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

Remembering Sarah Schenirer in the Gazeta Żydowska

The brief article in the Gazeta Żydowska marking the seventh anniversary of Sarah Schenirer’s death, on Adar 14 (which fell on March 3 that year) is not unusual in itself. The writer, Chaim Storch, praised Sarah Schenirer’s remarkable accomplishments, her travels and speeches throughout Jewish Poland, the impression she made on parents mourning the increasing distance of their daughters from the spirit of Torah, the maternal warmth with which she embraced these girls and young women. All of the points he made are familiar enough from the encomiums by which Sarah Schenirer was remembered in interwar Poland and in the various Orthodox publications that arose after the war. What distinguishes this ode to the founder of Bais Yaakov is the context of its publication in March of 1942, deep into the Holocaust. What do we make of the appearance of such an article, familiar in what it says, shocking in what it doesn’t say, under the catastrophic conditions of that place and time?

Sarah Schenirer⁩

To understand this article requires recognizing that Gazeta Żydowska was a Jewish propaganda magazine that appeared two or three times a week from July 1940 to August 1942, under the aegis of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte) of the ghettos of Krakow and Warsaw, under Nazi supervision. But while it published deceptive articles about, for instance, “the sanitary care of the Jews of Krakow” during the very periods of mass deportation, the magazine was also permitted a relatively free hand in publishing literature and articles on social and cultural matters, as long as these kept up a façade of compliance and normalcy. Along with this article about Sarah Schenirer, Storch also published literary pieces in the journal. In this case, too, he seemed to be walking within the line drawn by the censors: Storch spoke about Sarah Schenirer’s accomplishments without mentioning that her schools had been shut down in many locations but also occasionally managed to operate underground; that her successor at the helm of the movement, Yehuda Leib Orlean, had been severely beaten in Krakow and fled to Warsaw, where he was tended by Bais Yaakov teachers; that Sarah Schenirer’s slogan—quoted in the article—“Worship God with joy”—was undergoing existential challenges that she could hardly have imagined.

Was he nevertheless suggesting that some of the love of Torah that Sarah Schenirer had inspired in her students was also manifesting itself in spiritual if not physical resistance? Michal Shaul argues that the fascination with Sarah Schenirer was a feature of post-Holocaust life, when she functioned as a bridge between an irretrievable past and a broken future, for an orphaned generation. But this article is evidence that she was present, on the pages of a Jewish magazine, in the ghettoes, as well. What did she really mean to Storch and his readers, at that moment? The pages of the magazine, produced under the censorship of that period, cannot tell that tale. And Chaim Storch cannot tell us: The database of Holocaust Victims at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum lists his place and year of death only as 1942, Lwów, seven years after the woman he extolled, and perhaps a month or two after he extolled her.

Gazeta Żydowska, no. 34, 1942, page 3

Gazeta Żydowska 1942 – full translation

Gazeta Żydowska, no. 34, 1942, page 3

Author: Ch. (Chaim) Storch

The Exemplary Jewish Woman

(on the anniversary of Sarah Schenirer’s death)

The 14th of Adar was the anniversary of the death of a monumental Jewish woman – Sarah Schenirer.

Many of us will probably not recognize this name, many of us may not know that such a woman existed. She did exist, though, and she touched the hearts of Orthodox Jews, the hearts of thousands of Jewish girls. The figure of Sarah Schenirer is a symbol of eternal holiness.

Who was she and what did she achieve? How did she earn her place in our memory? For she did indeed earn her holy place!

In small, provincial towns, in bigger Jewish settlements, among the broader Orthodox community, she continuously lived and worked, visiting innumerable places, where she gave her speeches and sermons, gathering young Jewish girls around her and creating for them the Jewish school system, Bais Yaakov.

At a time when assimilation, which was rampant in that period, was tearing away the Jewish youth, when older parents watched as their children slowly distanced themselves from Judaism, a solitary Jewish woman appeared on the scene—small, alone, and humble, yet she voiced a call to action. With simple yet passionate words, she addressed these parents. These words were filled with heart and fire. And when she spoke, tears rolled down parents’ faces. What she said moved them – because she ceaselessly laid out the path of how to raise their daughters in the Jewish spirit.

She showed them the way and kept guard.

She taught many Jewish girls, stoking the spark of the Jewish spirit in their souls. And in educating them, she enveloped them in a maternal love, as though they were her own daughters.

Thousands of children – Jewish girls – raise their hands to the heavens with the name of their mentor on their lips : Sarah Schenirer. She left us, but her work remains. In the hearts of thousands of children the fire of learning and faith brightly burns.

Today, when we try to keep alive the spirit of Jewish youth, we repeat her favourite words: “Serve God with joy!”

Seven years ago, one of many thousands of Jewish women departed from us, but her example will be in the hearts of Jewish mothers and of the whole community.

Heroines of the Bais Yaakov Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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