‘Be a Good Girl’: An Interview with Sarah Blau

The apocryphal Holocaust story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls who committed suicide rather than be taken as prostitutes by German soldiers is well known in Orthodox circles, and has been the subject of poetry, plays, and memorial events. In 2012, as far as we know for the first time, it also became the subject of a novel. Na’arot lemofet (“Well-Educated Girls”), a psychological thriller by the Hebrew writer Sarah Blau (born 1973), is mostly set in the religious city of Bnei-Brak where Blau was raised but it also includes scenes that take place in the Bais Yaakov Seminary building in Krakow, in the room where the girls were held in their final hours. Please also see our next blog, which includes an English translation of an excerpt of the novel.

The novel, which takes place in the 1980s, unfolds within the world of a religious girls’ high school in Bnei Brak, where a student named Chava Keller is determined to produce and star in a play presenting the story of the ninety-three. Into this drama of theater-crazy high school girls (so familiar in Bais Yaakov culture), Blau weaves something like a diary recounting the story of the ninety-three from the point of view of Chaya Feldman, the young woman whose name is signed to the letter that informed the world of their fate (which was sometimes referred to “The Last Will and Testament of the Ninety-Three Martyrs”). Feldman, in these passages, reveals a different story, one that subverts what we think we know about her and the myth of the ninety-three. 

Sarah Blau [Credit: Iris Nesher]

Chava Keller, the heroine, is an orphan, raised by her uncle and aunt. Her mother, Dina, who died while giving birth to her, conceived her out of wedlock and never revealed the identity of the father. When her mother was seventeen, she attempted to put on the play about the ninety-three herself, but during the production, her pregnancy was revealed, and she was ignominiously expelled from the school. Her friend, chosen to take her place as the lead character of Chaya Feldman, mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter and the play was never performed. With Chava trying to put on the same show, the events of the past are threatening to repeat themselves.

The novel thus tells the story of different generations–the mother, the daughter, and the myth of the ninety-three that shadows them both. Part Bildungsroman and part crime novel, following the mystery of where these girls have disappeared to, it also focuses most persistently on the myths and stories told to young girls and women to teach them modesty and Orthodox values. Others have long ago dissected the myth of the 93. What Blau does is show the power, and dangers, of myths like these. 

Front cover of the book ‘Well-Educated Girls

Last June, we sat down to discuss the myth of the ninety-three Bais Yaakov Girls, what it means to be a good girl, and why this story is still so relevant today. Before I had the chance to ask when she had first heard the story of the ninety-three, Sarah started our conversation by anticipating just that question: 

Sarah Blau: When this book was first published, a question that came up consistently in interviews was how I had come to know about the ninety-three? When did I first hear that story? And I just can’t remember. It’s as if I asked you: ‘When was the first time you heard about Cinderella? When was the first time you heard of Snow White?’ It was always there. 

I grew up with this story. The “Garden of the Ninety-Three” was located next to my house in Bnei Brak, and we played there throughout my childhood. This ghost story was always present.

Miriam Schwartz: Can you remember if you heard about it in school or at home? Or when did they tell you all the details?

Sarah: So, as I said, this story was always there. But it’s true that in school, in the Ulpana (high school) “Emuna” I went to, which was not a Charedi school (it belongs to the national-orthodox stream. M.S), the story was told on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Not on every Holocaust Remembrance Day as I describe in the novel, but on some of them, the last will of the ninety-three was read out loud. My memory of school is now mixed up with the story I tell in the book, but I think that the story of the ninety-three was mentioned often in those days. Similar narratives also appeared in books I read. For example, there was the book “I Believe” (by M. Eliav. M.S) that focused on stories about faith in the Holocaust, stories of people who refused to eat on Yom Kippur or refused to eat pig’s fat and died of hunger because of their faith. And there was also the book “To Vanquish the Dragon” (by Pearl Benisch. M.S.) published by Feldheim Press, which featured the story of the ninety-three.

Interestingly, when I was working on the novel many people mentioned “To Vanquish the Dragon” to me, so I bought it, and to my great surprise, the story of the ninety-three was not there anymore. I think that is proof that even in the Haredi community, which held on to this story as a real historic event for the longest time, even they doubt it now. 

Miriam: Do you think today in Israeli schools the story of the ninety-three is no longer taught?

Sarah: I am convinced it is not taught in Israel. I talked with some Haredi women in Israel, and I went to a conference a few years ago and learned that they no longer teach it. The strongest evidence for me was that it was excluded from Feldheim’s most popular book (“To Vanquish the Dragon”). 

This change in the perception of this story as a historical event is also evident through the change in the street signs in Israel: there are five streets named “The Ninety-Three Street” plus the garden in Bnei Brak. And if I am not mistaken, the signs were changed. It used to be “Street of the Ninety-Three: in memory of the 93 girls who committed suicide while calling shma Israel in the time of the Nazis” Today the sign reads: “Street of the Ninety-Three: girls and Jewish women in that number who, according to the story, chose to commit suicide so not to fall in the hands of Nazis soldiers in the Warsaw Ghetto or perhaps in the Krakow Ghetto”. Meaning the signs today acknowledge that this is a story that was perceived as real; this is phrased carefully not to claim that it had actually happened. 

Today no one thinks that it is a real story. Now that I think of it, maybe the infiltration of the Internet into the peripheries of Haredi culture also affected access to information and played a role in this change. My guess is that today even in the Israeli Haredi community no one thinks it really happened. That said, the story is still told, but differently, not as a historical event but as an educational tale.

I was shocked when I found out it was not a true story. I remember it so clearly. I don’t remember how I first learned the story, but I remember very clearly how I found out it was not true. It happened while I was volunteering in National Service at the Institute for Holocaust Studies in Haifa. I started working there as a young girl of nineteen, just two years older than Chava Keller, the heroine of my novel, and like my heroine when I arrived there it was still such a meaningful story for me; the darkness of it drew me, not necessarily its pedagogical aspects, but I felt an unexplained combination of attraction and disgust towards it. I mentioned the story of the ninety-three to one of the other instructors and she told me “What do you mean… it is not real. It didn’t happen”. 

I incorporated that exchange into the novel, when the police investigator talks to Chava. I remember telling her, “What do you mean it didn’t happen? What else didn’t happen?”. And then I read the important work of Professor Judy Baumel. Years later Prof. Baumel helped me in the writing process and was an unofficial academic consultant for the book. She was also the one who showed me the alleged handwritten will of Chaya Feldman.

