Why Children’s Books Make Me Cry

CW: emotional abuse, intersex

I’ve been preparing for the fall 2019 semester this week. A few days ago, I wrote an introduction on Blackboard. I ask my students to introduce themselves by answering a few questions about themselves, and it’s only fair I do the same.

For my class on children’s literature, one of the questions I asked is: “What’s your favorite children’s book?”

The answer I gave:

One of my favorite children’s books (because you can’t make me choose just one!) is The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, published in 1996. It’s a middle grade novel about a girl who doesn’t fit in and is made fun of by her whole village. She in fact does not belong – she’s a changeling, switched for a human baby because she couldn’t do enough magic to please the Moorfolk (kind of like fairies). Turns out, her mother, one of the Moorfolk, slept with a human man, so Moql/Saaski (the girl) is half-human and half-Moorfolk. She makes a place for herself and learns to love herself and accept friendship from people who accept her for who she is. I love that message. I have a soft spot for books with outsider main characters who find their own way…

I almost wrote more. About how I felt like an outsider almost all my life, in so many ways – gender, religion, smarts, interests, hobbies. But then I decided it wasn’t entirely appropriate, and/or I didn’t want to spill my life onto the screen for my students to read.

I haven’t been able to read and enjoy books for quite some time. Years ago, I used to read at least one book a day, maybe even two or three if they were aimed at younger audiences. My shelves filled with Young Adult and Middle Grade books because I read them, and loved them, and returned to them over and over. But over the past few years, I’ve been struggling to concentrate on the page.

I could attribute it to the strain of reading for orals, writing my prospectus, trying to write my dissertation, rewriting a whole new prospectus, and getting to work on the new dissertation.

But that’s not the reason I couldn’t read.

It was because I was always crying on the inside, and the books I like best make me cry on the outside, and I knew that if I unleashed the tears, they would never stop.

Back when I was in my teens, from about 7th grade onward, I dreamed of being in the Bais Yaakov High School play. After my shower every night, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and act out random scenes. They were always overly dramatic, and almost always tragic. Many of the scenes I made up on the spot involved a girl in an orphanage, usually Miriam from A Light for Greytowers. I spoke the lines I made up in a whisper, staring into my eyes in the mirror, until my eyes welled up with tears and the tears streamed down my cheeks. Then I would wipe my face with my towel and get on with drying myself off and getting dressed.

There are times now when I feel the tears stopped up, when I think “I really need to cry,” and I engage in similar exercises to gain the sweet release of tears. (It’s a coping mechanism, and not one without scientific validation.)

But the kind of crying I get from YA or MG books is special. It can reach deep inside me and twist my guts into knots, make me feel things I haven’t let myself feel for fear of the emotions taking over me.

I’ve been getting better at regulating my emotions (thanks, therapy and anxiety meds).

And over this past summer, I’ve had to read many many Middle Grade books as I prepared my syllabus for my class on children’s literature. I’ve enjoyed them, though I was reading them with a critical eye, an eye towards whether and how the books would fit my syllabus and be teachable. Now that my syllabus is finalized, my Blackboard site is set up, and my first-day PowerPoints and lectures are prepared, I’ve been relaxing with some of the books I got from the library, books that I knew I wouldn’t teach but wanted to keep an eye on anyway. I’m reading these purely for pleasure, for enjoyment. Maybe with an eye towards using them in future courses, but mostly just curling up with a good book.

And they are indeed making me cry again.

One of those books is Alex as Well, by Alyssa Brugman. According to the publisher’s website:

Alex is ready for things to change, in a big way. Everyone seems to think she’s a boy, but for Alex the whole boy/girl thing isn’t as simple as either/or, and when she decides girl is closer to the truth, no one knows how to react, least of all her parents. Undeterred, Alex begins to create a new identity for herself: ditching one school, enrolling in another, and throwing out most of her clothes. But the other Alex-the boy Alex-has a lot to say about that.

Heartbreaking and droll in equal measures, Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman is a brilliantly told story about being intersex, exploring gender and sexuality, navigating friendships, and finding a place to belong.

I’m not intersex, but I struggle with my gender identity. And there was a time in my teens when I worried that I might be intersex (I do have PCOS, which is why I had some symptoms that made me freak out).

But that’s not why I related so much to the book that at times it felt like someone was punching me in the chest.

It was because of Alex’s parents, because of the interludes where Alex’s mom posts to “motherhoodshared,” a parenting forum, about her troubles and anguish and how much Alex is hurting her, and how she’s a terrible mother, and how she wishes Alex would just be a good boy.

“Your choices make me a failure as a mother,” my mother said to me. “My purpose in life is to raise Yidden with yiras shamayim, children who do mitzvos and follow the Torah. My purpose in life is to raise children like that, and you – my child – are throwing that away. And that means I failed at life.”

It was because of lines like “And then I recall that some of the times he held me down, it might have been because I was having a bit of a tantrum. You are a shit, Alex says. And it’s not just Mum and Dad who think so. Those reports in the attic said you were a shit too.” Because of Alex’s Dad, who says, “You are now, and have always been, a hyperactive, self-obsessed little shit, and caring for you is exhausting.”

“You were always so dramatic,” my mother said to me. “How was I supposed to know when you were really upset and when you were just being melodramatic?” And I would wonder, maybe this is my fault. Maybe if I had been better-behaved. Maybe if I hadn’t always been “chin-in-the-chest” upset, maybe if I hadn’t been “ungebluzen,” maybe if I hadn’t been such a “slob,” maybe my mother and father would have loved me more?

