The Many Faces of Sarah Schenirer

She loomed large, a touchstone on the way into the corridors of Bais Yaakov Academy. Her face radiated a time-worn charm, and the simplicity of her dress, nary a stitch reflective of modern sensibilities, was a subtle reminder of the foundational principles of Bais Yaakov. Not without color, not stripped of light, yet fiercely conservative, harking back to plainer times when devout mothers rocked their babies to sleep with a sacred lullaby.

It wasn’t only the picture of Sarah Schenirer that radiated nostalgic messages. Principal Felice Rochel Blau embodied Sarah’s aura as she greeted her students each morning. Morah Blau’s Sarah Schenirer reflected her own concept of what Bais Yaakov represented, and the portrait she created resembled a hazy cameo of a maternal figure with a high, almost clerical collar encircling her neck. The spirit of Sarah Schenirer was similarly evident in the song that Morah Blau wrote, part sacred lullaby and part ode to one whose “memory shall continue to live on forevermore”. This was a woman whose wisdom, whose dream, still lit a path for her spiritual descendants. How closely did the song about Sarah Schenirer and her portrait in the school hallway actually resemble the historical figure?

Sarah Schenirer’s resolute refusal to be photographed is a famous part of her legacy. Other women of her time, such as the Gerrer Rebbetzin, apparently did agree to have their photos printed in the pages of the Bais Yaakov Journal, which also printed the photos of many other girls and women. But the absence of a photo of Sarah Schenirer had a lasting effect on Bais Yaakov culture. The void, whatever it meant, could be taken to signify a subliminal lesson in modesty: A true Bais Yaakov girl does not post her picture on the printed page.

This absence did more than lend support to the later norms against publicly printing images of women. The lack of an image of the beloved Sarah Schenirer also gave free rein to those who would try to imagine her visage without having seen it for themselves. Who was Sarah Schenirer? What did she look like? What did she represent? With no physical manifestation available, women appropriated the drawing of her that circulated during her own life, and that was published in the 1933 Collected Writings. It was this drawing, more “feminine” than the photo that surfaced much later, with the dark wig and headkerchief and high lacy collar, that was the basis for others to use as they saw fit.

One of the most striking examples of the appropriation and reimagining of this drawing is evident in the publicity materials of the Israeli Haredi women’s organization, Nivcharot (the “chosen ones”). Their logo and masthead use a sharper graphic variation of the older drawing of Sarah Schenirer; the headkerchief and high collar are particularly recognizable. Oddly, the same image, accompanied by Sarah Schenirer’s signature, also appears on a short-sleeved, scoop-neck T-shirt available for purchase on the online shop. 

The aims of Nivcharot include “empowering Haredi women and helping them to find their voice” and “expanding roles for Haredi women in public and private life,” as “the first and only Haredi feminist organization in Israel.” Sarah Schenirer plays a complex part in this equation, as a Haredi woman who had a visible public role as initiator of an institution that pushed the edges of traditional Haredi-Halakhic standards. But would she have been comfortable with the use of her image to promote this cause, or this T-shirt?

Representations of Sarah Schenirer have taken different forms in different communities and contexts. Joy Mahana, an artist rooted in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, is acclaimed for her unconventional portrayal of contemporary Rabbinic figures. In “The Rabbi Series”, Mahana reimagines rabbinic luminaries in vibrant color, freeing them from the sepia tones that characterize most portraits of the genre. Mahana has similarly reinvented Sarah Schenirer, again with her stand-up collar in place. But Mahana’s take is a glamour portrait, in tune with the heightened physical aesthetic that characterizes many Syrian Jewish women. Her features softened, her eyes fashionably yet hauntingly rimmed with kohl, and with a demure earring now visible below the bright blue kerchief, this Sarah Schenirer is more alluring than somber, an arbiter of educational messages that will resonate with women who aspire to both truth and beauty.

Another institution, this time a Lubavitcher girls high school in Brooklyn, creatively juxtaposed a redesigned image of Sarah Schenirer alongside two other Sarahs: Sarah Katzenelenbogen, a locally celebrated role model, as well as Sarah the Matriarch, wife of the forefather Abraham (imagining her, in somewhat Orientalist style, as a partially veiled but beautiful woman, faithful to the scriptural description of Sarah while adhering to Haredi models that discourage close depictions of Biblical figures). This image advertises a school performance that highlights the links that connect the three women.  Chabad/Lubavitch does not traditionally associate itself with the Bais Yaakov tradition. Bearers of their own proud legacy of women’s education with its idiosyncratic Hasidic customs, Chabad sets its own standards. But Bais Yaakov Ohel Sarah is clearly an outlier. It is listed as a member school on Chabad.org, but the site omits “Bais Yaakov” from the school’s name; COLlive.com, another Lubavitcher online magazine, references it as B.Y. Ohel Sarah in its advertisements. However, in Flatbush, where the school is located, it is the Bais Yaakov affiliation that appeals, and its addition to the institution’s name likely broadens the prospective student pool beyond the Chabad community alone. 

