Conduct Manuals

Originally published on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov

The annual school Shabbos in May, when all four grades spend the weekend on the grounds of a summer camp in the Catskills, is one of the main events of the school year. It’s a major deal, with preparations happening weeks in advance.

Miss Greenberg held the Shabbos in highest priority. Girls could be pulled out of class at any moment; teachers learned to turn a blind eye when a student sidled into class twenty minutes late and mumbled, “I was – Miss Greenberg…sorry…”

It was mostly the seniors who got to miss class right and left. Every senior had a job for the Shabbos. But some lucky juniors were chosen for the eight-student newspaper committee, and I was one of them.

Let me explain what this newspaper is about.

Each year, the school Shabbos has a different theme. My freshman year was about valuing Torah, so all the performances on motzaei Shabbos were about how a woman could support her husband and sons in learning.

[I was in the freshie songdance that year as a PhD graduate who comes to the realization that “Can’t you see, Torah’s the key, to all knowledge and discovery.” Oh, the ironies!]

The motzaei Shabbos performances are the highlight of the Shabbos. As soon as the rabbi makes havdala, everyone galvanizes and sets up the stage, gets into costume, does “one last runthrough.” The performances start about an hour after Shabbos is over and go until 3am or so, at which point everyone relocates to sit in concentric circles on the lobby floor for a kumzitz with singing led by one of the rebetzins, until the last bus pulls out to go back to the city at 7am.

The other components of the Shabbos include Friday afternoon Chidon, a quiz game; Shabbos meals with speakers and singing; Friday night and Shabbos afternoon workshops; a post-shalosh seudos dance to fill the twilight hour as we waited for the men to finish davening and make havdala; and the newspaper.

This newspaper is written before the Shabbos and doesn’t report on the events. It’s a collection of inspirational material. Stories of mesiras nefesh, lessons and testimonials relevant to that year’s theme, quotes and pesukim and ma’amarei chazal…

That year’s Shabbos theme was tznius. At the first meeting of the newspaper committee, Miss Greenberg explained her vision to us editors.

The posuk of the Shabbos was: “kol kvudah bas melech penimah,” the honor of a princess is on the inside. Which means (according to this version that takes the verse completely out of context) that Jewish girls, daughters of the king, don’t emphasize their outside appearances but instead strive for inner perfection and proper comportment.

Or alternately and additionally that a princess stays behind the palace walls and has no need for the outside world to validate her honor.

Miss Greenberg wanted to play on that princess idea and design the newspaper as a manual for how to behave in the palace – like a handbook for guests telling them what behavior is proper and what isn’t. She asked us, for our next meeting, to find out what a manual like that might look like so we could begin gathering appropriate material.

On my way home after school that day, I stopped off at the Brooklyn Public Library. I mean, I stopped there every day after school, so this was nothing new. But this time I went over to the reference desk and asked about manuals for palace behavior.

The reference librarian looked at me like I was crazy. Luckily, the head librarian, who incidentally is an Orthodox wig-wearing woman named Sara who I’ve always viewed with much awe, came over just then and overheard. I re-explained what I was looking for, and she told me she didn’t know of anything like that.

A couple days later, at the second newspaper committee meeting, when the idea of a palace-manners-manual came up again, I reported what Sara had told me.

“Ah,” said Miss Greenberg in her trademark soft almost-whisper. “How did you find that out?”

“I asked the head librarian at the library.”

“The library?”

“Um, yeah, the Brooklyn Public –”

Her head started shaking side to side, slowly, with such sadness. “A Bais Yaakov girl doesn’t go to the library…”

That was the end of that, as far as I remember. I didn’t say anything else in that meeting and I didn’t go to any more meetings. The newspaper that year was gorgeous, but it looked nothing like a palace manual.

This memory cost me some dignity in a class on medieval literature, when I snorted quite audibly as the professor mentioned medieval conduct manuals and the quite modern manual she had to read when she was invited to the Queen’s box on one occasion.

And now, of course, medieval conduct manuals are an essential part of my dissertation on children and education in medieval literature…

The title page of the “newspaper”

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