It was because of Alex’s Dad who says “you still haven’t actually asked anything. You have guessed, and assumed, and accused,” about Alex’s intersex status and the reason for her double birth certificate, it’s because Alex then remembers “that first night – back at the beginning – when I said I felt like a girl and my mother had the big hysterical fit, he left. He just walked out,” and my hearts screams for this young teen who didn’t follow her parents’ unspoken rule about asking and that’s why she didn’t get any answers and instead got called a pervert.

Maybe if I had spoken more rationally, I think, maybe if I hadn’t gotten upset, maybe if I hadn’t sarcastically said “don’t worry, I haven’t been raped yet” when she expressed concern over my new mode of immodest dress, maybe I could have patched things over with my mother, I think. And then I remember to be kind to the crying child I was, despite being over 25 by that point.

It was because of “It’s abuse, isn’t it? I’m not being a pussy. But it’s not the sort of abuse I could go to the Department of Community Services about – my father wanting to wrestle with me or my mother insisting that I eat French toast,” and pages later a brief memory of Alex’s mother hitting her with the phone, and who even needs to go that far ahead when in the previous paragraph Alex remembers how she fought back and asked her father to stop, and cried because she didn’t want to wrestle.

“Could you stop” was a laughing refrain in my childhood home, a remnant from when my father was tickling my younger sibling and they weren’t enjoying it, and asked for it to stop, but my father was having fun so he didn’t. My throat closes up with the memory of how my father hugged me when he was sad, or when one of “the boys” was in trouble at school yet again, and I knew he was hugging me for his own comfort and I felt suffocated, but I went along with it because if I didn’t his eyes would get all hurt and he would accuse me of not loving him. And I remember how I watched my friends’ families with envy, wishing I had their homes, and then berating myself because a parent hugging a child is not abuse, is it.

It was because of what Alex thinks while she and her father pack up clothes for her mother in the hospital: “This is good – taking things of hers and packing them in a bag, as if I am taking memories and packing them in the back of my mind.”

The dream finally stopped. It used to happen once or twice a week: I would be visiting my parents for Shabbos or Yom Tov, and either something would happen or I would just feel horrible, and I would try to pack up my things and leave. But no matter that, in every iteration of the dream, I was trying to pack the same belongings I had come with into the same bag I had brought – the things would never fit inside. I would stuff them, and stuff them, further and further in, and they still kept overflowing. Each time, I wound up taking extra bags away from the house with me as I escaped into the air outside.

Last time it was different. Last time, just two weeks ago, and the dream has not happened since. This time, my dream-mother said something unforgivable, and I responded calmly, standing up for myself. Then I went upstairs to my bedroom, took a big suitcase from under the bed, and calmly packed up every single one of my belongings. Neatly, carefully, and they all fit into the suitcase. All my clothing, all my books, all my memorabilia – not a stitch of me was left on the shelves. And then I left, and that house does not get to contain me anymore.

It was because of “You know what it comes down to? Alex says to me. People who don’t want to lose their babies shouldn’t treat them like shit.”

Of Lies and Broken Bones, Of Objects Used and Abused

CW: child sexual abuse, ptsd, suicide

When I was in third grade, I started keeping a diary. Also when I was in third grade, my brother abused me.

I threw out all my diaries when I was in twelfth grade. That original diary, a pretty locked notebook that a friend had given me for my ninth birthday, and a stack of identical pretty notebooks I had bought from Duane Reade and written in faithfully for the past nine years. I was disgusted with myself, with things I had written in those diaries, and I wanted to remove all evidence of my thoughts and feelings. I remember throwing the diaries into the trash – I carried them out to the curb rather than putting them in the kitchen garbage and risking my mother seeing them. I remember watching through the blinds in the morning as the garbage truck pulled up outside, as the garbage collectors deposited our trash into the truck and threw the bins back to the street with a clatter, as the truck drove off with my diaries crushed inside. I let go of the blinds and settled back down in bed with a feeling of relief and lightened load.

Many times since then, I have regretted this action. Imagine what I would discover if I could read those years and years’ worth of diaries! I don’t have to imagine all of it, though. There’s at least one entry that is burned into my brain forever.

It was in my very first diary, in third grade.

No one understands me,

I wrote.

I just want to go to Shiale’s room and kiss him again.

Feeling like no one understands you is perhaps run-of-the-mill for a teenager. Except I was nine years old. And no one, not a teenager nor a nine-year-old, should be writing that sentence. No one should be able to say “again” about going to her brother’s room, locking the door, lying down on the floor, and “kissing” her oldest brother.

I ‘ve been going through some old school files recently. I wasn’t sure why exactly I was doing this. Nostalgia, sure, but it felt like I was looking for something. What I was looking for, I didn’t know. Today, I think I found it in my fourth-grade journal. I don’t remember much about this journal. I have only vague memories of the activity, which I think happened at the beginning of secular studies class in the afternoons. But based on the format of many entries, especially the ones which begin with a “what-if” scenario, I assume that at least some of them were responses to prompts from the teacher.

As I read through the journal now, I began to notice patterns. There are 4 entries telling tall tales about me falling and breaking all my bones, some identified as lies (“Ha, ha, ha”) and some left as if they are truth. There are 3 entries about being an object that is used up and 2 about being stuffed into dark places. There’s one terrible entry about a fictional Esther Shaindel starting a fire because she left a lit candle near her bed, and then almost jumping into the fire to kill herself because she feels guilty.

My Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Baron, sent me to the school guidance counselor in fourth grade because she caught me crying during davening as I recited the words קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראהו באמת – “God is close to all who call to him, to all who call to him in truth.” I was crying because I was wondering why God wasn’t answering me. I spoke to Aliza, the guidance counselor, once a week after that. (Most students never saw the guidance counselor.)