This might be why the school was inspired to claim Sarah Schenirer as part of its legacy. The “mother of Bais Yaakov” is not generally invoked in Chabad; outside of it, Sarah Schenirer is often compared to the biblical matriarch “Sarah Imenu.” In this image and performance, three Sarahs form the chain of tradition: The biblical matriarch, the “mother of Bais Yaakov,” and the Chabad heroine who was instrumental in rescuing the Lubavitcher Rebbetzin from war-torn Europe. The drawing positions Sarah Katzenelnbogen in line with both her biblical namesake and the most celebrated Orthodox woman in twentieth-century Jewish history. Here, Sarah Schenirer seems to be drawn to resemble Sarah Katzenelenbogen. Her kerchief calls to mind a Russian hat, and blends with the veil of the biblical Sarah. The colorful tapestry behind the women serves as both stage curtain and biblical tent, combining modesty and performance in one image. All three figures look defiant, with proud features, appearing as women equal to the tasks ahead of them. Strength and spiritual fortitude, qualities emphasized in the female ecosystem of Chabad, clearly come through in this rendering.

Sarah Schenirer transformed not only women’s religious education but also, less directly, the ways in which Orthodox women perceive themselves and their roles and obligations. Her image continues to serve multiple purposes, imparting messages about women’s authority and modesty, religiosity and power. Each expression may mean as much about those who project her image as it does about Sarah Schenirer herself. Without an available image, her “face” could be claimed and reinvented by individuals or groups whose aims were either closer to, or more dissonant from, her own. 

On the other hand, it seems to me that Sarah Schenirer’s refusal to circulate her picture has helped to mold current Haredi sensibilities, transposing one woman’s decision into what has become the currently accepted standard of tznius (modesty) in the Haredi press. Although her particular hesitation might have been a matter of individual preference rather than religious scrupulousness, the effect of diminishing female presence was strengthened by her obscurity. While Nivcharot takes Sarah Schenirer’s image to support the agenda of amplifying women’s representation and voices in public affairs, the absence or reinvention of her likeness might bolster the norms that render women less visible in the public sphere. Where would Sarah Schenirer find herself within this conversation on women’s visibility and modesty? Should those who reimagine her image hold themselves accountable to Sarah Schenirer’s own aspirations?

And what of the original photograph of Sarah Schenirer? In the age of the internet, her likeness, with its attendant enigmatic messages, is just a click away. She wanted her face to be hidden, but those who seek to find her, by tracing her physical image or by limning her spiritual legacy, will ultimately prevail. 

Do you have an image of Sarah Schenirer to share with The Bais Yaakov Project? Please write to us at www.thebaisyaakovproject@gmail.com

Did Bais Yaakov and Sarah Schenirer Revive Tu Be’Av?

Do a quick Google search on Tu Be’Av, and two sorts of material will appear. The first describes a festival dating back to late antiquity, in which, according to Mishnah Ta’anit 4: 8, “On these days [the 15th of Av] the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none. . . . The daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyard. What would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. . .”

Along with this ancient matchmaking festival, we might also learn of the revival of Tu Be’Av in modern Israel, as a Jewish Valentine’s Day, or festival of love. The Orthodox world, in Israel and beyond, has also taken up this day as a “Global Day of Shidduchim,” in which great rabbis pray, without charge, for unmarried men and women to find their mates.

Girls and boys in Israel on Tu Be'Av
Tu B'Av Together - Global Day of Shidduchim 2020

But the Bais Yaakov Project archives tell another story: Tu Be’Av, it turns out, may have been first revived in the modern period neither by modern Zionists celebrating romance nor by Orthodox organizations praying for “shidduchim.” The Bais Yaakov Journal Issue 4, year 3 (1926) reports that the summer of 1926 saw local celebrations of Tu Be’Av throughout Poland. The newspaper describes the numerous correspondents who wrote in to the office of the Bnos (the youth movement associated with the Agudah and Bais Yaakov) to report on how they had celebrated the day and to express “the outpouring of joy awakened by the revival of this traditional historical women’s holiday.”