Prof. Baumel has a theory about who wrote the will. She believes it was a German Jew who immigrated to New York. He saw what happened in Germany and was horrified that the world was ignoring it. The story was published in the New York Times in January 1943, and he wanted to shock people. The story received a lot of attention; it was 1943, long before people heard of Anne Frank or Mordechai Anielewicz. The writer wanted to rattle the Jewish world, and he wisely chose something that would work as a shocker. Because it is based on a myth that had already been passed along through the generations, the myth of the desecrated daughter of Israel. It is the story of a young Jewish girl who is desecrated by a non-Jewish man. He touched upon their darkest fears and pressed the most sensitive buttons of the Jewish consciousness. I believe he is a genius for conceiving this letter.

Miriam: That is fascinating. If his goal was to shake the Jewish world, why publish it in the New York Times and not in one of the popular Yiddish newspapers of the time?

Sarah: Interesting question. I estimate he wanted to reach the largest audience. The Jewish press alone does not count enough. Similarly, when I was a journalist for the Orthodox press in Israel, there was a certain disrespect towards it. If you wanted to get something out you had to get to the secular general press.

Miriam: Do you believe in Prof. Baumel’s theory regarding the man behind the letter or do you have your own speculations about who published it and their motives?

Sarah: I continue Baumel’s line of thought. Why do narratives stay with us? Why did this story catch people’s attention? Because it is based on truth, on previous tales, on the Talmud, and it has an educational value: better death than Bitter death.

I incorporated all those tales in my book–stories from the time of the Chmielnicki pogroms, like the girl who is forced to marry a Cossak and she tells him she has magic powers, so if he stabs her she won’t die, and then he does and she dies before the marriage is consummated. Or the girl who jumped into the river to avoid being forced to marry a non-Jew. Hence, death is better than forced marriage. The story of the ninety-three is based on other educational stories we were told. He did not invent this type of narrative. The narratives that work are those that are based on truth, and on previous myths and stories.

The story of the ninety-three was so effective; rabbis ordered people to fast in their memory, and women were ordered to light extra Shabbat candles for the ninety-three. In one of my lectures a woman came up to me to show me a candlestick with Hebrew inscription of צ”ג (these two Hebrew letters signify in gematria the number 93). It was so popular they had made special candlesticks for it. 

From the educational aspect, we were taught that sex equals death. Later, the doubts crept in. 

Sarah [to me:] Did you believe this story was real?  

Miriam: No. But I only heard this story as an adult. Growing up in the secular education system in Jerusalem, we were not exposed to this story.

Sarah: Prof. Judy Baumel describes how those doubts arose. When survivors from Krakow immigrated to Israel in 1945 they were asked about Chaya Feldman and the ninety-three Bais Yaakov girls, since it was already so well known, but not one of the survivors heard of it. And slowly people started doubting it. 

It is important to note that there were similar real incidents: a young Jewish woman, a secretary, was asked by her Nazi boss to sleep with her “or else”, and she committed suicide by jumping out of the window, leaving a letter behind. It is just like Chaya Feldman’s will, but the scale is different, she was one woman. And when you exaggerate the story, it becomes less believable and easier to disprove.  The myth is not about one woman, but ninety-three women. That is so many girls, and families, how can it be that no one heard of it, the Jewish resistance, or the Jewish Council of the ghetto? And what did they do with the bodies?   

Miriam: And the poison? Where could they have acquired ninety-three cyanide pills from?

Sarah: Even hospitals did not have cyanide at the time. And the decision itself, they all decided to kill themselves? All of them? When I was sixteen, we couldn’t choose a four-girl committee for our class. 

Miriam: And there is also the unreliable tale of the ninety-fourth girl who escaped and heard what happened from outside the building without being caught herself and later published her recollections of the incident.

Sarah: Yes, it is a complete fairytale. But it blended perfectly with the Jewish narrative of the desecrated Jewish girl, and that is why people believed it. 

One more thing we must say is: “It didn’t happen because we haven’t heard of it” is a problematic argument when discussing the Holocaust because there were entire communities that got wiped out and took their stories with them. But in this specific tale, in the Krakow ghetto, where there was a Judenrat (Jewish council) and many survivors, it does not make sense that no one heard of it. And how could the letter get to New York? There are just too many question marks. 

But I believe in what I wrote in the novel in Chaya Feldman’s last chapter: “In many respects, I am more real than any reality, more present than any present, I have never existed more completely”. And the garden, the street names, the ghosts of the ninety-three are still there, and they won’t disappear so fast. The fact that the story is not true does not change the memory of it.

Miriam: I love that quote, and that Chaya Feldman in your novel is talking to the readers today, addressing us directly. What made you choose to give Feldman a voice in your novel? 

Sarah: The simple answer is that at first I wanted to write a historical novel, with everything told from Feldman’s perspective. But I felt that I didn’t know enough and, more importantly, I understood that I am more interested in the story’s effect on the next generations. How does a young high school girl in the 1980s connect with this myth? Chaya Feldman is a character in the novel but she is also a dark ghost in Chava’s brain.

The line between Chaya who is held captive in a room with her friends and Chaya who is a captive in Chava’s head is blurry. It was clear to me that I had to personify Chaya Feldman. That’s why the educational tale works so well, because of the image of these young girls and the Nazis outside the door. I couldn’t keep it far away, as a distant story, I had to give her a voice. In literature, the reader becomes a witness, and I wanted the reader to witness what happened in that room. And as a writer I felt a dark passion to be in that room, to be Chaya Feldman, to write her. 