In the years since then, I have wondered – was I being overdramatic? I loved putting on plays for myself in the mirror. I could make myself cry very easily, and I loved doing that – showering took forever because on my way in and out of the shower I would look at myself in the mirror and pretend to be an orphan, or the heroine of the latest Bais Yaakov play, and act out an improv scene with my mirror-self, and it always ended in tears.

And my mother did tell me for years that I was overdramatic and that I liked looking for things to be upset about.

So I doubted myself all these years, and wondered if I was really hurting, or if I was putting on an act that day when I cried during davening, and then continued going to Aliza because I liked the attention.

When I started dealing with the memories of what my brother did to me, I knew that I hadn’t been overdramatic. I had been abused, and that can affect someone.But at the same time, I still doubted myself. I was mostly happy, wasn’t I? I was well-adjusted. I had friends. And as much as the research shows that abused children become fearful, I wasn’t afraid. I trusted people too much, in fact. I was loud and laughing, living life large. I mean, I had enjoyed it and wanted it! And I have no memory of ever telling him to stop. (I actually am bothered by the “fuzzy borders,” the lack of memory I have over how it started and stopped.)

It didn’t affect me then – why should it be affecting me so much now? Why all the anxiety, the panic attacks? Why is it so bad now that I’ve cut off contact with my brother and his wife (who tried to turn the blame on me when I tried to talk to him about it), that I’ve cut off contact with my parents who expected me to show up to family functions with him there, expected me to “get over it” and “move past it” and “stop letting it affect your life” – maybe they were right? Maybe I’m acting this way just because I know that this is what psychology says happens to abused children.

Logically, I knew this was a ridiculous train of thought. I discussed it numerous times with my therapist.

But finding this journal did something to me. It showed me that I am not making this up. It showed me that this anxiety isn’t coming out of the blue. Because look in my journal – look at the kinds of things I was writing. If I had been writing this in public school, or any school with licensed and trained teachers, I would have been flagged as a major risk. But Miss Stefansky saw these entries, as my English teacher, and Mrs. Baron, my Hebrew teacher who sent me to the guidance counselor, didn’t know about this.

(I also ended up doubting the guidance counselor and Mrs. Baron because my mother mocked the guidance counselor to my face while I was still seeing her; and years later, she remarked that Mrs. Baron fancied herself a mother to her students, and that’s why she overstepped boundaries and sent me to the guidance counselor.)

I shouldn’t need proof that little me was affected by the abuse in the “right” way. A survivor shouldn’t have to respond in the “right” way or in the “right” frame of time in order to be believed and nurtured back to health. But in a way – it’s still a relief for me to have this “proof” for myself.

It was difficult for me to read through these entries, especially one after the other. I cried for the little girl I was, for the little girl who needs to be heard, and held, and told it’s okay and it’s not her fault, and she is not a worn-out ball or a rubbed-out notebook or a pencil sharpened too much and too hard and too fast. That she is worthy, that she will grow up and go on to be the wonderful person I am now. That there is hope, that people will love her the right way, that she will find happiness and comfort, that she won’t need to be so desperately loud, that she will be able to find comfort in the quiet again.

But it was worth it.

Transcriptions of a few relevant pages are in this post. You can browse the full document here.

Letter from DOE about NY Yeshivas and Substantial Equivalency

Chancellor Carranza sent a letter to Commissioner Elia today regarding the ridiculously long process of determining whether certain yeshivas in New York meet requirements of providing substantially equivalent instruction. Below is the text and images of the letter.

December 27, 2018

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia
New York State Commissioner of Education 
New York State Education Department
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, New York 12234

RE: Substantial Equivalency Inquiry

Dear Commissioner Elia,

As you know, in July 2015, the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) received a letter raising questions about the substantial equivalency of instruction in 39 yeshivas located in New York City (the “July 2015 letter”). After receiving this letter, DOE undertook an inquiry to assess the secular instruction being provided at these schools, as fully described in my August 15, 2018, letter to you.

I am writing at this time to make a recommendation regarding four of these yeshivas – all high schools – pursuant to the substantial equivalency guidance issued by SED on November 20, 2018 (the “Guidance”). In addition, I am writing to address two other of these yeshiva high schools. I am aware that representatives of the yeshivas and DOE have recently written to SED seeking guidance on topics covered by this letter, but I believe it prudent, particularly as regards the four high schools, to have our concerns addressed formally through a recommendation made pursuant to the Guidance.

Under the Guidance, local school authorities are required to review documentation and visit non-public schools to assess, among other things, the education being provided.

DOE has visited 24 schools and has engaged in productive dialogue with those schools and their representatives. As noted in my August 15, 2018, letter to you, many of these schools have purchased and begun implementing a culturally responsive, Common Core-aligned curriculum. However, despite DOE’s efforts over the past nearly two and on-half years, it has been unable to gain access to six high schools named in the July 2015 letter.

As discussed below, one of the high schools is registered and therefore, pursuant to the Guidance, it has been determined by the Board of Regents to provide substantially equivalent education. A second high school may or not be registered, depending on how SED views multi-site schools. For the remaining four high schools, DOE has been prevented, despite multiple attempts, from conducting the review required by the Guidance. As a result, we are unable to determine that the schools are providing a substantially equivalent education.