That this was not a one-time occurrence in 1926 but a regular feature of Bnos and Bais Yaakov life is evident from other writings, including by Sarah Schenirer, detailing how this old-new holiday might be celebrated, and clarifying its meaning for the Bais Yaakov movement. One participant in a Tu Be’Av ritual led by Sarah Schenirer herself provided a rich description of the 1932 celebration in the woods of Skawa, a village thirty miles south of Krakow where the seminary students were spending the last summer before they left for their assigned teaching posts.

The celebration of Tu Be’Av, in Hodo Movshowitz’s retelling, involved a moonlight hike in the woods, with 115 students and teachers walking hand-in-hand behind their leader and guide, Sarah Schenirer. After some difficulties, a bonfire is lit, and a student gives a talk, followed by Sarah Schenirer, and then the girls and women rapturously and prayerfully sing and dance, an experience of great mystical meaning.

Tu Be’Av was revived in Bais Yaakov as a “traditional historical women’s holiday”; the student who spoke to the group around the bonfire explained its meaning, according to the description, as “the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women.” The ecstatic dancing was done not before the eyes of prospective mates, as in the Mishnah, but rather, Movshowitz stresses, with no one watching. Tu Be’Av was celebrated in Poland by Orthodox Jewish girls and women, alone in the woods with their God, their guide, and each other.

Below is the article that appeared in the 1932 issue of the Bais Yaakov Journal, translated by Frieda Vizel.

Tu Be’av 1932 in Skawa

written by
Hoda Movshowitz
[Nowogródek, Yiddish Navordok]
Teacher in Sokolov


Evening. The sun is about to set. It is already on the other side of the linden trees [1]. (Yes, the trees of Skawa, you will remain in our memory for a long time!) And suddenly it occurs to me: why does the sun hide behind these giant trees every day before it sets? Does it hide behind these enormous trees to prevent people from seeing the last few moments of its day? Maybe it doesn’t want people to see the impressions it has witnessed of all human deeds — is that why it reddens so with shame, and hides its face among the enormous trees?

But I can’t be lost in thought for long. The sound of some exalted mood reaches my ears and rouses me from my speculations.

All the seminary girls are standing in front of the villa, ready for our excursion. We count a hundred and fifteen, and I too am among them.

And so we set out.

Frau Schenirer at the head. One hundred and fifteen of us go step by step, hand in hand, along the path, Frau Schenirer first among us, our guide. Our hearts beating with extraordinary joy, we follow in the steps of our leader and flag-bearer.

The sun is already completely gone. A star-speckled sky is above us. The glow of the moon illuminates our path.

And we walk and walk, but to where? Our great leader is before us, and we follow her lead.

Finally, we reach a forest. It’s pitch dark all around. The trees obstruct even the bright glow of the moon.

Suddenly, the center of our group lights up. “Campfire!” we pass the word from ear to ear. A flash of light, and then it’s pitch dark again. Something over there doesn’t want to burn. The bonfire doesn’t want to start. Our teachers busy themselves with it, to no avail. Some of us despair, but not those in charge of lighting fire, who keep on working with their bundle of twigs. They work with all their energy, lying flat on the ground with their faces close to the spot where a tiny spark still flickers. There they add a bit of their own life force and, finally, they’re successful and the fire catches.

Soon a large fire is burning in the center of our circle, almost like the Jewish fire which we kept burning for so long, deep in our hearts.

It’s quiet. No one dares to speak out loud, to break the silence, to interfere with what we are all feeling. Who? Every one of us! Because we are all experiencing something tremendous—you can see it in our eyes. . .

And then someone does break the silence. Who speaks? One of the students, who begins to give a talk. She speaks and each of her words rings out and is echoed back by the trees.

She speaks of the meaning of the fifteenth day of the month of Av, about the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women. The mood is serious, even sad, as she finishes.

Again a silence lasts for a long time. From time to time we hear the crackle of the burning twigs. And suddenly we hear the voice of Frau Schenirer. All eyes are now focused in one direction, and with great anticipation we listen to the words of our great leader.

Her eyes and the features of her face are sunken in the firelight, but her voice rings out: “And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings” [Leviticus, 6: 5]. And she draws a picture to help us understand what this means. In the desert among the camps of Israel, the tribe of the Levites, and in their midst the tabernacle and the altar on which a fire burns that may never go out. This fire was sent by God himself to the altar. So was this divine fire not all that was needed to burn the sacrifices? But no, every morning the priest would add some wood. The divine fire can only burn for us when we have such divine priests who guard it, who feed the fire without cease, who add firewood without tiring of it. Only then can we be sure that the fire will always burn on our altar. And then, no power in the world can extinguish it.