There was one scene written in Feldman’s voice that I felt conflicted about. Initially, I thought the Nazis would always stay outside of the room, on the other side of the door. This is how Chaya Feldman describes it in the original will, and in the story I was told, the Nazis are always outside the room, they never enter. But in the novel, I wrote a scene where Chaya dreams of a Nazi soldier, and she is even attracted to him. A lot of readers reacted to that. Some of them wrote or emailed to say how horrified they were by the idea that Chaya would feel desire, even for a moment, for this Nazi soldier. This is my darkest side, I never planned on writing it, I thought the Nazis would stay on the other side of the door, like in the original story, but then somehow, I wrote it, and I turned it into a dream to make it more subtle. I included in that scene the darkest legends: the Nazi soldier tells her he heard about a non-Jewish man who was caught inside a Jewish woman’s body (while sexually assaulting her) and he cut her open to free himself. These are stories that we talked about during recess in school, among the students, not in the classroom. It was a way to speak about sexuality. I just turned fifty, so I am talking about thirty-five years ago in an all-girls high school in Bnei Brak, there was no other way, a sublimation, to talk about sexuality. It is an educational sublimation to talk about sexuality–the Nazi soldier wanted to do things to the girls–it was a mixture of darkness, education, and sexual thrill. I put it in the book: it is a story about sex and death, where sex equals death.

Miriam: And passion, sex that is the result of passion, the girls that are murdered (spoiler alert) are those who allow themselves to succumb to passion.

Sarah: It’s similar to the trope in American horror films, the girl who is not a virgin dies first, and the virgin somehow survives. It wasn’t a conscious decision I made, my unconscious played a role here. And it shows the similarity between the girls of the ulpana and those American high schoolers.

My editor had a brilliant idea that I did not include in the book: the punishment should be that one of the girls would find the myth of the ninety-three so compelling that she will commit suicide, to become Chaya Feldman. Something very dark and correct, I did not write it, but I think it is important to address it; when you educate girls on these dark myths, there can be a dark price to pay for this type of education.

Miriam: this idea exists in the novel more subtly: in a conversation between Chava and her best friend Riki, Chava expresses doubt about whether every one of the ninety-three chose to commit suicide, and reminds Riki of the time they played a game as six-year-old girls, acting as two of the ninety-three girls, and Riki did not want to die. But Riki answers with conviction: “But I also remember what happened next […] I remember how you shoved your fingers in my mouth and made me, and till this day I thank you for it. Thank you for killing me back then”. It’s such a strong moment. One of them has doubts, but her friend insists that their way is correct, the only right way, and that she would have done the same today.

Sarah: That’s true, I forgot that moment, and Riki often personifies the voice of the educator.

Miriam: And this dynamic is repeated with Chaya Feldman and her friend Ruthke in the play and in her diary chapters.

Sarah: Well, Ruthke is an imagined character I invented. In both cases it is the golem that turns on his creator; Riki or Ruthke are more righteous or pious than Chava and Chaya. 

I planned that Chaya would not want to die and that the others would force her to die. While I was writing this scene, I had the idea that these women who forced her to swallow the poison would decide to sign the letter, the will, in her name. Chaya Feldman was an idea, a muse, I felt like she guided my hand and pointed me in that direction.

Miriam: Going back to the play the girls are trying to produce in the novel – תשעים ושלוש בנות הגאווה – is that a real play?

Sarah: No, but it is based on an old booklet. The title בנות הגאווה is from there. It was a booklet by “The Committee for the Protection of The Dignity of the Jewish Girl” published in 1943. It is a small booklet, about fifty pages, telling this story. I found it on a bench in Bnei Brak, while I was working on the novel, I had about a quarter of the book done, and I couldn’t believe it. Some things in writing are just unexplained coincidences. So, this play was not real, but it is based on these types of memorial texts.

Moreover, I was always a performer, I was an actress, I had a one-woman show in 2014, and already in high school I was the actress and the head playright. And in high school we put on a lot of shows. It was artistic sublimation, this was the permissible form of expression, and we were girls who played all the female and male roles. I was always the lead actress and the writer of these plays. In high school it was freer, and we put on a lot of comedy shows. But in elementary school we put on a lot of educational plays, for example an adaptation of “Dot and Anton” by Erich Kästner.

For example, I remember a play we put on at the end of eighth grade, where I played a mother, and my friend played the father, and we had a very sick kid. I was crying, and the father went to the Western Wall to pray, and when he came back home, I ran to him and cried “Shimon, Shimon, the child is healthy”. And I remember this anecdote because there was an obvious gap between our faith in these educational tales and our parents’ cynicism. It was one of the only shows that was open to parents, usually shows were just for the other girls in school. When we rehearsed the play it felt so very touching. But when we performed this play in front of the parents, as I was running to the husband, at the emotional peak of the play, the audience laughed, and the parents laughed. I felt insulted. But as a grown-up, I feel that this gap between what we were taught and how cynical the parents felt about those values is unbearable, and I cannot forget it, it just stuck with me. We were told to internalize and perform this type of story; but when we showed this to our parents, they all laughed. 

Miriam: It almost feels like hypocrisy in those impossible educational values that the parents cannot live up to, or not necessarily believe in wholeheartedly.

Sarah: I think of it as duality (not hypocrisy).

Miriam: Yes, duality is more subtle. And this duality also exists in your novel, which offers a sharp criticism of those impossible ideals. These impossible standards that no one can live up to. And who wants to live up to that? Who wants to commit suicide?

Sarah: Yes. A character like Michal Levin is the embodiment of that idea, and she asks this question. And I think most of us would not choose suicide. But there was this coating on our education. I chose this age, sixteen or seventeen because it is the age of sexual awakening. And this sexual awakening in this Orthodox environment is happening despite these tales we were told, despite the strict education. The first buds of sexuality are very powerful because they put educational values into question. 

The novel opens with Chava running and worrying that the slit in her skirt will tear. And I must say, this novel is based on the reality of my adolescent years. Of course, names were changed, but we did have a teacher who oversaw students’ modesty, and there were regulations regarding the length of the slit on the skirt, it was not to exceed five centimeters above the knees, and they would measure it. So we walked around with safety pins because the slit would tear when we ran, which is also metaphorical – you are not allowed to widen your strides. We would fix our skirts in the bathroom with safety pins. This scene in the novel with Chava and Michal is based on that. The friend will sew the slit closed for you. A slit was also a nickname for the women’s genitals, so there is this metaphorical layer of closing the slit and securing it, and that is done by another girl. And that’s another point – sexuality is enforced by other women, not by men: the teachers in charge of modesty, Miss Luria the vice-principal, and the Rikis (the modest friends). And there is a difference between the young girls who police each other and the older women who might also have some dark jealousy of the younger sexual women.

Miriam: The “modesty vampires” that you describe in the novel, that’s very dark. These are older women who roam the streets and scold young women who are not modest enough.