Efforts to Visit the High Schools

DOE has on many occasions asked to meet with school officials and observe the instruction provided at the high schools named in the July 2015 letter. However, yeshiva representatives have consistently refused to act on our requests to schedule these visits. The following is a list of relevant actions taken by DOE, including requests to visit the high schools and other schools:

  • August 3, 2016: requested visits to all schools, including high schools, at a visit with yeshiva community leaders
  • December 5, 2016: email and form letter (to be completed by school leaders for each school) sent to yeshiva counsels; form letter included requests for school visits
  • January 13, 2017: email to yeshiva counsel stating that his response did not address DOE’s request for school visits
  • March 2017 through May 2017: DOE visited 6 elementary schools
  • August 24, 2017: letter to yeshiva counsel seeking to schedule visits to the then remaining 33 schools (including the high schools) that would begin in September 2017
  • September 7, 2017: letter to yeshiva counsel, noting that he did not respond to August 24th letter and providing proposed dates to visit the remaining 33 schools
  • September 12, 2017: email to yeshiva counsel regarding the scheduling of dates for the remaining 33 schools
  • October 6, 2017: email to yeshiva counsel requesting dates for visits
  • October 8 through October 20, 2017: emails between counsel for DOE and counsel for yeshivas regarding schedule for visits to 9 schools by year-end and 9 visits in January and February
  • November 2017 through December 2017: DOE visited 9 elementary schools
  • December 29, 2017: email to counsel for yeshivas requesting locations for visits in January. In January 2018, counsel for yeshivas cancelled first January date and said he was putting the visits on hold
  • October 2018 through November 2018: DOE visited 9 elementary schools
  • October 31, 2018: DOE requested dates for visiting high schools
  • November 14, 2018: DOE requested dates for visiting high schools
  • November 16, 2018: DOE requested dates for visiting high schools
  • December 10, 2018: DOE requested dates for visiting high schools

None of DOE’s requests resulted in scheduled visits to the high schools, or even the offer of alternative dates. Significantly, under SED’s prior substantial equivalency guidance, updated on AUgust 12, 2015, (“Prior Guidance”), visits to schools for which there was a “serious concern…about equivalency of instruction” were to be scheduled “at a mutually convenient time.” Prior Guidance, p. 7.

On December 10, 2018, DOE’s General Counsel sent an email to yeshiva counsel stating:

**As you know, we have repeatedly sought to schedule dates to visit the high school named in the complaint. Most recently, on November 14, 2018, we sent you a list of 13 possible dates for visits to the six school. The next day, you informed us that you would be out of the country in early January, retunring January 14, but you did not address the remaining dates in January that we have proposed. We followed up on November 16, but received no response regarding the dates.

We are writing now in a final attempt to schedule visits to the six high schools. We remain available on January 14-17 and January 28-31. We will have received training from SED by December 20. If we have not successfully scheduled visits to the high schools within the range above by that date, we will take such action as we deem appropriate.**

In response to this email, on December 20, yeshiva counsel confirmed that the four schools would “work with DOE to identify mutually convenient dates for visits in late January or early February” and stated he would be “available to talk tomorrow [Friday, December 21] or Monday [December 24] to discuss possible dates.” Yeshiva counsel and DOE counsel spoke briefly on December 21 and agreed to speak again on Monday, December 24. However, rather than having that conversation “to discuss possible dates,” yeshiva counsel sent an email to you concerning our request.

Regarding that email, DOE’s desire to schedule visits to the four high schools comes from the simple fact that we’ve been unable to, despite our repeated efforts as described above. As yeshiva counsel knows, DOE’s obligation to visit these schools comes from their inclusion in a complaint to DOE about substantial equivalency. We are not singling them out – unfairly or otherwise – for special treatment, but, after consultation with the Department, our understanding is that the promulgation of the new guidance does not mean that the current inquiry must be halted. We readily agreed to wait for training, and will of course follow any additional guidance SED provides, but, in light of the schools’ longstanding refusal to actually provide actual dates for the visits, we do not believe our insistence on receiving them is in any way improper.

Upon request, we can provide relevant email exchanges showing DOE’s efforts to schedule visits to the high schools.

Applicable Guidance

As a result of this lack of cooperation and consistent delay on the part of yeshiva representatives, we are unable at this time to determine in accordance with the Guidance whether four of the six high schools in issue are providing substantially equivalent instruction.

The Guidance prescribes the process that must be adhered to in substantial equivalency investigations of nonpublic schools. The Guidance makes clear that the “intent of the substantial equivalency determination process is to ensure that all students receive the education to which they are entitled under law.” Guidance, p. 1. The guidance recognizes that the determination process is not a one-way street, but rather requires that both the Local School Authority (“LSA”) and the nonpublic school must each contribute to and cooperate in the process: “The determination process is a collaborative effort that is intended to be a mutually beneficial learning process for leaders of both public and nonpublic schools.” Id. To that end, the Guidance contemplates that in conducting its review, the LSA will visit nonpublic schools. The Guidance states, “All religious and independent schools will be visited as part of the process…” Guidance, p. 3. This makes sense, of course, because if would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach a conclusion or recommendation about the education being provided at a school without observing the instruction being provided at the school.


DOE has been unable to gain access to or information about the following high schools and therefore DOE requests that you, as Commissioner, take immediate and necessary steps to ensure our access to these schools pursuant to the Guidance. If these efforts fail, DOE recommends that you determine the schools do not provide a substantially equivalent education (see Gudiance, at p. 1): [footnote: Furthermore, the yeshivas have not confirmed that the schools involved fall within the scope of the April Amendments to Education Law S 3204(2). Although the GUidance provides that “[r]eligious and independent schools that believe they meet the criteria for the Commissioner to make the determination regarding substantial equivalency should inform the LSA representatives at the outset of a review,” id. at p. 2, yeshiva representatives have not done so. Given this, and based on what DOE has learned about these schools through its own research, we are assuming that they are schools for which the Commissioner would make the substantial equivalency determination pursuant to the April 2018 Amendments to Education Law S 3204 and the Guidance, absent any indication to the contrary.]