And after a short silence her voice rings out again. “Many waters cannot extinguish love” [Song of Songs, 8: 7]. Every person has within herself an altar. The heart of each person is a temple, and the fire that burns of its altar is the “Fear of God” and “Love of God”. God starts off this fire on our altar. But we have to guard this spark, to blow on it again and again, without tiring.

And again there is silence. All eyes are turned to the fire. Meanwhile it burns; dry twigs flame out on the ground. Our eyes are burning, too, and maybe something else as well, something invisible, in a secret place, a small and hidden flickering flame. No question about it — each and every one of us knows this about herself, without the slightest doubt.

And suddenly we hear again the familiar voice; “Let the children sing!”

And so we sing. Suddenly we are so overcome with the urge to sing that no power in the world can stop us.

“There is none like our God!”

We sing. Quietly at first, and then louder and louder and from the middle of that song, the tune of a deep prayer rings out:

“Cleanse our hearts so we can serve you in truth!” And ever more beautiful and stronger grows the song, until we are no longer singing — this is a fervent prayer!

And it continues for another minute or two, until some extraordinary longing overcomes our soul, and out of our hearts tear the words “Next year in Jerusalem!”

The tune grows stronger, more emotional, more prayerful. The fire in our eyes grows brighter, more radiant. We add wood to the fire and the flames leap up. We can no longer sit still, we rise. Everyone wants to dance.

And so we dance.

Alongside us dances our leader, Frau Schenirer. Hand in hand with us, together. We dance, we can no longer see anything before our eyes. Our eyes close, our souls pine for something, everything around us disappears. It is so good… Our feet dance of their own accord. And so we dance, strong, stronger, even stronger still.

The dancing lasts for a long, long time, and still dancing we return from the woods. And still we dance. We dance as we accompany Frau Schenirer home, and only later do we ourselves go to sleep.


That was the fifteenth of Av, 1932, in Skawa. A year has already passed since then. We have dispersed, each to her own way. But did the bonds we forged then slacken? No, a thousand times no!

We hold each other by the hand, united in one organization, united just as we were then, as we danced out of the woods with no one seeing us. We are each and every one of us deeply connected with the rest, even as each of us works in our own circle.

[1] In old Slavic mythology, the linden (lipa, as called in all Slavic languages) was considered a sacred tree. Particularly in Poland, many villages have a name “Święta Lipka” (or similar), which literally means “Holy Lime”.

Bais Yaakov Journal article about Tu Be’av 1932 in Skawa, page 2
Bais Yaakov Journal article about Tu Be’av 1932 in Skawa, page 1

?האם שרה שנירר ובית יעקב הקימו לתחייה את ט”ו באב

חיפוש מהיר של צמד המילים “ט”ו באב” מעלה שני סוגים של תוצאות. הסוג הראשון עוסק בתיאור תקופה קדומה בתולדות עם ישראל ובה בנות ירושלים היו יוצאות לכרמים לחפש להן חתן (תענית ד, ח). התוצאות מן הסוג השני מתארות את תחייתו של פסטיבל השידוכים התנ”כי בישראל בימינו אנו. אם כ”יום האהבה” המזמן חגיגות ומסיבות, ואם בתפיסה אורתודוקסית – ולפיה ט”ו באב נתפס כ”יום השידוכים העולמי” ובו נישאת תפילה שרווקים יזכו למצוא את בני זוגם במהרה.

חיפוש מהיר בארכיוני פרוייקט “בית יעקב” מעלה תוצאות שונות בתכלית. ט”ו באב, כך מסתבר, קם לתחייה מחודשת בקיץ 1926 שבו נערכו לראשונה חגיגות מקומיות של החג ברחבי פולין (כתב העת “בית יעקב” גיליון 4, שנה 3). כתב העת מתאר בהרחבה כיצד הגיעו כתבי חדשות מקומיים למשרדי “הבנוס” (תנועת הנוער של בית יעקב ואגודת ישראל) לסקר את האירוע. החגיגות תוארו כ”שמחה אדירה שהתעוררה בעקבות תחייתו של חג הנשים המסורתי”.

זאת ועוד, נראה כי חגיגות ט”ו באב בשנת 1926 לא היו אנקדוטליות בלבד, אלא אירוע מתמשך שאירע אחת לשנה. מסמכים אחרים, כולל כתביה של שרה שנירר מתארים במפורט כיצד יש לחגוג את החג החדש-ישן הזה, ומבהירים את משמעותו עבור תנועת בית יעקב. בשנת 1932, כך עולה מיומנה של אחת התלמידות, נחגג החג ברוב שמחה בהובלתה של שרה שנירר עצמה ביערות סקאווה, כשמונים ק”מ דרומית לקראקוב, באיזור שבו נפשו התלמידות בסמינר קיץ זמן קצר לפני שפנו לעבודה כמורות. תיאור מרגש נוסף נמצא בסיפורה של הודא מובשוביץ על ט”ו באב שבו היה ליל ירח מלא, ושרה שנירר הובילה 115 תלמידות בשיר ובתפילה. הטקס כלל הדלקת מדורה, נאומים, שירה וריקודים. הטקס מתואר כהתעלות רוח מיסטית של ממש.