Sarah: Yes, and that’s also based on real ladies who used to walk around Bnei Brak. I didn’t invent anything. I remember one woman who would walk around the city and scold us for not being modest enough and order us to button up our shirts and things of that sort. And once, when I was on my way to synagogue on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur she saw me and yelled at me that my prayers are worthless because of the size of my cleavage. I felt so insulted, and that was the basis of my confusion between the goals and the means. Because the goal is presumably to get closer to God, but you get yelled at because of something superficial and external. This obsession with the external, with appearance, makes you forget the essence.

I also included it in the scene of the cantor-in-training. I was a cantor myself in school, and when I was on stage I didn’t even pray, because I was so busy leading the prayer. I tried to count to see how much time passed, to know when I should pray again out loud, but I lost my own prayer.

Miriam: And you were left with the performance of prayer.

Sarah: Exactly. And the system encourages it. The educational system focuses on the outside, the length of your sleeve, and not on the inside, the faith. When I was in high school, I wasn’t really strong in my faith. I was very orthodox, I excelled in Orthodox practices, but I didn’t believe in God. Today I believe, I am not going to elaborate on what practices I keep or not, but I believe in God, and back then, when I kept everything, I did not believe at all.

Miriam: So considering this novel is based on real things you have experienced, I wanted to ask about Ganzach of Jewish Resistance גנזך העמידה היהודית, the little independent Holocaust Museum in Bnei Brak that Chava’s aunt Minda is running in the novel. Is that a real place? 
Sarah: No. There was a Ganzach Kiddush Hashem but it was not active. I based this institution on a similar place in Jerusalem, Chamber of the Holocaust, which haunted young Orthodox people. They had pornographic sorts of items – a Torah scroll made out of skin, soap that you were told was made out of Jewish fat, a bag of Jews’ ashes, and shoes. This place appeared in our nightmares. But again, it was a horror combined with forbidden excitement. That was our horror film.

Entrance to Chamber of the Holocaust

Miriam: Interestingly, it’s so close to Yad Vashem, but the school chose to take you there instead.

Sarah: It is like the dark twin of Yad Vashem.

Miriam: And where is the Holocaust institute you worked for in Haifa located on this scale between Yad Vashem and the Chamber of the Holocaust?

Sarah: The institute was not a museum; it was focused on education on different subjects in Holocaust studies. We had five units of lectures and seminars for groups. I lectured mostly about Nazism and propaganda. Back then I personally liked to shock my listeners. Today I don’t do that. I wasn’t the regular type of educator there; the Institute’s official line was very conservative and reliable and I tended to push the boundaries. 

Miriam: In the context of the myth of ninety-three it seems to me that the places that kept these types of myths alive are these institutes that focused on the extreme type of stories. I never visited a museum like that. 

Sarah: I am not sure if it is active today. But in the 1980s and 1990s, it featured prominently in many nightmares of young people drawn to its grotesque appeal. 

Miriam: The stories of Chaya and Chava mirror each other, and images from the past narrative leak into the current one. Even the phonetic similarity between their name Chava and Chaya brings the two together. And one of the strongest connections that weave through their stories is the ominous key phrase “keep your panties safe”.

Sarah: I think it is a reflection of the idea that we were all educated in the same way. And that is why the novel works, the educational message remains the same, they just get a new expression. As a child, I remember when I was swinging, I was told not to spread my legs, so my underpants won’t show, and I didn’t understand why. I played with that sentiment with the phrase “keep your panties safe” because it adds a layer of sexual meaning. It echoes other expressions, such as “he wants to get in your pants” and other expressions of that sort. And in the story Chava’s mother did not keep her panties safe, she loses her panties, and she is punished, and she dies. And Michal Levin, one generation after Chava’s mother, did not guard her panties, she let someone in, and she dies as well. Again we see this equation: sex equals death. Although in the story of the ninety-three keeping your virginity or purity also equals death. So, what is the right way? 

Miriam: And what is the value of one’s life without one’s purity? 

Sarah: You’re not worth anything without your purity, you are almost not Jewish. You become the enemy of Chaya Feldman, and who is her enemy? Who is waiting outside of the door?

Miriam: You’re crossing to the other side, to the soldiers. If you don’t choose to stay with Chaya Feldman and the rest of the good girls. 

Sarah: Maybe you yourself are the soldier. These are the messages that are taught to young women in this society.

Miriam: And the title of the novel reflects that result, being the exemplary, well-educated girls.

Sarah: The title “Well-Educated Girls” (in Hebrew: נערות למופת) was also a sort of a play on the Hebrew title to the popular children’s book Les petites filles modèles (in English: Good Little Girls, in Hebrew:ילדות למופת ) by the Countess of Ségur. She was very Christian, and her popular books had Christian values in them, but we didn’t know that and we read her books as children. When I grew up I realized how similar those messages were, whether Christian or Jewish: “Be a good girl. Listen to your mother. Be nice”.

Miriam: I thought it was interesting that the title in Hebrew was not “Good Girls” because that is the expression that comes back again and again in the novel. Be a good girl.

Sarah: Yes, that is also a great title. But the word מופת mofet in Hebrew has the meaning of exemplary, these girls are the model for us.

Miriam: And it adds the idea of memorialization and perpetuation of the ninety-three. We all need to be good girls, and the ninety-three are the model. 

Sarah: And it’s a timeless subject. It’s always relevant.

Miriam: More than ten years after the book was published, do you feel like you have a new perspective? Something you would add or change?  

Sarah: No, I stand behind every word. I do think that today we know better how fake the story of the ninety-three is, we don’t trust this narrative. And in the world today where we hear about “fake news” all the time, this was maybe the first big fake news story that caught on. It is a successful fake news story. Today it’s much harder to create this type of story. 

Yet, educationally I think nothing changed, girls are taught the same tales in different versions, retelling the same narratives. In the end, the same message comes through: “Be good girls, and keep your panties safe”.

An Education in Defiance: the Bais Yaakov Movement during the Nazi Occupation

With the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, formal operations abruptly ceased in the Bais Yaakov school network in Poland. The schools, still closed for the summer holiday, did not reopen for the new school year. But Bais Yaakov did not thereby cease operations. Determined administrators, teachers, and students worked to keep Bais Yaakov alive, whether underground or in the open, throughout the Nazi occupation. 