1. Bais Ruchel D’Satmar High School
64-84 Harrison Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211

2. Talmud Torah Bnei Shimon 
215 Hewes Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211

3. Yeshiva Chemdas Yisroel Kerem Shlomo
1149 38th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11218

4. United Talmudic Academy
5411 Fort Hamilton Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11219

As to the other high schools that the yeshiva representatives have prevented the DOE from visiting, one is a high school registered by the Board of Regents and the other may or may not be a registered high school. Yeshiva Mesifta Bais Yisroel, located at 5407 16th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11204, is listed in SEDREF as a registered high school, and therefore, pursuant to the Guidance, at pp. 1-2, has been determined by the Board of Regents to provide substantially equivalent education.

However, for Lubavitcher High School, the registration is unclear. Specifically, the July 2015 lists three addresses for Lubavitcher High School. SEDREF reflects that Lubavitcher High School located at 841 Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, New York, is registered. However, SEDREF does not list the other two addesses in the July 2015 letter.

Our research confirms that, in addition to the Lubavitcher High School located on 841 Ocean Parkway, there are two other Lubavitcher High Schools at the following addresses:

1. 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York; and
2. 885 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York.

Our questions relate to how we should approach the entities located at these other two addressed. We are unable to determine whether they are registered, because they are not listed in SEDREF. We therefore request your assistance on the following questions:

1. Based on SED’s records, are these two other sites associated with Lubavitcher High School located at 841 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York?
2. If so, does the registration status of the school located at 841 Ocean Parkway apply to them?

Thank you for your consideration and advice.


Richard A. Carranza

cc: Avi SChick
Karin Goldmark
Howard Friedman

Yeshiva Memories

Earlier today, a friend wrote a Facebook post about some of his experiences in a charedi yeshiva. Many others chimed in on this public post, sharing their own memories. The conversation continued strong throughout the day, with some people recognizing that they probably crossed paths at a yeshiva they both attended! But it’s Friday night now, and many of the people involved in that conversation have turned off their phones and computers for shabbos. So the conversation has slowed to a lull. Here are some anonymized anecdotes and memories that were shared on that thread:

The original post:

I went to a brand name black hat yeshiva a quarter of a century ago that had “good English.” Yes, there were Regents, and you could graduate high school and go to college (and I did). Yet every class consisted of the majority of students mouthing off to the teachers, baiting a particular sensitive teacher with racist comments (we used to say that eventually he was going to have a heart attack, and he did, just a couple of years after), and general mayhem. One day we all put our head down on the desk and pretended to sleep. That teacher quit, and the yeshiva made us all write letters of apology to him, and then he came back. Only the frum teachers, and there were a couple, stood a chance. I remember that when we finally graduated, there was some guilty murmuring about mistreating a few specific teachers, and we bought presents for them.

And I’ve been around the block and lived a little and discussed this with MANY guys who went to yeshivish yeshivas, and guess what? It was like that almost everywhere.

We were young, dumb, sexually frustrated, VERY tired, and all morning and night we were given the impression that the only thing in the world that matters is lomdus, and anyone who wasn’t us or one of our rabbeim was a fool.

These yeshivas create this environment, and even though they paid lip service to the idea that you had to behave and put in effort into “English,” as experts in the culture we were an important part of (it’s *called* yeshivish or the yeshiva world) we knew that they didn’t give one shit about us getting any semblance of a secular education.

Some responses:

I’ve spoken to my own boys yeshivos over the years asking about English subjects and the attitude in totality was and still is always disregard. Gemara, THAT is important, English, history and especially science is a burden they don’t want to deal with. As long as they get a teacher willing to put up with the taunts and abject apathy from the boys the hanhola is satisfied.

There were some teachers we would literally throw things at during class. My class, in 10th grade, destroyed much of the science lab. I watched classmates mock one teacher while he was talking about his experiences fighting in Vietnam and, unbelievably, interrupt another one when he was telling us a story about how he liberated a concentration camp (which was the reason he had sought out a Jewish school to teach at).

I found this teacher, who was also the English principal, sobbing in the office when he was listening to the reports of Saddam Hussein firing Scuds at Tel Aviv. He didn’t deserve anything but respect from us.

That was in Yeshiva Toras Chaim in Denver. The principal’s name was Dr Richard Eichenberger, and he actually helped me really love math, amid all the craziness and nonsense of the yeshiva.

The one person we really threw things at (specifically, the rubber stoppers from the glass science equipment—his name was Mr. Pegler and guys would scream “Peg Pegler!”)

And we destroyed science equipment. For example, I would sit in the very last row in the science lab next to the exhaust fan, and the guy next to me would feed the glass piping and other glass equipment through the running fan. I’m not sure how much money we cost the yeshiva, but they never held science class in the science lab after that year.

Our day school’s boys gave a bunch of bananas to their teacher as an end of year gift because they decided she was a monkey (not a racial thing, just an asshole thing). She quit. The parents all played “Not my kid” and the school blew it off.

It’s not okay to teach Torah and only get through on the Bein Adam l’Makom part. If you’re not getting Bein Adam l’Adam, you’re not getting it.

I’m embarrassed to admit that we used to brag which class would cause the most teachers to quit, like it was a point of pride.

as you saying that one day you all put your heads down on the desk and pretended to sleep. and that teacher quit, just for the info. that in chasidic yeshivas this happen’s every single day, do to big lomdos from the teachers. and the boys not intrested in. so they all put the heads down on the table to take a nap… but the teacher don care, and of course he will never quit, because he need his pay check… ,lol

Girls did this too, to some degree. I have stories as well of how my classmates mistreated the teachers, bragged about how disrespectful they were, and how we got numerous teachers to switch away from our grade. That was only my grade, I can’t imagine it was much different around the rest of the high school. The girls were less violent than the boys, maybe, but no less mean and hurtful. My favorite teacher, the only one who inspired me during those years, they treated like shit because she rode a motorcycle and used pop culture references on occasion (references that the frummies didn’t understand and therefore needed to taunt). I went to ask her questions not strictly related to math after class many times (I had her for 4 years) just so she wouldn’t think all of us agreed with what they did to her. But yeah, teenagers are shitty when it comes to the unimportant secular education in their frum yeshivos.

