Naomi Seidman

The Founding of the World Organization of Orthodox Women

At the Second World Congress of Agudath Israel in 1929, Bais Yaakov was represented by various activists, and the Neshei Agudath Israel, a women’s branch of the organization, was founded. The Bais Yaakov Journal covered the excitement leading up to the event as well as the speeches and moments of interest after the congress. Below is a translation of the coverage which appeared in Issue #47 of the Journal. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing translations of ther Journal pieces about the Congress, as well as some speeches as they appear in Sarah Schenirer’s Collected Writings, along with some analysis of the event.

The dais at the Neshei Agudath Israel Women’s Conference at the 1929 World Congress of the Agudath Israel, held at the Bayerischer Hof [Bavarian Court] hotel in Vienna during the same week that the Agudah met at the Sofiansaal Concert Hall.

From left to right: Mrs. Fanny Lunzer (London), Rebbetzin Leah Grodzinski (Vilna), Mrs. Henny Schreiber (Vienna), Mrs. Franziska Goldschmidt (Zurich), Mrs. Ernestine Bondi (Vienna), Rebbetzin Feyge Mintshe Alter (Gur), Mrs. Malka Meierovitsh (Riga), Miss Lotka Szczarańska (Sharansky, a teacher at the seminary in Kraków).

The speakers included three wives of distinguished leaders and Bais Yaakov supporters from east Europe, Abraham Mordechai Alter (the Gerer Rebbe), Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Chief Rabbi of Vilna), and Aharon Levin (the Raysher Rov], and two local women, Mrs Bondi and Mrs Schreiber, who served on the Bais Yaakov committee in Vienna and who had family connections to Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Hatam Sofer and Akiva Eiger, respectively. Mrs. Lunzer served on the Beis Yaakov committee in London. Mrs. Meierovitz, a teacher at the Torah V’Derekh Eretz girls’ school in Riga, reported on Bnos in Latvia, while Miss Szczarańska reported on Bnos in Poland. Mrs. Goldschmidt, who chaired the conference, was the daughter of the chief rabbi of Zurich, Tuvia Lewenstein, and headed the international committee that worked to link the women’s initiatives of the Agudah in the two years before the founding of the Neshei Agudath Israel.

Courtesy of the Jewish Museum Vienna/Archive, number 003808_1. For more on Rabbi Aharon Levin, see http://aaronlevine.info/reisha/reisha-rav-harav-aharon-levine-hyd/

On Thursday, Elul 7 [September 12, 1929], the first World Congress of Orthodox women’s organization was launched in the hall of the “Bayerischer Hof” Hotel in Vienna. This Congress was initiated and organized by the International Agudath Israel Office in Vienna. Approximately a hundred delegates and another few hundred guests from throughout Europe, the Land of Israel, and the University States attended the Congress. Participants from Poland included: The Gerer Rebetzin, [Feyge Mintshe Alter], Rebbetzin [Dobe] Levin (Rzeszów, or Raysha), Rebbetzin Grodzensky and Mrs. Shaub (Vilna), Mrs. Schenirer and Miss [Lotka] Szczarańska as representatives of the Central Office of Bnos in Poland.

Mrs. [Franziska] Goldschmidt (Zurich) chaired the opening session, explaining, among other things, that the Congress had been convened by order of the International Executive Committee of the Agudath Israel. The present Congress emerged from the “International Committee of Agudah Women and Girls” that was founded two years ago, and which already encompassed many countries; the present Congress is a culmination of the work of this group, which would now be transformed into the “World Union of Orthodox Women’s Organizations.”

Mrs. [Ernestine] Bondi (Vienna) gave the keynote address, saying, among other things:

Before we move on to our own work, I want to recall with a heavy heart recent events in the Land of Israel. Since those sorrowful days when our brothers and sisters were murdered in the Holy Land, we have all been filled with sadness and grief. Our sacred land has again been drenched in the innocent blood of our sons and daughters. The last remnant of our ancient glory, the Western Wall, for which we have yearned since our childhood, has been stormed by our enemies. Our spiritual heroes, the yeshiva students of Hebron, heroically fell for the sanctification of God’s name and the entire Jewish people are united in the sorrow of “Rachel cries for her children” (the audience remained standing during this eulogy).