מכתבים אלו ניתן לממוד כי ט”ו באב קם לתחייה בבית יעקב כ”חג הנשים המסורתי”, התלמידה שתיארה את הלילה התייחסה אליו כ”חג השייך לצעירות היהודיות”. הריקודים, הגם שלא נעשו לנגד עיניהם של בני זוג פוטנציאליים כפי שמדגישה מובשוביץ, נחגגו ברוב עם, בקבוצות של נשים יהודיות אורתודוקסיות, עם המדריכה הנערצת וזו עם זו. נראה כי משמעותו של ט”ו באב כחג נשים השייך לצעירות יהודיות לא רק שימש כגשר בין המסורת והכתבים היהודיים לבין מציאות חייהן של הנערות, אלא גם הוסיף נדבך של שייכות קבוצתית וגאוות יחידה למורות לעתיד, שתפקידן כמנהיגות רוחניות בקהילות יהודיות היה קריטי באותם ימים בפולין.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period. Naomi’s book was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award’s Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Identity category and a winner in the Women Stud­ies category.

Ways of Looking at a Class Photo:
The Photo as Mystery

It might seem that the classroom photo is as simple, transparent, and conventional as a photograph can be. Its arrangement, with the students ideally all visible and facing forward, the teachers arrayed at the side, the board that acts as a caption for the class and school, is designed to convey straightforwardly its own identity.

The photo the gifted Polish photographer Agnieszka Traczewska emailed to me this week conforms in some ways to this pattern. Although it depicts students outside, sitting at food-laden tables, its identity as a school photo is evident: the school—Bais Yaakov of Lublin—is signaled in three different ways:

  1. Behind the welcome sign (perhaps greeting a visiting delegation of men) children hold up a banner that reads “Bais Yaakov of Lublin”;
  2. at the bottom of the photo, another pair of girls holds up a board that specifies in black on white that the photo was taken at the Bais Yaakov of Lublin summer colony in Zaklików on July 23, 1933;
  3. a third handwritten note conveys the same information in a superimposed box at the right of the photo.

But the straightforward information conveyed in the board and banner and text box cannot resolve the mysteries posed by this photograph.

While we are fortunate to have the date on which the photo was taken, and even the name of the studio (Studio Victoria, in Lublin), the photo also has a history that transcends that single flash of the photographer’s camera: the photo has at least two trajectories, one to a newsroom in which the board appears in white on black, and another to an archive, in which it appears in black on white.

From the Lubliner Tugblat, August 1933

The text box at the right in the newspaper version is in Polish in the newspaper, and in Hebrew in the archival version of the photograph. The archive in which it appears is the Ghetto House Museum: apparently the photo was taken to Palestine in 1937, when a student who appears within it emigrated. While the newspaper photo is clearly a reproduction, it also may capture an earlier moment in the photo’s history, with the Polish rather than Hebrew handwritten description. Which, in such a case, is “the original,” which a copy?

The photo, taken in the open air, shows young girls seated at two tables, with a series of adults ranged around and behind them. Perhaps at least some of these adults are visiting for the day, as the Bruchim haba’aim banner implies. But who are they? Parents? Agudah activists? Administrators from the school in Lublin? Is that a nurse on the left, charged with the health of the children in an era with high rates of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases linked to urban poverty? Beside her stands a man who is clearly not part of the “rabbinical” group, but rather a worker in the camp—a cook or baker, perhaps, from his work uniform? We know that photos were sometimes appended to reports to the Joint Distribution Committee or other funding organizations, and these often showcase food bought with donated funds, or the healthful effects of the outdoors on city children. Does that explain the food piled before the children?

The photo has a companion that gives us a few more clues, but also raises new questions.

In this photo the group is arranged in an apparently more conventional pose, arrayed in rows against the side of a wooden building, with the youngest seated on the ground in front and all facing the photographer. Perhaps the photographer gave the girls instructions, because many in the front row hold their arms crossed before them in a similar pose. The mustached man at the left in the previous photo, so strikingly different in appearance from the other men, appears again, now at the right.

But the uniformity of the rows and the similarity of the poses are deceptive: Unlike the front row of young children, the rows above are messier, more diverse, and harder to categorize. Unlike the crossed arms in the front row, hands reach out to touch others in no clear pattern, two heads lean toward each other in companionship.