This for sure happens in girls schools too. Especially substitutes. I went to BYBP and taught there later. One class of my students was like that – they once made me cry. But they were disciplined for it. Otoh, we made a game of running off substitutes and very little was done about it to discipline us. And the ironic thing is that we looked down on subs because they were usually chasidish. Any ideology that teaches that any slight difference is reason to be sneered at, for being too modern or too frum – leads to this horrible kind of “chinuch.”

True story. I believe it was my Sophomore year. We already went thru 8 English teachers. We were angels in geometry because our teacher was amazing and had huge arms. We brutally terrorized our Chem teacher to the point that he quit. The English Principal, who we terrorized just as much, came to us (a group of 5-7) and said- ok. Here’s the deal. You have an English and Chem regents. You pass, you pass the class. You fail, summer school. I became the “teacher” and we used those old red regents pep books. And we all passed. I never got a bonus though.

The stories from my brothers made it clear that the boys, the parents, and the administration really thought all the non-Jewish and non-frum teachers were less intelligent. Even if they grudgingly admitted that some teachers were brilliant in their subject matter, they still had this benevolent indulgence of them – like, poor sweet dears, they don’t understand the Truth and Beauty of Torah.

Mine was worse. I woke at 5:30am to get on a 45 minute bus ride…since school started at 7:15am and ended ELEVEN hours later… Gemara shuir was three hrs a day.. I remember for about a year and half me and a friend or 2 – as SOON as we got to school, we broke into the locked “trailer” library, turned the heat up to 80, lined up the tables, and SLEPT on them till noon. The school replaced the door lock so we just climbed through the windows. The racism and misogyny was disgusting. (I still remember the rabbis were furious when the new COKE machine that was delivered had a coke ad on it that had a woman in short sleeves (gasp!) so they covered it in paper but we kept ripping it off just to bother them. It was always freezing and I was so so exhausted. 

I hate that place so much, and hope it goes to hell. I had great friends, so we made it through.

I went to others, where we listened to speeches about how the “goyim” all talk about us and Israel all the time and that is evidence that we are special and all the goyim live like animals and how they used to be decent but today society has gone to hell…

Rabbis went through my things and seized Stephen King novels and anyting secular. The principle told me I dress like a homeless person. And one rabbi yanked a hemp necklace off my neck. The disdain they had for ANY creativity or self expression not within yeshivish culture. 

Why I Skipped the Fourth Night of Chanukah

CW: abuse, graphic moment of PTSD

Last night, I wrote a Facebook post. I started writing it as a brief post, because I had planned to share my menorah-lighting each night of Chanukah this year, and I wanted to explain why I wouldn’t be sharing the 4th night’s lights. But it turned into a long post, and I decided to share here on my blog as well.

This is the first year I’m lighting Chanukah candles. Growing up frum, I didn’t light, because only the boys lit. There was no real prohibition against girls lighting, but it wasn’t “done.” (see this story where I got excited thinking I would light but then didn’t…) And for the first few years after I left, I had no desire to engage in this ritual.

This year, I bought a menorah and candles, and was excited to have my own little lighting ceremony. And that’s how I learned that the association of Chanukah with the brother who abused me is likely never to go away…

I don’t think I’m going to light menorah tonight. I’m still on the train to the ferry, so I’ll be getting home pretty late and I’m really tired.

And also… it’s the 4th night of Chanukah. The night when my father would sit us all down to dole out Chanukah gelt from my parents and grandparents to each of us. The night when we celebrated the birthday of my oldest brother.

He’s been on my mind a lot lately. I can’t help but be aware of when his birthday is coming up, tied as it is to a holiday.

Every time Chanukah comes around, I think of him. This year, I feel a vague sort of… disinterest when I think about him.

I remember that dream I had about him four years ago, when I first started dealing with the memories: I dreamt of standing over his open casket, taking out a large kitchen knife, and slicing his stomach open down the middle.

I was so filled with rage against him for so long.

You did this to me! You betrayed my trust! You were my big brother, you claimed to love me, and you used my body for your own gain! And you knew all these years, and said nothing! And when I confronted you about it, you didn’t apologize! You! You did this to me!

I don’t feel rage against him anymore.

For a while, I pitied him.

You poor miserable creature, you never grew up and became a man. You disgusting being, enveloped in your own brand of jovial desperation. Your own life was messed up, true — but it’s your choice that you didn’t take responsibility and become an adult. It’s your fault that you let your wife turn the blame on me, but I pity you for having no spine or backbone of your own.

I don’t pity him anymore.

I feel… disinterest when I think of him. He has no bearing on my life anymore. My life is my own. He cannot harm me any longer.

It took me a long time to achieve this distance, disinterest, dispassion. But I’ve done it.

Tonight I will not light Chanukah candles. I will light my small candle on my altar, and I will watch the flickering flames, barely casting any light at all, and I will sleep in the darkness.

In the comfort of the home I made for myself, in the life I made for myself.

Embracing all the bright shadows that make me who I am.

I call this my vagina menorah. (It’s supposed to be a rimon, a pomegranate.)

Support a College Student

A frum girl is having trouble paying for her college. Help a yid out?