Some of this story may be gleaned from Hillel Seidman’s brief biography in Ishim Shekarti (Personalities I Knew) of Yehuda Leib Orlean, who was serving as the director of the Bais Yaakov Seminary when the war broke out. In the first months after the outbreak of war, Orlean continued to work underground, corresponding with Bais Yaakov teachers throughout Occupied Poland alongside such colleagues as Asher Shapiro, Chana Landsberg, and others. In 1940, after a severe beating by German soldiers, he fled with his family to Warsaw, reestablishing ties with Bais Yaakov students and teachers in that city and given popular classes to such seminarians as Guta Eizenzweig (Sternbuch) and Rivka Alter, the Gerer Rebbe’s daughter, whom he had taught in the Krakow Seminary (Guta Sternbuch writes in her memoir of the powerful impression Orlean had made on her, leading her to embrace an Orthodoxy she was on the verge of abandoning). In April 1941, Adam Czernikow finally acquired permission to reestablish formal Jewish education and Bais Yaakov began to operate in the open. Orlean, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, Alexander Zysha Friedman, Avram Mordechai Rogovy, and Yoel Unger reestablished the system in the city with five schools, two directed by Orlean, another by Friedenson at Nalewki 37, a fourth at Chłodna 17 by Rivka Alter (Chłodna was the street that divided the ghetto into two) , and a fifth by a female teacher whose name is recorded only as Ravitz. These schools were funded by the Judenrat, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Self-Help Organization. With the mass deportations of July 1942 these schools closed. Orlean managed to evade deportation to Treblinka by acquiring a Paraguayan passport. But when Paraguay refused to recognize these passports, he was taken to Birkenau on Simhat Torah 1943, where he perished.

Warsaw, Poland, Girls eating in a Soup Kitchen in the Ghetto [Credit:]

Evidence of this activity also survives in publications of the period. On September 20, 1940, Gazeta Żydowska (the Jewish Gazette) published a short article about community efforts to feed and educate children in Warsaw. In eighteen Jewish schools that had been shut down, which included a few Bais Yaakov schools and seminaries, community kitchens opened, operated by teaching staff—and probably staffed with former students. These kitchens fed approximately 12,000 children from Warsaw’s Jewish community. Not only did children find some meager nourishment at these locales, but parents were also assured that teaching staff would look after their sons and daughters, who were provided with child care and (first in clandestine manner and then openly) an education. Representatives of Bais Yaakov were also integral to the establishment of the Alimentary Commission, the committee that supervised and operated these community kitchens for children. In all likelihood, Bais Yaakov teachers and students continued to focus on supporting and caring for young women and girls, ensuring they received not only food in trying times but also a sense of solidarity and belonging. The closure of its schools, camps, and seminaries thus did not halt the Bais Yaakov movement; former organizers, teachers, and students showed that the movement was more than just a school; it was a living collective of “sisters” that continued to grow and contribute to its communities.

When Jewish Councils and Municipalities pushed to reestablish schools in 1940, Bais Yaakov administrators and teachers were at the forefront of these organizational efforts. Members of Jewish Councils in Warsaw, Krakow, Radom, and other cities voiced the need for skilled tradespeople; demand for practical trades was obvious with the destruction in the wake of the 1939 invasion, though the occupying government was undoubtedly more motivated by the need for a skilled labour force to be exploited in factories, farms, and work camps. Bais Yaakov representatives, along with former educators from Tarbut, Shul-Kult, and Jawne, made direct appeals to the General Government in Warsaw to rebuild a school system for Jewish children. In contrast to the push for skilled trades training, the proposed school system would educate students in the cultural-religious spirit of Judaism. The languages of instruction would be Yiddish and Hebrew. This committee’s direct address to the Nazi General Government signals the Jewish community’s strength and boldness even in the wake of occupation, and its urgent desire to cultivate the next generation through an education rooted in tradition that was also revolutionary in its defiance.

Despite the insurmountable barriers and inhumane treatment the Jewish communities faced, the Bais Yaakov spirit persevered. Much like their founder, Bais Yaakov teachers and students went up against impossible odds to conserve and advance women’s education and status in society—even during wartime. In late September of 1940, just over a year after the Bais Yaakov seminary closed its doors, the Jewish Municipality of Krakow established a school system for children. One of the locales of the new school system was 10 Stanisława Street, which had hosted aspiring teachers throughout the interwar period. The reopening of the Bais Yaakov seminary’s doors the year following the Nazi invasion of Poland is a testament to the strength of the movement’s spirit. 10 Stanisława Street’s classrooms and hall may now have been filled with different teachers and students, but they surely knew the history of the building they were occupying. Bais Yaakov was officially dissolved at the very outset of World War II, but in these and other ways, the movement’s foundations in revolutionary activism and fearless defiance continued.

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.

What Can We Learn from the Polish Bais Yaakov Journal?

Among the goals of the Bais Yaakov Project was the digital upload and analysis of the official publication of the Bais Yaakov movement in Poland, the Bais Yaakov Journal. The journal, edited by Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, was launched even before the World Agudath Israel voted to support Bais Yaakov at its 1923 Congress. It was Friedenson’s own initiative: As a young activist in the Agudah, he would travel around Poland recruiting for the movement. As he remembers, he could parry any challenge thrown at him by the youth affiliated with Socialism or Zionism, until they asked him a question: “Tell us, where are your girls and women? You know where they are, in our clubs.” Cut to the quick, Friedenson took comfort from rumors about Sarah Schenirer’s initiatives. Traveling to Krakow, he asked her how he could help. It was Schenirer who suggested his publishing a newspaper that could spread the Bais Yaakov message across Poland, and within a few weeks, Friedenson had launched the inaugural issue. The journal, which published its last issue in 1939, would go on to become the women’s publication with the highest circulation and longest run in interwar Poland.