[The baker (or cook?) drapes a casual arm around the shoulders of a teenaged girl, who leans softly into him; in the other photo, she is seated with her group (seventh from the bottom on the right side of the right table). Are they related?] EDIT: As pointed out by Jewish Book Finds and Akiva Yasnyi on Twitter, the hand on the girl’s shoulder is a left hand, making it impossible to be the  baker/cook’s hand.

A tangle of arms connects a group in the middle, of men and younger and older girls. A younger girl reaches back to hold hands with an older one. A man in the middle of the photo holds a smiling young girl between his knees, while an older girl rests her hands on his shoulders. Do these linked hands and easy touches represent family relationships within the relationships that govern schools or camps?

Fortunately, we have some information about at least three of the people in these photos, including the girl three down from the middle of the sign with her hands resting on the shoulders of the man seated in the row below her. As the Ghetto Fighters House Archive tells us, she is Bluma Cohen (later Hajdenkrug), and he is her uncle, Yaakov Mincberg; Bluma was raised by this uncle along with his wife Sara—after Sara died in 1934, her uncle raised her alone. Bluma’s cousin, Chana-Hinda Danziger, is seated third from the left in the first row of seated girls, in a shirt with three black buttons (she is also at the top of the left table in the other photo). Bluma moved to Palestine in 1937, when she was 17, and it may be her hand that wrote the Hebrew words appended to the table photo. The uncle who raised her, whose shoulders she rests her hands on, was killed in the Holocaust. But as with so many of these photographs, we do not know the fate of the others pictured.

Like the night sky, the photo yields other details with longer viewing. In the right background of the archival photo of the children at the table (this isn’t visible in the blurrier newspaper reproduction), there is a figure who seems to have been scratched out. A ghostly hand is raised above the scratch marks, as if signaling for our attention, like an interwar photobomber. Below the scratches is a pair of child-sized pants. Who is he (if he is a person, and not a garden gnome or figment of my imagination)? And who scratched out the image? Was he scratched out because as a boy he didn’t belong in this picture of Bais Yaakov schoolmates and their caretakers? Or do the scratch marks reveal and conceal a more personal animus? Was it Bluma who scratched it/him out?

A photo records a moment in time, and yet these photos record multiple moments in time. Not only that July day but also the date a few weeks later it appeared in a newspaper, the date it was packed into luggage for an overseas voyage, the date it was labeled and relabeled, the date it was scratched out, the date it was transferred to an heir, the date it ended up in an archive, and the date I received it from another Polish photographer, and the date it comes back—like a ghost—in this blog. 

Each of these is a transformation, like the black-on-white or white-on-black naming of the school.

For those of us who have a scrapbook full of Bais Yaakov class photos, these photos that have escaped the general destruction of interwar Bais Yaakov are fascinating for their familiarity and for their differences. The casual touches among men and girls are among these differences, which hint at a different social order than the one I experienced in Boro Park. 

But if they cannot fully capture the world of interwar Bais Yaakov, answer all our questions about what that was like, they can give us glimpses of this world, even—maybe especially—when they seek to obscure these experiences.

This post was updated on May 12, 2020, to reflect the correct information for the newspaper in which the photo appeared. Many thanks to Adam Kopciowski, who made the connection between the newspaper and the archived photo.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period. Naomi’s book was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award’s Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Identity category and a winner in the Women Stud­ies category.

A Bais Yaakov Haggadah: When Girls Write Like the Talmud

printed text surrounded by printed lines with handwritten notes

We take a break from Naomi’s series interpreting class pictures, in part due to the disruption that COVID-19 has caused to our daily and weekly schedules. Instead, in a timely post, we are highlighting a haggadah this week. 

This haggadah comes to our collection from Mindy (Friedlander) Schaper. It is typical of texts used in grades 6-8 in Bais Yaakov schools, with lined spaces surrounding the text of the haggadah itself, allowing students to write notes directly into the text.

(Haggadahs from younger grades tend to be handmade collections of paper tied into a booklet, featuring such fun additions as a cutting of a towel to decorate the page for urchatz and rachtzah. We hope to share more of those in future weeks or years – perhaps in time for Pesach 2021!)

a page of text with handwritten notes
In the space to the left of the printed text, note 4 asterisks, each denoting a new note. Three of those begin with “why…?” and an answer to that question.

Much can be said about the practice of using haggadahs with spaces intended for note-taking. While students are expected to take notes during classes on Chumash, Navi, Halacha, etc., they are not expected to write in the seforim themselves. However, haggadahs are meant to be used during the seder, not merely studied and then stored away. The space for notes is indicative of the text’s intended use: as a discussion aid during the seder.