The GoFundMe description:

Ahuva (not her real name) is a student at a public college. She paid for her first two semesters of college using money she had saved throughout high school from babysitting jobs and summer jobs. She continues to work now while in college. She has applied, and continues to apply, for merit-based scholarships. But her school and department offer primarily need-based scholarships, for which she does not qualify, since she is a legal dependent on her financially-secure parents – even though she is paying for her own college.

It’s almost time for her to pay for her Spring 2019 semester, and she is $1000 short. So we turn to you: 

Will you give some Chanuka gelt to help Ahuva stay in college?

Why Ahuva needs and deserves this:

1) She graduated from a Bais Yaakov, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish all-girls school in which students are actively discouraged from attending college. Throughout high school, she voraciously read to support her passion for learning on her own, and she asked the school administration for enriching classes (though the school did not provide them). She graduated high school with straight A’s and received an Advanced Honors Regents diploma.

2) In her first few semesters of college, she attended six classes each semester. In her first semester, she was still attending seminary in the mornings. She received straight A’s in her first semester of college (in fact, three were A+ grades) and maintains a 4.0 GPA.

3) She is part of the Honors Program and is taking rigorous classes despite being ineligible for Honors Program scholarships – just because she likes the rigor! She frequently describes challenging classes as “so much fun!!!” She visits her professors in their office hours frequently and reads books they recommend or lend to her, and then goes to their offices again to discuss her ideas.

4) She holds herself to extremely high standards, and has goals of pursuing a PhD.

Sorted: Educators’ Praise as Evidence of Their Ideologies

According to one theory about the Hogwarts Houses and the Sorting Hat, students are not sorted by what they are best at. Rather, they are sorted by what they value most. Most of the characters in the series contain multiple traits from each of the four houses, but the house they are sorted into indicates which traits they value most.

As I continue to work on my dissertation’s central question (what is education, according to different cultures?) I have been asking what each system of education values. It stands to reason that the traits praised by educators are the ones they see as the goal of education.

My own report cards from elementary school provide an interesting window into this question. I was usually an excellent student, with some notable exceptions. But what exactly each teacher praises is telling.

Some teachers who wrote my report card comments value academics, self-discipline, and effort. Some don’t mention academics at all, and instead focus entirely on personality. Most are a mix of the two. 

Many talk about my contribution to the class, and many mention a wish that I provide nachas to my parents – as if the purpose of my excellence is to benefit my parents and community, not primarily to help propel my own future.

My favorite of these is my eighth grade Secular Studies report card. Mrs. Mitnick was my favorite teacher in elementary/middle school, because she so obviously valued intelligence and academic success for personal benefit. And her comments reflect that. Thank you, Mrs. Malky Mitnick ❤

Below are images and transcriptions of my Jewish Studies and Secular Studies from Pre-1-A through 8th Grade (missing a few).

Pre-1-A: Esther Shaindel is doing very well scholastically and is a pleasure to have in class.
Jewish Studies Grade 1: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a sweet and smart girl. She enjoys learning and participates nicely in class." Term 2: "'All good things wrapped in one.' Esther Shaindel is one gem of a student. She makes every day a happy day." Term 3: "It was a pleasuring [sic] to have Esther Shaindel as a student. She was a great asset to the class. May you continue to see much nachas from her. Have a happy and healthy summer."
Secular Studies Grade 1: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel shows great interest in learning and is doing very well. Keep up the good work!" Term 2: "Esther Shaindel's enthusiastic attitude is a big asset to our class! She continues to do very well! Keep it up!" Term 3: "Esther Shaindel was a great pleasure to teach this year! Her enthusiasm and fine midos should always stay with her! Have a wonderful summer!"
Jewish Studies Grade 2: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is doing very nicely. She adds so much to our class. Esther Shaindel is really a pleasure to teach! Thank you for all your cooperation at home." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel is a gem! Shep nachas! K"ah! [kein ayin hara, no evil eye]" Term 3: "It was a pleasure teaching Esther Shaindel this year! May she continue to be a source of Nachas! Have a nice summer!"
Secular Studies Grade 2: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a very sweet girl. She is well behaved at all times. She is a fine student." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel is a fine, well-behaved child. She is doing above average work. Shep Nachas!" Term 3: "It was a pleasure to have Esther Shaindel as a student this year. Good luck in 3rd grade!"
Jewish Studies Grade 3: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a good girl and excels in her studies!" Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues in her excelling studies!" Term 3: "Esther Shaindel is a dear girl and an excellent student! May you continue to see much nachas from her!"
Secular Studies Grade 3: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is doing good work in a most conscientious manner. Keep it up!" Term 2: Esther Shaindel continues to be a very good student in all areas." Term 3: Esther Shaindel is a lovely girl and has been a pleasure to have in class. Have much nachas and a nice summer."
Jewish Studies Grade 4: Term 1:  "Esther Shaindel works hard and succeeds thank god in her work. She has a good heart and is always ready to help her friends." Term 2: [blank] Term 3: "It was very pleasant to teach Esther Shaindel. May it be god's will that you see much nachas from her."
Secular Studies Grade4: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel's good work is a reflection of her fine attitude and effort." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to do her work in a most conscientious manner." Term 3: "It was a pleasure having Esther Shaindel in my class. Have a nice summer."
Jewish Studies Grade 5: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a bright student and has added nicely to our class discussions." Term 2: "Although Esther Shaindel went through a difficult stage this term she was still able to pull through with good grades -even without the effort. I would like to see her new attitude and behavior match her intelligence." Term 3: "Have a wonderful summer!"
Jewish Studies Grade 6: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a bright student, who excels in her studies. She is a clear thinker and grasps new ideas readily. I hope to see improvement in completion of her homework assignments. Term 2: [blank] Term 3: "It was a pleasure having Esther Shaindel in my class. Have a wonderful summer!"
Secular Studies Grade 6: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is doing wonderfully in all areas! A pleasure to have!" Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to enhance general discussions with her participation. Well done!" Term 3: "Esther Shaindel has done superbly in all areas! Have a wonderful summer!"
Jewish Studies Grade 7: Term 1: [blank] Term 2: [black] Term 3: "Esther Shaindel's quick wit, sense of humor and midos tovos really added to our class!"
Secular Studies Grade 7: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a tremendous asset to our class. Her effort and participation are truly a pleasure." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to do nicely in her schoolwork. She is a pleasure to teach." Term 3: "Esther Shaindel has added to our class tremendously. She has been an absolute pleasure to teach. Have a nice summer!"
Secular Studies Grade 8: Term 1: "Esther Shaindel is a confident and intelligent student. She performs her best academically and is a strong participant." Term 2: "Esther Shaindel continues to succeed scholastically. She appreciates challenging work and handles her responsibilities maturely." Term 3: "Esther Shaindel was a consistently diligent and cooperative student. Her maturity and knowledge enhanced class discussions."