Dear participants! This is the first time—Mrs. Bondi continued—that Agudath Israel is convening Orthodox women and girls from the entire world, in order to work together under its banner. Let me greet you all with the warmest greetings. Let generations to come truly remember this hour as a momentous historical occasion. We are all united here in one intention: To resolve the questions of Jewish women’s lives in the spirit of our Torah and tradition. Our first task is dedicated to the education question. Our great leader, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, long ago warned us to take as great care for the education of girls as of boys. Our task is first of all to bring Jewish girls closer to the sources of Jewish knowledge. Our young women must acquire a religious consciousness that can protect them from the dangers of modern life.  We must organize employment agencies that will allow women workers to avoid work where they will have to desecrate the Sabbath. And just as the World Congress is taking up these questions, so too must we work intensively along the same paths.

I do not have to remind you again—the speaker continued—that from this moment when we belong to Agudath Israel, our mission is to support all the Agudah’s activities both in the diaspora and the Land of Israel. We must pay special attention to supporting the Bais Yaakov schools. We must also work energetically in the fields of social work and care for orphans. The work of the Agudah, which is based on the principles of “Torah, avodah u’gemilut hasadim” (Torah, Temple worship [or prayer], and good deeds),” must find worthy in us, Orthodox women and girls. We must fulfill the principle of “His house is his wife”—the Jewish woman must embody in herself the construction and protection of the Jewish home, to maintain the pure and holy Jewish family life. That is how the entire Jewish people will be revived and renewed through Agudath Israel.

We have all come with truly good intentions—the speaker concluded—to get to work, and when our intentions are transformed into deeds, our newly formed international organization of Agudah women will be a blessing for all the Jewish people (applause).

Rebbetzin Alter (the Gerrer Rebbetzin): I wish you the best of success in your sacred work. “All beginnings are difficult,” but our sincere desire to work for the Agudah among Jewish women, and our unity, will certainly result in the realization of our holy endeavors. May God help us and grant that our next meeting will be held in in our Holy Land (sustained applause).

Mrs. Schenirer: I greet this World Congress in the name of the Bais Yaakov schools of Poland. I cannot describe my joy in prosaic words. We see here the awakening of the Jewish woman to her exalted mission. The holy sage said: “Any gathering that is for the sake of heaven will conclude on solid ground”, and we can certainly say that this is true of our present Congress. I hope that we will see bountiful fruits of this gathering, and that the Torah ideal will continue to inspire broader and broader circles of women (long applause).

Professor Maierovitsh (Riga, Latvia): I greet you in the name of the Bnos chapters in Latvia. This gathering today must give us strength and courage to face our opponents, and our unity will surely fortify our youth movement.

Rebbetzin Hirschler (Pressburg, Czechoslovakia) delivered extensive welcoming remarks, discussing the significance of the Agudah’s women’s movement for the revival of the Jewish people and Jewish family life.

The chairwoman concluded by reading aloud a long letter from the editorial board of the Bais Yaakov Journal.

The pages of the Bais Yaakov Journal in which this report appeared. Click to see the full PDF.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

A Letter from Bais Yaakov Teachers in Bergen Belsen

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the rare artifacts that survive from the post-war period in Europe. One of the artifacts that give us a glimpse into this extraordinary period is a letter written from the Displaced Persons camp in Bergen-Belsen. Below is a translation of that letter, as published in the August 9, 1945, issue of Shaarim.

A Call from Bais Yaakov Teachers in Bergen Belsen

The letter as it appeared in the August 9, 1945, issue of Shaarim.

The London-based Yiddish weekly of the Agudas Israel, “Yidishe Vokhntzayt (no. 53),” recently published a letter by Rivka Horowitz, a Bais Yaakov teacher, in the name of the Bais Yaakov teachers and Bnos members in the camp to Bais Yaakov and Bnos teachers abroad.