The journal, which sometimes was a monthly and sometimes biweekly, was more than just an attempt to unite a school system through the eminently modern means of the press. It also aimed to provide Orthodox girls and women with entertaining, inspiring, and kosher reading material. This purview was remarkably capacious—a series by Shmuel Nadler, for instance, introduced readers to Egyptian, Japanese, and Indian literature (Nadler, interestingly, abandoned Orthodox Judaism in 1934, when he became a Communist). The journal provided a much-appreciated outlet for Orthodox writers, including my father, whose first publication appeared in its page—a Polish poem written when he was just fourteen. The journal also tackled the question of what it meant to be a modern Orthodox woman, dealing with the challenges of the feminist discourse of the day. While the editorial board was apparently exclusively male, the editors actively encouraged women to submit their work, and regularly published their poetry and fiction. Sarah Schenirer, of course, was a regular contributor, appearing in almost every issue. The journal also provided its readers with a view into the larger political world, registering the rise of antisemitism as a threat that grew more ominous in the 1930s, and reporting on Orthodox life in Mandatory Palestine, Western and Central Europe, and the United States. Other Bais Yaakov publications followed, including an Israeli and American version of the paper that picked up after the Holocaust. But these were more modest and insular affairs, with little of the pioneering experimentation for which we have Friedenson to thank. Friedenson did not survive the Holocaust (Yosef Friedenson, his son, did, and carried on his father’s work in the Orthodox press). Our digitization efforts thus constitute a memorial to a gifted and dedicated activist and editor whose name is not often remembered.

Along with providing all available issues of the journal, the website also shows a summary of the contents of each issue. A few particularly interesting essays are also the subject of individual blogs, for those who cannot read Yiddish. As for what the journal can teach us, it is just beginning to yield its treasures for those with an interest in Bais Yaakov history, Orthodox literature, and interwar Polish culture.

View archive of the Bais Yaakov Journal »

The work of uploading and summarizing the journals began with Dainy Bernstein and continued with Miriam Schwartz. The Bais Yaakov Project is grateful for their contributions.

Bais Yaakov School Maps

There is a beautiful old map of Bais Yaakov schools, done in 1931. I misdated it in my book on Bais Yaakov, and someone named Robbert Baruch wrote to tell me that. It turned out he knew everything about the map, because he was planning to follow parts of it on his motorcycle the next summer. So I guess there are people in the world who love maps even more than I do.

One of the first things I thought about doing when Dainy Bernstein and I first launched the Bais Yaakov Project Website in 2019 was to map all the Bais Yaakovs in the world. How hard could that be, right? For reasons I’m happy to explain below, it turned out to be really hard—it’s taken about two straight years of work. I was giddy, really emotional, when the map was unveiled at the Bais Yaakov Conference last March. But it’s also been hard to let it go, to stop tweaking, given that it’s almost certainly unfinished. We’ve done what we can: the rest is up to you now: the legions of Bais Yaakov graduates all over the world, historians (amateur or academic) historians of Orthodoxy. This is the beginning of what we hope and expect will be a collective attempt to identify every Bais Yaakov that ever was, supplying basic details and, where available, photographs and website links.

Why map Bais Yaakov? Maps might seem mute and “neutral”, but they have things to say that might otherwise be missed. One thing the Bais Yaakov Project map contributes to previous estimates about the scope of the system in interwar Poland is the rather surprising insight that the various lists previously available significantly undercounted Bais Yaakovs in Poland. This is surprising because it would be easy to assume that the Central Office exaggerated the number of schools on grant applications or publicity brochures. What the numbers make clear is that schools called Bais Yaakov operated in Poland and elsewhere with no apparent communication with the Central Office.

Along with the mismatch between official lists and schools on the ground, mapping Bais Yaakov faced another challenge: What counts as a Bais Yaakov is not always clear. Bais Yaakov operated in many different contexts, under different names and spellings. Where are the boundaries between a “Bais Yaakov-type” school (whether or not called Bais Yaakov) and one that falls out of that category? Obviously, different choices than ours are possible; it could be argued, for instance, than schools run by Hasidic groups, whether or not they consider themselves part of Bais Yaakov, are descendants of Sarah Schenirer’s system. We took a more conservative approach, as you will see. But most importantly, we have tried to be as transparent as possible about our methods and categories: for those interested, the notes compiled by the mapmakers make their methodology crystal clear, and demonstrate the degree of professionalism they brought to their work.

These challenges should explain why the map took years of work. It also took some luck, the luck that Charna Perman, a truly extraordinary undergraduate research assistant, applied to the Project, and the good fortune that Dikla Yogev agreed to be Project Manager of the Bais Yaakov Project, supervising the mapping project with scholarly rigor.

The map is not only scholarly, it is also lovely and fascinating. If all you have is five minutes, click the “Timeline” tab and then press Play to watch the map grow over the years, one dot lighting up after the other the way the night sky unfolds. This is the world of Bais Yaakov, presented in visual form for the first time (as far as we know) since 1931. Bais Yaakov girls, past and present, pious and fallen, know the power of the story of what holds us together around the world. But to be able to see that world, to watch the dots light up in succession across the globe (or, more sadly, fall into history with the Holocaust), is to experience this history on a different but to me no less moving register.

Most importantly: This is a crowd-sourced project. We are well-aware that the findings are almost certainly incomplete, and that peripheral or short-lived Bais Yaakovs escaped detection. Of the ones we found, we would love to include more data—photos, anecdotes, comments. We suspect that there are

legions of Bais Yaakov graduates who share our curiosity about this phenomenon that has so shaped our lives, and who will appreciate it being made visible in this map.

Enjoy the map! And contact us with anything we missed! We always appreciate receiving your comments.

View the Interactive Map »

Bais Yaakov, Orthodoxy, and Punk Rock

During the March 20-21, 2023, [or 27-28, Adar 5783] conference “Bais Yaakov in Historical and Transnational Perspective,” I was suddenly immersed in the world of Bais Yaakov scholarship. Submerged in the intricate semiotics of this subsection of a subsection of frumkeit, I gained an awareness of how large Bais Yaakov looms in Orthodoxy history. What distinguished this group of scholars, anthropologists, historians, and literary critics, some OTD, others very much on the path, and others male, was that their focus on Orthodox Jews was squarely on what might seem a marginal group within it–Orthodox girls. The conference reminded me of the battle cry “Girls to the Front!” of The Punk Singer herself, Kathleen Hanna, in her Bikini Kill days. So if you are with me, I am going to take you through the Bais Yaakov Conference through the lens of the riot grrrl manifesto to draw out and elaborate on what I witnessed, a display of feminist and punk scholarship. The title of the riot grrrl manifesto, HISTORY IS A WEAPON, was appropriate for a conference so immersed, after all, in history. But so is the rest of the manifesto, as far as it may seem from the academic and heymish world of the conference. The manifesto is a series of lines, each beginning with the word BECAUSE:

BECAUSE viewing our work as being connected to our girlfriends-politics-real lives is essential if we are gonna figure out how what we are doing impacts, reflects, perpetuates, or DISRUPTS the status quo.