The format of some of the notations is indicative of the intended use as well. Many of the notes begin with a question, mimicking the structure of the haggadah itself, which begins with four questions and then goes on to answer them by telling the story of the Exodus. 

The fascinating result of this practice is that girls in Bais Yaakov engage with the text more intimately than they do during the rest of the year. In notes for other classes (coming soon to our online archive), we can see a similar format of question-and-answer, usually quoting a meforash like Rashi or Rambam. Here, though., the girls get to take ownership of the text in a more personal way, by inscribing their own words (albeit still the thoughts of others) directly onto the page in a layout that echoes Talmudic commentary.

title page of haggadah with handwritten grade and comment in top left corner

A feature that I find particularly intriguing is the grade and comment on the title page. Someone, presumably the teacher, has graded the haggadah with an Aleph+ with an accompanying comment of “excellent work,” followed by the traditional Pesach wish for “next year in Jerusalem.” What was being graded? The commentary, which almost certainly was not student-created but dictated by the teacher? The handwriting? The amount of notes written? Did the students perhaps do research to write their own notes, rather than having the teacher dictate the notes?

Of course, we can simply ask Mindy these questions and rely on oral history since this haggadah was annotated so recently. But these questions apply to a broader range of class notes and texts and are worth asking and tracking through Bais Yaakov’s history from Europe through to contemporary schools in America, Israel, and other locations.

As we head into a seder unlike any other most of us have experienced, with fewer people at the table and perhaps no children or grandchildren to ask the Mah Nishtanah, we wish you all a safe, healthy, and happy Pesach.

Ways of Looking at a Class Photo: Nature, Props, Grins

In last week’s blog post, I wrote about the conventions of the class photo, with their straight rows and unwritten rule that each face must be visible, as expressing the double values of unity and individuality, a (singular) class composed of unique individuals.

But Bais Yaakov class photos often push the edges of these conventions, featuring groups of classmates in unusual settings or including unusual objects beyond the ubiquitous class signs.

As a movement that prized nature, and perhaps also because of issues of lighting, students were often photographed outside their classrooms, either among the trees on outings or in the summer colonies or just outside the school buildings.

And the “props” that distinguish some of these photos signal the Bais Yaakov participation in a youth culture that prized sports and other physical activities. For instance, in the photo of the girls in the Yehudis summer colony, clearly taken by a professional photographer, one student lightly holds a ball that is clearly visible, perfectly ranged among the faces of the row beneath her.

Students from the Bais Yaakov educational network in a vacation activities program in March 1929. The program was called Yehudis.

Among the most intriguing photos we have is one of seminary students that seems more amateur in its arrangements. In this photo, from the Ghetto Fighters’ House photo archive, the students—from the Krakow Seminary—are not ranged in neat rows, and some faces in the back of the group are obscured or cast into shadow by others. The first row, which in other photos often features the youngest students cross-legged on a floor or the ground, here shows young women seated, with each face visible. And yet one student, along with the woman who might be a teacher on the far left (her hair seemingly covered with a hat), looks to the right rather than straight at the camera, a remarkably natural smile suggesting that she has seen something that amused her. Among the other young women are others with bright expressions, and one woman in the back leans forward toward the viewer.

So, too, do the young women’s hands express casual connection. Gutta Sternbuch (a family friend whom I recognized in the second row left) has her hand on the shoulder of her grinning classmate, and the fingers of two women in the center of the front row seem to brush together.

Perhaps this casualness owes something to the setting of the photo, which seems to be a sukkah—itself a less formal “house”. Homemade strings of paper and a paper lampshade decorate the ceiling, signs decorate the walls at the back, and a door stands ajar, perhaps the door connecting to the inside of the building. The sign at the back right shows a stylized and modernist menorah, with two hands joined at the base, in a visual echo of the two hands that meet near the center of the front row.

And at the left, another half-obscured sign reflects the religious values of this gathering more textually, “honor your father and your mother.” Bais Yaakov stressed this commandment, and Sarah Schenirer wrote about it in some detail.

But the sign stands in some contrast with the image that obscures it, in which young women took pride in a community they had created (and perhaps also in a structure that they had built, or at least decorated) in the absence of fathers and mothers, and in the presence of the companionship and shared experience that was at the heart of the seminary experience.

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

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Class Photo

Among the sixty-two photos of Bais Yaakov assembled on this site, over half of these are class photos.