Dear friends, may you be well,

I am writing to you from a desolate town in Germany, where we all ended up, having wandered by various routes after our time in harsh labor camps. There is much that should be said about this experience but I will leave for another opportunity.

You do not know me, and I do not know you, but that does not prevent me from turning to you for help.

There is no time now for me to tell you everything we went through, and more particularly what a hell it was for an observant Jew. But I want to stress one fact: The truth of our faith stood out absolutely clearly, particularly in these experiences and tortures. Armed with faith, a faith inscribed in the heart, it is possible to walk the path of the most unbearable suffering, and remain pure. Rather than abandoning the ways of modesty, it was particularly there that religious Jews recognized the value and power of modesty. Rather than trampling on decency and love, there they understood how important these are in life, and what life is like—without them.

It was for that reason that religious Jews even in the camps based their lives on different principles—and left the camps with something different, something their own.

Most importantly, religious people did not lose their moral compass.

Tragically, only a few such people managed to survive. The greatest, and best, of these went the fiery way of the ovens. A few survivors were dispersed to various refugee camps. Among these survivors are to be found, in Bergen Belsen, a group of members of the Agudah, including some women. A few of the most serious of these women are Bais Yaakov teachers and Bnos members from Sandz, Krakow, Sanok and elsewhere.  

When we were liberated from the camp and first tasted the taste of freedom, we began to search for the world which we had faith that we would find after everything that happened. We had not expected or believed that the war would end the way it did. Was it for this that the Jewish religiosity of Polish Jewry had been destroyed, its world drowned in an ocean of blood, for things to remain exactly the same as before? Were these not the footsteps of the Messiah?

It is difficult, after living the way we did, to face the ordinary world of before. It is at this threshold that we now stand.

Unfortunately, no one among the individuals assigned to our care can help this kind of survivor. We were assigned to the supervision of an English “Rabbi,” a secular Zionist. It was because of him that we were transferred to a different place, within a month. No one shared with us the purpose of this move, but its effect was to isolate us from the rest of our community. After the British occupiers arrived, we were put in the well-known death camp, Bergen Belsen, from which we were moved first to Bergen and then to Lingen.

The “Rabbi” wanted to turn our group into a secular-Zionist kibbutz. If we had realized this, we would not have left Bergen, but we were made aware of this only later. You can imagine how hard our lives were, there “in goles[1] among Jews”.[2]

You can imagine our joy when we received greetings from you and Orthodox Jewry from Dr. H[3] Klepfish, the military chaplain of the Polish army. These greetings lightened our loneliness and desolation. For surely among you must be organized groups of young religious Jews, in faithful observance of what we had sacrificed the marrow of our being for under such harsh conditions. This knowledge would give us support, and allow us to go on. So we decided to write you this letter. For certainly you will understand what we are feeling, and be moved by our double isolation, in our homelessness and in the lack of an appropriate atmosphere for us, an atmosphere of moral exaltation that seeks something more, “for man does not live by bread alone.”[4]

We need your help. First and foremost, send us newspapers and periodicals and news of our movement. We are living here as if on a desert island, in conditions that are not easy. We lack an environment, food, clothing.

There is not a single Jewish book here. Please send us a Bible with rabbinic commentaries and a Hebrew dictionary. Also Ethics of the Fathers with commentaries, ethical literature, Jewish history, etc.

We think that in the course of time there will be those who find some value in these sacred books, and so there is an urgent need for them. As of now, there are only a few young yeshiva students here who need them, and we ourselves will learn from them, and then go on to teach.

But as you know, we are helpless to do anything here, and we look to you for anything you can do for us. We do not participate in the life here, in our desire to carve out our own corner, more beautiful and substantial, and we long for the moment when we can begin our work anew. Do you know anything about our friends in other camps? And if you do, please send them our regards. That will give us great joy. We will not be left with a connection only to you—and with the longing and anticipation of a better and finer life.