Naomi Seidman’s book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition (2019), evoked this riot grrrl punk spirit by unapologetically centering women and, more precisely, girls. The Bais Yaakov movement originated in Poland and spread across the European continent and the globe, transforming and reshaping itself to its new contexts, swimming with or against the currents of Orthodoxy and in the process shaping generations of girls across the globe. Entangled with her work on the Bais Yaakov Project, the conference embodied the momentum of Seidman’s more-recent efforts to document and collaboratively explore this history.  

From the beginning of this two-day conference, it was evident that the gathering was not just another intellectual forum, along with others regularly convening under the roof of the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Rather, it was a tribute and celebration of Sore Schenirer, founder of the school system. The conference, falling on the heels of Schenirer’s Yahrzeit, was in some sense a spiritual continuation of Schenirer’s legacy, as Seidman remarked in her opening comments.

This earnest connection to Schenirer evokes a relationship beyond the present generation. Throughout the conference, the presenters, both scholars and community members, spoke of the vast reach of Bais Yaakov. It would take the use of new methodologies to map, new theories of social network analysis, to see and conceptualize these global connections, and to help others see them on the website.

“The men’s section” From left to right: Glenn Dynner speaking with Kalman Weiser (not facing the camera), Wojciech Tworek, and Marcin Wodziński

BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work so that we can share strategies and criticize-applaud each other.  

Matching the global reach of Bais Yaakov, the conference was supported through multi-institutional partnerships between co-sponsors at the University of Toronto, York University, Fairfield University, and the University of Wroclaw. Seidman did not shy away from pointing out that all of the representatives of these institutions were “dudes.” Unlike the former Bais Yaakov girls around the table, these men came to study Bais Yaakov as outsiders to the highest degree, in a field in which both the objects of study and the scholars have fallen into patterns of sexual segregation. The invitation to “outsiders” was deliberate, encouraging scholars of Hasidism and Yiddishism and Orthodoxy to allow girls’ and women’s voices to come to the forefront and to rethink their scholarly research agendas along the way. It is a radical and necessary reconfiguration of Jewish Studies to hold an academic conference where men are the minority (and not a particularly vocal minority, either).

BECAUSE we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.

Even under this utopian Amazonian vision, the first session, “Bais Yaakov Contexts,” featured talks by Glenn Dynner (Fairfield University) and Wojciech Tworek (Wroclaw), and accordingly, both papers looked at Bais Yaakov through a male Orthodox gaze–a stumbling start in an otherwise female-dominated discourse. Dynner’s paper approached the normalization of girls’ Torah study in schools in the context of Orthodox opposition to secular Yiddish and Hebrew education or assimilationist Polish. Tworek’s paper sought to find evidence of Bais Yaakov’s unofficial relationship with Chabad in Interwar Poland. These papers evoke a previous gap in the study of global Orthodoxy and provide context for the inhospitable environments in which Bais Yaakov emerged. 

BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.

Session two included a pre-recorded lecture from Joanna Degler (Wroclaw) on Sore Schenirer’s Polish diary. Degler’s findings show the influence of Polish feminist public lectures on Schenirer in the years before she founded Bais Yaakov, which stood in some tension with the speakers in the first session, emphasizing how Bais Yaakov saved girls from secular Polish influence. In 1994 Irena Klepfisz penned an essay on Yiddish women writers titled “Queens of Contradiction”—yet the case of Bais Yaakov may usurp, or at the very least, rival that title. Following Degler was a paper expressing one such contradiction. Kalman Weiser (York University) spoke of Solomon Birnbaum’s Yiddish spelling system, which reflected Orthodox ways of speech and pushed against secular Yiddishist YIVO standardization; this system garnered approval from Sore Schenirer herself. Schenirer thus was influenced by Polish and secularizing forces while maintaining the distinctiveness and richness of Orthodoxy in developing her schools. Dainy Bernstein (University of Pittsburgh) and Nechama Juni (Carleton College) embraced the legacy of these early choices that presently queer the experience of the Orthodox girls while maintaining the strength and ardency of Orthodoxy, whether intentionally or inadvertently.

In yet another strategy to push forward Bais Yaakov research and align this research with cutting-edge digital humanities, Dikla Yogev (University of Toronto) and Marcin Wodziński (Wroclaw) co-presented on digital humanities methodologies for approaching the immense datasets from the archives. Through machine learning and social network analysis, Wodziński and Yogev argued that we should rethink our assumptions about centrality and power in both Hasidic dynasties and in Religious-Haredi networks. Thus, key players reveal themselves where once research may have ignored them or did not notice their existence. Recognizing a wider set of players in creating Orthodox culture than the better-known leaders shifts and broadens our way of understanding on community structure, social control, and leadership.

Panelists preparing for session four. From left to right: Ula Madej-Krupitski, Naomi Seidman, Leslie Ginsparg-Klein, and moderator, Marcin Wodziński

BECAUSE we are interested in creating non-hierarchical ways of being AND making music, friends, and scenes based on communication + understanding, instead of competition + good/bad categorizations.

The atmosphere of the conference even pushed for a rethinking of the term “Bais Yaakov Girls” at least in OTD, or mixed OTD and still on the derekh company. The singer M Miller suggested that “Bais Yaakov students” was a more apt term to describe the certainly self-selecting group who joined the conference either as participants or as performers. As became evident in my immersion in the world of Bais Yaakov, performance is more than welcomed and is, in fact, quintessential to the lived experience of being a Bais Yaakov student.

Performance is essential also in that there is a Bais Yaakov accent unique to those who grow up in the system; their Hebrew (and once Yiddish) are inflected uniquely and signal their educational background. Performance through dress is part of an Orthodox girlhood of long skirts. Performance was the central topic in session four. Leslie Ginsparg Klein (Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary and College) delivered a paper, “Snap! Clap! Snap! Clap!’ The Diversity and Uniformity of Bais Yaakov Education and Culture Across North America,” initiating performance from the Bais Yaakov alumni in the audience. Audience members from a wide age range erupted with “Jews from over the world” to Ginsparg Klein’s call “Snap! Clap! Snap! Clap!” The call and response dissolved the boundary between expert and audience, if only for a brief moment.

