to tell tales of virtuous women, some of whom were also martyrs. In issue 49 (1929-1930) Hanukkah becomes a time to commemorate the story of Hannah, who sacrificed her seven sons “al kiddush hashem”. Hannah encouraged them not to give up their Jewish faith, even at the cost of their lives, and she watched them being murdered in front of her eyes. Hannah claims (as she does in rabbinic literature) to be more righteous than Abraham: while he sacrificed one son to God, she sacrificed seven. 

It is maybe worth mentioning that these tales were written by men (by Y. B. Mandelbaum, Israel Emiat, and Moshe Tzinowitz accordingly) and addressed young girls, teaching them the values they should aspire to. These stories saddened me, suggesting that the male writers of the Bais Yaakov Journal saw women only through the lens of their bodies, praising them only for their sexual modesty, or valuing them only for these extreme acts rather than their everyday virtues. But then I read the story of “Dina the Great”. This piece, published in issue 60 (1930) written by Benjamin Zisman, tells the story of the “Rebbetzin of Brisk”. Dina was born to a wealthy orthodox family and was recognized as a bright child from an early age. Her father encouraged her to learn, and she was determined to prove that she was as smart as the boys, composing a beautiful sermon (drasha) for her twelve birthday. As an older woman, she was appreciated for her good heart and charitable ways. She was a good wife, but her husband died young, and she became a young widow. Dina took her fate into her own hands and decided she should become Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel’s second wife. She wrote him a letter in Hebrew, impressing him deeply. Although he had vowed not to remarry, when he met this remarkable woman, who cited rabbinic passages on why they should be wed, he changed his mind. Thus she secured herself the mate she desired by her intelligence and knowledge.   

The story of Odl in issue 58 (1930)
of Bais Yaakov Journal

The story of Dina, unlike the first two, offers young girls and women a different role model. Women, too, might be judged for their intelligence, along with their devotion to God and good deeds. More strikingly, a woman can decide whom she would like to marry and propose to a man. And she can do all that without paying a terrible price for such forthrightness. The Bais Yaakov Journal, that is to say, did not speak in only a single voice on what it meant to be an admirable Jewish woman.

Ka-Tsetnik as a Yeshiva Boy: Yechiel Feiner’s early writing in the Bais Yaakov Journal

Among the many writers of the Bais Yaakov Journal, one name caught my eye – Yechiel Feiner. Feiner was famous—even infamous—as a writer, but under another name at a different time. But that was only after the Holocaust, when he settled in Israel. As a refugee immediately after the war ended he used the name Karl Zetinski, and later in Israel he officially changed his name to Yechiel Di-Nur, but published his works under the pen name Ka-Tsetnik 135633 (KZ is Yiddish for Prisoner of a Concentration Camp, and 135633 was his prisoner number at Auschwitz). These books are controversial: criticized by some as “pornographic Holocaust fiction” for their grotesque violence, lurid sexual scenes, and cannibalism, they are also defended by others as capturing something of the horrors of the Holocaust that no other writer had.

Finer as a young man, before the war (Raviv, Erez, 16.7.2021, Davar)

Feiner only published one book of poetry before the war, in 1931, when he was a twenty-two-year-old star student at the famous yeshiva in Lublin. When he found the volume in the National Library of Israel after the war, he borrowed it, tore it to pieces, and sent its remains back to the library with a hand-written letter; he confessed to burning his book, and sent cut-outs from it as the remains, asking the library manager to “Burn it. Like my world and everything dear to me, was burnt in the crematorium of Auschwitz”, and by that asking the manager to become an active participant in his act of destruction. But this book of poetry, it turns out, was not his entire prewar literary output. Among the other articles and short stories that fill the pages of the interwar Bais Yaakov Journal, as I discovered, are four short works of prose written by him. These short stories were written around the same time Feiner published his volume of poetry, appearing between 1930-1932. In them, one can gain a unique glimpse of a (then-Orthodox) writer in the making.

His first piece published in the journal in 1930 (issue 52) is titled “A Children’s Tale: Red Flowers,” and presents a disturbing story, made only more disturbing by the fact that he dedicates this bloody “children’s” tale to the Bais Yaakov school in Proshovitz (perhaps Przeworsk, which did have a Bais Yaakov in 1930).

The cut outs sent by Di-Nur to the National Library of Israel
(The Librarians, National Library of Israel, 17.7.2018)

Once, while strolling, the narrator arrived at a beautiful garden, with beautiful red flowers. The flowers had a powerful and marvelous scent, and he became drunk from breathing the air. Suddenly he realized that the flowers were nourished by the gardener’s blood, and not by water. Upon inquiry, the gardener explained he lives for the flowers, for their beautiful smell. The gardener, the creator of beauty, lived for his creation and paid for it with his own blood. The moral of the story is clear: Feiner, the poet, sees himself as that gardener, who pays with blood for his creation and lives for its beauty.

Feiner, with his tendency to Romanticism, continued to publish writings that are full of pathos. In issue 67-68, also published in 1931, Finer contributed an essay on “Art and Criticism”. In this piece, he discusses the creative process and reveals his reaction to the role of literary critics. Finer uses two metaphors to describe the heart of the poet: the heart is the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and the heart is a blue sea, whose turbulence is often hidden from others. The poet’s power of imagination, which creates worlds and burns brightly, is the most “powerful feeling of a creative period”. And then comes the critic, with his logic and lack of imagination, and he cannot understand the poet’s work, he cannot enter the Holy of Holies (kodesh-hakodashim) and behold “the olive oil that burns in the menorah in the poet’s soul”. It is possible that this piece was written after the publication of his first book of poetry, which did not achieve the critical acclaim he hoped for and believed he deserved.

What is so striking about these 1931 works by a young religious poet is not only the slightly overheated and romantic views on literature and poetry – the poet is close to God and pays for his art with his very blood. Even more so is that that Feiner took a sacred image, of the Holy Temple and its sacred inner precincts, and used it for a more secular set of ideas about art, imagination, and the misunderstood artist. Of course it is also remarkable that the Bais Yaakov Journal was happy to publish such work—evidence, perhaps, of its generally open attitude toward young Orthodox artists and writers, even ones as strange as Feiner. It also serves as evidence that Feiner’s lurid imagination, which he described as a product of his Holocaust experiences, may have already been operative in that period before the war, though in much less extreme form.

A video of Feiner at the Eichmann trial »