We hope for your immediate assistance, in any form whatsoever, for everything has been withheld from us—we do not ask for your pity, but rather call for you to fulfill the debt of friendship.

Where are the religious survivors of German Jewry? Do you have R. Jacob Rosenheim’s address, and what are our chances of receiving certificates[5]? Do we have any reason to hope in this regard for the help of our activists and people?

With blessings,
Rivka Horowitz

[1] exile

[2] This is the title of Nathan Birnbaum’s 1919-20 critique of secular Judaism and call for the revival of Orthodoxy, an important and popular book among Bais Yaakov students.

[3] Dr. Heshel Klepfish

[4] [Deut. 8:3]

[5] likely certificates to Palestine

Bais Yaakov in the DP Camps

Bais Yaakov of Foehrenwald. Sara (Abraham) Seidman is in the third row, just to the right of the sign.
An Object:

Among the few items my parents brought with them from Europe when they emigrated to America is a Hebrew textbook my mother (Sara Seidman, née Abraham) wrote by hand, from memory, for the Bais Yaakov school she ran in the Föhrenwald Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. The textbook is written on the blank pages of a book of Gestapo order forms, for lack of other paper.

A Letter:

An August 1945 newspaper report in Sha’arim, in the form of a letter from Bergen Belsen signed by Rivka Horowitz, describes conditions in the camp after Liberation. A group of religious women, the most serious of whom were Bais Yaakov teachers and graduates of Bnos groups in Sandz, Kraków, Sanok and elsewhere, had come together to try to rebuild Jewish life.

Horowitz writes that she will not describe their ordeal of blood, except to say that they survived with their purity and beliefs intact. Rather, she begs her readers to supply her and her group with religious books, for the work they were undertaking.

“Despite the obstacles she faced, she managed to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath. Because of her dedication to her faith, Polish partisans later called her the Swieta Partizanka (saintly partisan) . . . They eventually made their way to Austria where they came to the Bad Gastein and Salzburg displaced persons’ camps. Itke worked there organizing religious schools for girls, Bnos.”

Girls from Bnos Agudath Israel and Beit Yaakov hold a celebration in the Bad Gastein Displaced Persons camp. Pictured are Esther Ass second from the right first row. Her sister Itka is pictured in the middle of the middle row in a light colored blouse.
A Photo

The Holocaust Museum photo archives contain a number of photos of two extraordinarily beautiful sisters, Itka and Esther Ass.

Itka, who had studied for a time at the Kraków Seminary, escaped from the Nowogrodek ghetto in 1943 and joining a number of Jewish and non-Jewish partisan bands, including the one led by the Bielski brothers. Itka, we are told, carried a weapon, as one of the few armed women in the Bielski group.

A photo of the two sisters, reproduced with the permission of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive on our website, shows them seated at a Sabbath table, set with candlesticks and wine, among a group of mostly young women—a child sits on a lap, and one woman appears to be middle-aged—under a sign that reads “Bais Yaakov l’khu venelkha.”

This object, photo, and letter are fragments of the least-known chapter of Bais Yaakov history: the re-emergence of Bais Yaakov among Jews fleeing from wartime threats and among the refugees and displaced persons of the immediate post-war period.

Interwar Bais Yaakov produced a host of documents, and Bais Yaakov in the two major centres—Israel and North America—of more recent history is visible enough as a contemporary phenomenon. But Bais Yaakov in the postwar context was different from either its predecessors or the movement that followed, and the intriguing traces of this culture are available only in fragmentary form.

What we do know is that the immediate aftermath of the war saw the rapid re-emergence of Bais Yaakov schools and Bnos groups, with schools and groups founded in the displaced persons camps of Bad Gastein, Eschwege, Feldafink, Föhrenwald, Frankfurt, Landsberg, and Zeilsheim. Bergen-Belsen had two Bais Yaakov schools and even a rudimentary teachers’ seminary.

By 1951, there were 150 Bais Yaakov schools and Ohel Sarah kibbutzim in Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, France, and (until Soviet regimes shut them down), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Poland.