One could not remain a closeted Bais Yaakov alumni at this conference. While performance was not obligatory, it was almost second nature. The impulse towards performance may have been as a part of “production,” which Ginsparg Klein described as a hallmark of the Bais Yaakov experience, where girls come together in musical, theatrical, or dance revues; they are involved in every step of the process of orchestrating a professional quality performance. Seidman’s own paper, “Acting Like a Bais Yaakov Girl: Gender, Piety, Performance,” looked at the roles that the Bais Yaakov schools enable young girls to play, from male and female roles to Jewish variations of secular plays, with stage directions taken from both Hollywood and rabbinic authorities. Transgressive performances of Orthodoxy were staged in the Polish spa town of Rabka in the 1930s, as Ula Madej-Krupitski (McGill) explained: Rabka was a popular destination for many Jewish families and Bais Yaakov girls during the interwar period. In the countryside, the students would experience certain girlhood freedoms while playing the part of their fall-through-spring selves for visitors.

While the performance and empowerment of these girls may displace us from their context in Orthodox—now Ultra-Orthodox circles— due to their clearly radical flavor, these other modes of performance remind us that Bais Yaakov schools succeed not through the overthrow of norms but rather through normalizing local Orthodox mores, whatever those might be.

BECAUSE we see fostering and supporting girl scenes and girl artists of all kinds as integral to this process.

The first day culminated with an ensemble performance led by Basya Schechter, with M Miller and the Kol Isha choir. Kol Isha evokes the prohibition for men to hear women singing and simultaneously recalls the punk-infused recentering of women’s voices, this time in a literal sense. Kol Isha, comprising a number of former Bais Yaakov students from Toronto, backed up Basya with instruments in hand and ecstatic vocal harmonies. Together they brought to life some of the Bais Yaakov songbooks. Basya, recalling their Bais Yaakov education and with the choir nodding in agreement behind her, described how she had no formal musical training but rather learned “music from the soul.” Former Bais Yaakov schooling experiences layered themselves on the individuals standing before the audience, and it was clear that still, to this day, in every song they performed, there was improvisation, playing as a collective by channeling deep within the individual—the soul led, and the rest followed. The rising and swelling of the music exemplified the mystical energies of chasidus with the re-gendering of lyrics and the swapping of “acceptable” gender roles by the performers. Or, as Basya explained, this is the alt-nay–old/new.

Session six, Dikla Yogev

BECAUSE we recognize fantasies of Instant Macho Gun Revolution as impractical lies meant to keep us simply dreaming instead of becoming our dreams AND THUS seek to create revolution in our own lives every single day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things.

The second day of the conference included more Zoom papers than in-person speakers, mirroring the transnational reach of Bais Yaakov. In session five, “Bais Yaakov and the Agudah” Ilan Fuchs (American Public University) brought forward the forgotten history of Orthodox Socialism in the interwar period; Nathan Cohen (Bar Ilan) presented the literature that Bais Yaakov Press was publishing, as reading material for its students; and Iris Brown (Ono Academic College) explained how and why the Agudath Israel founded youth movements for girls as a second front (after the school system) against assimilation. In all three of the papers, Orthodox politics, education, and engagement with youth were explored as richer and more complicated than might seem.

BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.

In session six, “Bais Yaakov in Transnational Perspective,” Rachel Manekin (University of Maryland) complicated the enthusiastic portraits put out by the Bais Yaakov schools by presenting the diary of an unhappy, philosophically tormented, and exploited Bais Yaakov teacher; Michal Shaul (Herzog College), focusing on post-Holocaust Israel, spoke about the development of Holocaust education in ultra-Orthodox Israel contexts. Mari-Masha Yossiffon (University of Toronto) zoomed in from Buenos Aires, where she presented the findings from her fieldwork, where four different Bais Yaakov schools serve different parts of the community. The final session included a surprise from Nomi Levenkron (Kinneret College, Tel Aviv University, and Hebrew University), who shared her research on Miriam Brunner, a Bais Yaakov teacher and terrorist (freedom fighter?) in an Israeli Ultra-Orthodox underground. Tzippora Weinberg (NYU) presented her case for the distinctiveness of Bais Yaakov in Lithuania, where Bais Yaakov was not a school system but rather a network of women’s Torah study on the highest level; Weinberg argued that, in Lithuania, this was Torah “for its own sake,” rather than–as in Poland–to serve other purposes. Yogev concluded the day by demonstrating how social network analysis could illuminate the symbolic or real power of women in the network, focusing on both Sore Schenirer and some of the most famous among her students, the legendary 10 women who survived Auschwitz together.

Zoom presentation. Rachel Manekin, Pearl Gluck, filmmaker hard at work recording the conference for a future work-in-progress standing in the front right

BECAUSE we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.

The conference proper ended with a concluding conversation. Along with showcasing the Bais Yaakov Project website, the conference participants were also invited to reflect: Where do we go now? Who wasn’t a part of this conversation that should have been? Finally, what does it mean to have an academic discourse centered on girls and women in which very few male scholars have devoted their energies? Perhaps this conference might signal a new era in which the feminist scholars and former Bais Yaakov students who paved the way for this field will be joined by others with different scholarly agendas and social locations. 

But the conference wasn’t yet over: For those not rushing off the airport, there was a trip to the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto to view Bais Yaakov resources from the Nathan and Solomon Birnbaum Family Archive and Seidman’s personal Bais Yaakov archive. Among the photographs and Bais Yaakov journals, an apron lay screen-printed with the paragon of Jewish womanly virtue, a true balebusta, lighting candles, hands waving before her, with her son looking on. Her natural hair was possibly covered twice over, signifying deferential piety along with her long sleeves. There she lay, screen-printed on a kitschy apron, framed by the words “HAPPY HOLIDAYS” and “BETH JACOB SCHOOL,” the English spelling sign of a temporary more-Americanizing moment of Bais Yaakov history—another Queen of Contradictions.

BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.

A glance at the array of Bais Yaakov artifacts on display at the Fisher Rare Book Library
The “Beth Jacob Schools” apron on display at the Fisher Rare Book Library
Front Left to Right: Basya Schechter, Naomi Seidman, M Miller and Pearl Gluck. Back row Kol Isha choir with participant Dainy Berstein directly between Basya Schechter and Naomi Seidman