When we were deciding on photos for my book on Bais Yaakov, the publisher at Littman Library, Connie Webber, advised against including any of these. She hardly needed to explain why. Class photos are remarkably similar, following an instantly recognizable and fairly strict set of conventions. These photos may have been of interest to those who were in these classes, where they can jog memories about classmates and teachers. And those that were sent to donors and philanthropic organizations along with reports—we found many of the photos on the website in the archives of the Joint Distribution Committee—no doubt captured the reality of what their money had bought more vividly than budgetary reports. But what else can they tell us that would justify their inclusion in a book on Bais Yaakov history?

Bais Yaakov of Rymanów, 1933
Second Graduating Class of Bais Yaakov, Łódź, 1934
Kibbutz Bnos Agudath Israel in Bad Gastein, 1945-1948

It seems to me that they do continue to speak to us, not only in their subtle differences, but also in their uniformity and conventionality. Of course, these two dimensions of Bais Yaakov, its conservative adherence to the rules and ideals of Orthodoxy and its revolutionary character as a new phenomenon within this traditionalist world, were precisely the features of Bais Yaakov on which I focused.

But first to the conventions of the class photo:

  • The students stand or sit in rows, often dressed in school uniforms.
  • Each face should be seen, but their similar ages and demeanors marks them as that singular “class,” rather than a group of individuals or the multigenerational assortment that is a family.
  • Of course, their teacher or teachers often appear alongside them, an older woman seated at the center or off to the side.
  • A row of children may sit cross-legged on the floor.
  • Somewhere toward the bottom of the photo a rectangular sign, perhaps held by a child, will identify the class or the school.

This same arrangement governs the Bais Yaakov class photo from the earliest iterations we have until the ones Dainy Bernstein has provided for the 1990s. These conventions speak to a certain continuity of the Bais Yaakov experience—and more generally, of school experience—beyond the differences between black-and-white and color photography, interwar Poland and Bais Yaakov today.

Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade 3 (Class 301), 1996-97
Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Kindergarten (Class 104), 1993
Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade 5 (Class D7), 1998-99

And yet, within these similarities, the differences speak loudly, too.

Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade Pre-1-A (Class 101), 1993-94

The above photo from 1993-94, for example, shows girls in the Pre-1-A class dressed colorfully for the photo, so colorfully that it might be imagined that the wild profusion of flowered dresses was somehow coordinated to produce such an effect. The photo’s setting is the classroom, with the English and Hebrew alphabets displayed on the walls behind them and “Merkaz HaShemiya” – a “listening corner” – visible on the right.

By contrast, in 1994-95, these same girls in their first grade class are already arrayed in uniforms. One of the girls in the back row is wearing a bright red flower in her hair, another is wearing a turtleneck under her shirt, and styles of skirt and jumpers differ – perhaps an attempt at distinction and individuality. The photo’s setting is the auditorium, where classes took turns arranging themselves for the photographer. The background is bare with no evidence of classroom activity.

How did these girls experience the transition from flowers to uniforms, sitting in their everyday environment versus a neutral auditorium?

Beth Jacob of Boro Park, Grade 1 (Class 211), 1994-95

And what about those long-ago class photos taken in interwar Bais Yaakov? On the one hand, many of them do conform to the rules of the class photo, so that we instantly understand them to be part of that recognizable genre. But they often push the limits of that genre in unexpected directions.

What to make, for instance, of the undated photo held by the Ghetto Fighters Archive of the Bais Yaakov in Grójec, which is labeled with the caption: “Pupils of the Bais Yaakov ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Grójec, with their mothers and teachers.” Why the mothers? And what does it mean that it is so difficult to discern in this photo which are the young women and which their mothers? Many of these women are wearing stylish berets or cloches: does this category include daughters and mothers? Are any of these mothers wearing wigs? Were the mothers seated beside their daughters, or together, as if they formed a shadow class? Does this photo speak to a Bais Yaakov with a particularly active mothers’ association, or does it tell us something about the larger aim expressed by Sarah Schenirer of “bringing daughters back to the mothers, and mothers back to the daughters”? And what to make of those younger faces visible in the windows of what must be the school building?

Pupils of the Bais Yaakov school in Grojec, with their mothers and teachers. Donated by Dov Kole. Ghetto Fighters House Archive.

The weeks that follow will be devoted to “reading” these school photos, which are easy to ignore as identical iterations of a too-familiar genre but nevertheless filled with the meanings of their specific concrete circumstances. The class photo, more generally, constitutes the frame for both individuality and the collective that never completely succeeds in subsuming the individuals that constitute it. As in the Bais Yaakov of Grójec, we cannot hope to discover all the answers to the questions raised by these photos, but the questions are worth asking anyway.

This blog post series was inspired by the recent publication by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference. University of Washington Press, 2020.

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