Students and teachers from the Shanghai Bais Yaakov, 1947.

A Bais Yaakov that had served the refugee community in Shanghai continued for a time after the war. A photo of that school shows that the British detention camp in Cyprus, which held Holocaust survivors attempting to immigrate illegally to Palestine, had both a Bais Yaakov school and a few Bnos chapters.

In some camps, Bais Yaakov girls banded together to look for hidden Jewish children, founding orphanages where these children could be brought back to religious observance. 

As my mother’s textbooks attests, the cultural practices of Bais Yaakov in the DP camps were necessarily distinct from those founded in the interwar period, or in the post-Holocaust Israel and North America. Bais Yaakov schools and Bnos chapters served a refugee community struggling to rebuild itself with limited resources, with teachers and students who had been orphaned, traumatized, and imprisoned.

For many in the DP camps, it was not all clear where they should rebuild their lives, or how—with many survivors drifting away from religious observance and into other ideological camps. and positions. At least some modesty norms seem to have been loosened within Bais Yaakov, if the photo from Shanghai is evidence.

The re-emergence of Bais Yaakov was aided by the network of connections forged in the interwar movement, but these schools constituted new assemblages, without the old lines of authority or institutional frameworks, without a clear road to the future. In these conditions, improvisation and memory sometimes took the place of established norms, producing, among other artefacts, a handwritten Hebrew text in a repurposed Gestapo order form. 

First meeting of Neshei after the war. Antwerp 1949. Naomi Seidman’s mother was the representative from France, seated second from the left.

What was Bais Yaakov at this extraordinary moment of displacement, trauma, and rebirth? What might a close reading of Rivka Horowitz’s letter, the Ass sisters’ photo, my mother’s Hebrew textbook, tell us about what Bais Yaakov was in those years, in those places?

In the coming weeks, we will publish a translation of Rivka Horowitz’s letter.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

Bais Yaakov, the Talmud, and Me

Image result for talmud page

Who would have predicted, even a few decades ago, that the Talmud would come to acquire what passes for glamour in the academic world?

I witnessed this as a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1990s, where the internationally renowned Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin was training a new cohort of young scholars.

Image result for drishaSVARA: A Traditionally Radical YeshivaThere were also places like Drisha, or Svara, where serious Talmud study was available to people beyond the usual yeshiva demographic.  

But for all the excitement I saw in others falling in love with the Talmud, I somehow never caught the bug, despite participating in my share of partner study sessions and appreciating the rabbinics scholarship I read or heard.

Recently, it occurred to me that my failure to fall in love with the Talmud may have something to do with having been raised in the world of Bais Yaakov.

As a Bais Yaakov girl, I was of course excluded from study of the Talmud. The distinction between the permitted study of the Written Torah (the Bible and its commentaries) and the forbidden study of the Oral Torah (prototypically, the Talmud) is fundamental to the Bais Yaakov curriculum. It was this distinction that rendered organized Torah study by girls permissible in the eyes of rabbinical authorities of the time, who read Rabbi Eliezer’s famous dictum, “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut (licentiousness, triviality),” as pertaining only to the study of rabbinic sources.

But all of this rationale was in the historical background of Bais Yaakov rather than part of the day-to-day culture of the school. In the Bais Yaakov schools in which I was raised, Torah was simply understood differently than it was for our brothers: we studied Torah in a way that kept us within the lines drawn by Rabbi Eliezer and his later interpreters, but without reference to those lines.

In short, we carried on a Jewish intellectual life as if we lacked for nothing, as if Rabbi Eliezer and his entire crowd had never existed – it was only in seminary, I think, that I was first introduced to that particular halakhic discussion.

In my last year as a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, Daniel Boyarin gave a job talk in which he argued for the legitimacy of women studying Talmud.

The question I put to him at the end of the talk was why women should want to study the Talmud.

He was clearly taken aback, as if the value of such study was so obvious to him that he had never considered that anyone might feel differently. But I did and do.

Of course, I have studied and taught rabbinic sources, and my book on Bais Yaakov includes a requisite analysis of the halakhic issues involved in Jewish education for girls. But Sarah Schenirer wrote about Torah as if the Torah she was teaching was Torah in its entirety, and as if it was entirely clear to her that this Torah was directed to women as much as to men (and directed at them first, as the verse from which the title of the school derives suggests).

Here, for instance, is the opening of her mission statement for the Bais Yaakov movement, published in the first issue of the Bais Yaakov Journal (1923, six years after she opened her first school) and republished as part of Gezamlte shrift, what can only be called her “sefer” (which was the way the book was described in advertisements—as ‘the first sefer authored by a woman in many centuries’):

I think that by now everyone knows that the sole mission of the Bais Yaakov schools is to educate Jewish girls so that, with all their strength and with every breath, they will serve the Creator and fulfill the commandments of the Torah with seriousness and passion. . . .The Torah is directed at everyone: to the individual and the collective, priest and Israelite, educated and simple, judge or worker, prophet and ordinary man. The commandments must be fulfilled in the home and in the field, in private life as in society, in the Temple as on the street, in a business as in a workshop. It opens one’s eyes to see the divine power in nature, recognize Providence in the workings of history. It teaches us to understand our place among the nations. The Torah demands from us that we ‘impress these words upon your very heart’—and that we should spread its ideals in the world, ‘and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away’, whether we are asleep or awake from sleep, it must be the one straight line that we walk as we lead our lives, the crown on our heads, the watchword of our domestic and public lives—‘on the doorposts of your house and on your gates’ [Deut 11: 18-21].

Understand, Jewish women and girls! For thousands of years the Jewish people lived with the Torah. Millions of great men and women drew all their emotions, thoughts and values about everything in life from its holy fire. The national treasure that we labored for from time eternal has always been: the study of Torah.

While the men who supported Sarah Schenirer regularly discussed the halakhic ramifications of teaching girls Torah, Schenirer – here and elsewhere – simply talks about Torah as if it were clear to her that women participated in its study alongside all other Jews. The sentence “The Torah is directed at everyone: to the individual and the collective, priest and Israelite, educated and simple, judge or worker, prophet and ordinary man” is striking in not even mentioning men and women—the primary distinction referred to in rabbinic discussions of Torah study.

Classroom in the Krakow seminary. 1930s. Ghetto Fighters House Archive.

Whatever strategic impulses may have led Schenirer to avoid discussing what Rabbi Eliezer may have thought of her enterprise, she helped construct an alternative value system that shaped my own attitude to the Jewish library.

Maybe my failure to fall in love with Talmud is just the result of a deficit in my Jewish education.
But it was also part of my Jewish education that this was no deficit at all.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

Mechitzas and Movies: Female Culture in a Gender-Segregated Community

A young girl peers over the divider at the Kosel (Western Wall), looking at a man wearing a tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries).
A Haredi wedding, with men dancing on the right side of the partition, and the women dancing on the left side.

Among the most visible signs of the Orthodox move to the right over the past few decades has been the creep of separations between men and women, boys and girls, beyond the shul and school, to weddings, parks, buses, and now even sidewalks and airplane aisles.

The term “gender segregation” is deceptively neutral. The arrangement generally puts women in the back of the bus, requires them to follow strict modesty codes, reads them as potential sexual temptresses whose modesty or (even better) invisibility keeps men from sin. Their faces may not be seen, their voices may not be heard, by a man.

Their own spiritual expressions—for instance, singing a prayer or song out loud—hardly matter in this scheme, which concerns itself solely with the relationship between God and (the Jewish) man.

This was of course already the case in Eastern Europe, where Bais Yaakov arose within a community in which gender segregation had helped propel the crisis of young girls’ defections from Orthodoxy. Girls, excluded from the Hasidic court and the yeshiva, looked elsewhere for activities, experiences, relationships.

Men examine lulavim (palm fronds) in Meah Shearim, Jerusalem; a sign proclaims “Men Only: Entry for women is strictly forbidden.”

When Bais Yaakov sought to find opportunities for girls’ spiritual experiences, some on the right of the Orthodox spectrum objected less on the grounds of what was happening in these schools than on the effect this experiment might have on men. The Munkatcher Rebbe Chaim Elazar Spira was angered that the singing voices of Bais Yaakov girls, praying the Friday evening service together in their school, could be heard by boys and men in nearby prayer houses.

But what of the effect of gender segregation on women? That the increasing stringency is harmful to young girls is part of what Leslie Ginsparg Klein has been arguing, in multiple venues including the hashtag #frumwomenhavefaces and her rap/spoken word about how erasing women and girls harms the community. To peruse the website of a girls’ school and see nothing but photos of men, a familiar experience for those researching Bais Yaakov, sends a message that can hardly be entirely positive. (See my post about photos of girls and women in interwar Poland, where no similar taboo seems to have been in effect.)

But what if the effect is not entirely negative?

What if gender segregation was also an engine for spiritual energy and community cohesiveness for girls, as it seems to often be for boys and men?

Not that this was the point: it seems clear that the separation of women from men was not designed with women in mind, at all. Nevertheless, there are benefits, it seems to me, to growing up in a community of girls and women.

One of these might be a kind of disappearance of gender, or “femininity,” or the eyes of men within those all-girl classes and camps.

Despite the monitoring of skirt lengths and the expectation of being an “eydl meydl” or “kosher Jewish daughter” or “modest Jewish princess,” and despite the episodes in pizza stores and chat rooms, Orthodox girls grow up away from boys, in a world of girls and women.

Ronit Polin Tarshish, director of two films, writer of plays performed by many Bais Yaakov schools, and founder of FlyingSparks Productions.

Some of these girls grow up to direct films, in a time when female directors are still rare in Hollywood. Beyond these “kosher” films, directed to audiences of girls and women, the world of Bais Yaakov is rich with performance, music, dance—as rich as it has been nearly from the beginning.

These plays and performances had certain parallels among traditional Jewish male culture, but it seems to me that it was also a distinctly female phenomenon, with no real male counterpart. Denigrated by men as feminine and frivolous, this culture thrived with no men to witness it.

Might gender segregation provide the perfectly fertile ground for such cultural productivity? Along with the passion for gender segregation that has been driving so many Haredi communities, might we also be witnessing another sort of feminine passion within the world created by this segregation—a passion for performance, culture, and personal expression?

Bais Yaakov students of Lublin perform in a play.
Bais Yaakov students of Lublin perform in a play.
An ad for a "women's only" performance in 1926.

A song composed for a school Shabbaton on the theme of modesty, Bais Yaakov High School in Brooklyn, 2005.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

Why Didn’t Sarah Schenirer Want Her Photo Published?

The famous drawing of Sarah Schenirer

It’s well known to every Bais Yaakov girl that Sarah Schenirer did not want her photograph published. When I began my research almost ten years ago, there was still no widely available photo of her. Instead, what circulated was a line drawing that had been distributed by Bais Yaakov in the interwar period, and was included in the frontispiece of her 1933 Gizamelte shriftn (Collected Writings).

It was only in 2007 that the now-familiar photo (below) was published in SŚwiat przed katastrofą. Żydzi krakowscy w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym (A World Before a Catastrophe: Krakow’s Jews Between the Wars), edited by Jan M. Malecki. The photo surfaced online in 2008 in a blog post on the Seforim Blog by Dr. Shnayer Leiman of YU.

The title of Pearl Benisch’s biography of Schenirer, Carry Me in Your Heart, refers to what Schenirer would say when asked for a photo from one of her beloved students: her resistance to being photographed was softened by her words, which made palpable the love and closeness that tied founder to followers, even in the absence of a photo.

Sarah Schenirer’s resistance to being photographed is of a piece with other aspects of how she is described in the movement, including her “shunning the spotlight” at the grand ceremony in 1927 to lay the cornerstone of the Krakow Seminary.

Her piety and modesty are sufficient to explain the absence of a photo of a woman so revered, whose photo would be cherished by thousands.

A postcard sent from the professionalization course at Rabka, 1928.

That many Orthodox publications, and even Bais Yaakov websites, now refrain from publishing photos of women and girls, lends support to the supposition that Schenirer held back her photo because of her commitment to feminine modesty.

That may well be true. But there are a number of other aspects of Sarah Schenirer’s biography that complicate this picture.

The presence of dozens of photos of women on this website, and in interwar Bais Yaakov publications, stands as evidence that Bais Yaakov had no conception of the publication of women’s photographs as immodest.

Many photographs were professionally done, and photography was clearly an important part of Bais Yaakov culture.

Moreover, the notion that Sarah Schenirer “shunned the spotlight” at the 1927 ceremony is qualified by contemporary newspaper reports, which simply describe the event as sexually segregated in the audience, with only men on the dais. This, too, was simply normal Agudah practice for public events. It makes sense to describe Sarah Schenirer as modestly refusing an invitation to sit on the dais only if such an invitation had been offered. But there is no reason to think it was.

The question might be more easily resolved by reading Sarah Schenirer’s own words in relation to a request for a photograph. I have found only one such direct quote, in a 1933 article in the Bais Yaakov Ruf, the periodical that served the Lithuanian branch of the movement. The anonymous article quotes a letter from Sarah Schenirer responding to the newspaper’s request:

In regard to your request for a photo to publish in your newspaper, I absolutely cannot do that for you, and further insist that my photograph will not, God forbid, appear in your newspaper. I am terribly against that, but unfortunately my photo has been published throughout the land without my consent, and my anguish over that has been indescribable.

Sarah Schenirer
The article in the Bais Yaakov Ruf explaining that they had asked for a photograph from Sarah Schenirer, and recording her response.

The report continues by noting that these words can themselves provide a truly beautiful portrait of Frau Schenirer, a portrait that reflects her truly Jewish modesty.

This report seems to confirm the understanding of Sarah Schenirer’s reluctance to have her photo published as a form of Jewish piety, or at least shows us that this reluctance was understood in this way during her own lifetime. But the words, an apparent direct quotation from Frau Schenirer, do not spell out the reasons for her determination to keep her photo from publication.

Moreover, they express something of her strong will—she speaks of her rights, of consent, and makes her absolute refusal clear without attempting to soften her words.

Not modesty but rather fierce determination and self-protection are what come through in these words.

Might there have been another explanation?
Sarah Schenirer’s application for an identification card [National Archives Kraków, call number: STGKR 990].

Sarah Schenirer’s diary speaks of her sense of herself as unattractive, and records her pain (during her difficult first marriage) at feeling that she could hardly expect her husband’s love, given her lack of beauty. In this context, it may be relevant that the article that records her refusal to have her photo published also gets her age wrong: the article begins by stating that the newspaper sought the photograph in the context of celebrating her sixtieth birthday—in fact, Schenirer turned not sixty but fifty in July 1933.

Are we getting the picture straight, in subsuming all these complicated social and psychological factors under the rubric of “modesty”?

We now have a photo of Sarah Schenirer, one she would have fought to keep away from prying eyes. What are the ethics of showing it?

My own discomfort around these questions have led me to include the photo only in the context of the application form in which it appears, and as small as possible—admittedly a partial salve.

The face that appears on the form is less “feminine,” and more “modern” in some hard-to-describe fashion than the drawing.

Does it tell us something about Sarah Schenirer that the drawing did not?

Does the drawing tell us something about how Sarah Schenirer was idealized, and obscured, by the movement she founded?

Does some truth lie between the drawing and the photo?

What emerges from these photos and words, once we allow them to expand beyond the simple and comforting idea of Schenirer’s as the perfect image of a Jewish woman’s tsnies?  

A previous version of this post mis-identified the first date of appearance of Sarah Schenirer’s photo.
Many thanks to Fred MacDowell for pointing out our error.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.