Announcing: The Bais Yaakov Project!

I am overjoyed to announce that I am part of a brand-new project, The Bais Yaakov Project. The website is still being built, with support from The CUNY Graduate Center’s New Media Lab, and will hopefully go live in early 2019.Bais Yaakov Project CFM

The Project:
The Bais Yaakov Project is dedicated to the collection, preservation, and digitization of historical material related to the Bais Yaakov movement from its founding in 1917 to the 1970s. The Bais Yaakov Project has no affiliation with any Bais Yaakov school or educational organization. It begins as a collaboration by two Bais Yaakov graduates interested in this history, but we hope to expand to include others who share an interest in the movement.

The People:
Dainy Bernstein is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval and children’s literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, Bais Yaakov High School in Boro Park, and Yavne Seminary in Cleveland. Her focus of study is education and childhood as represented in literature.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She attended Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, Bais Yaakov Academy, Michlala, and Bais Yaakov Seminary. Her book, Sarah Schenirer and Bais Yaakov: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, is forthcoming from Littman Library. An exhibit of Bais Yaakov material, and a concert of Bais Yaakov songs through the decades, will accompany the book launch, to be held at the Center for Jewish History on March 17, 2019.

The Public:
We are presently collecting and digitizing historical material in preparation for launching the website in early 2019. We are also interested in the loan of physical objects for display at the CJH exhibit.

Items we are looking for include:

  • Yearbooks and autograph books
  • Textbooks, newspapers, and other school publications
  • Photos and videos of Bais Yaakov events
  • Report cards and diplomas
  • Notebooks
  • Family archives of Bais Yaakov students or alumnae

All items will be treated with the utmost care and returned to you.

If you have any such material, or are interested in our project, please contact Dainy Bernstein dainybernstein@gmail.com or Naomi Seidman naomi.seidman@utoronto.ca.

All inquiries welcome! Comment below or email me and/or Naomi.

Please share this call for materials widely – the more people we reach, the more material we’ll get for the website. 

Separate images for easier sharing:


What Makes a Book a Sefer?

Fun little memory that pops into my mind every so often, and now because I’m reading this blog post (still – it is a very long post and I am reading it with care and attention!), and the author discusses Josephus in quite some depth:

At the family Chanukah party, when I was 18 years old and visiting from seminary in Cleveland, the women played a game based on Scattergories. We were on teams, though the teams were large and basically the loud, vocal cousins were the main players while the rest of us shy or disinterested cousins sat toward the back and watched. Each team would pick a piece of paper with a letter on it (a Hebrew letter), and then someone would call out categories, and the team would have to name something in that category that starts with that letter.

At one point, my team had picked “yud.” And then one of the categories was “seforim.” Now, being chasidish women, most of my cousins couldn’t think of any seforim, let alone one that starts with “yud.” (There aren’t that many words that start with “yud.” EDIT: As the cousin of the sitting-in-the-corner part of the story said to me after hearing this story now: “Uh, Yirmiyah? Yeshaya?”) They joked and laughed, and time was running out, until someone said “hey, Esther Shaindel! You’re in bais medrash! You know seforim!” (The common joke because Yavneh called the study hall a bais medrash, of all ridiculous things! Who ever heard of a girls’ study hall being called a bais medrash! Sigh…)

I wasn’t very happy with the attention turned to me, where I sat squeezed into a corner with one of my cousins, my back to the bookshelf and half-turned away from the festivities.

“Yosifun,” I said, and there was a moment of silence as most of the cousins tried to think if they’d ever heard it before, and then my mother laughed and said, “Well, that isn’t quite a sefer, but it can count for now.”

I took a moment to think about that before turning back to my conversation with my cousin. What counts as a sefer, after all? Does Josephus not count because he wasn’t a rabbi? Wasn’t he? Is it because he talks about history and not theology? I had thought of this book because I could picture it on my father’s seforim shelves – doesn’t that make it a sefer?

And then I dismissed this ridiculous categorizing and looked back at my cousin, who rolled her eyes and laughed, and we ignored the game entirely after that.

The Dangers of Critical Thinking

It’s sukkos now, and though I no longer go to my parents for the holidays, many of my formerly-religious friends do. And when they go home, they often pick up the frum magazines their parents got, flip through them, and then steal away to surreptitiously snap a photo so they can share their horror with friends via social media.

Yesterday, a friend sent these two snapshots of part of an article to a group, and with that friend’s permission, I’m sharing those photos and a transcription. It’s astounding how blatantly this piece says “let’s not teach our children to think, okay?” And yet rather than being horrified by this, I was amused. Because as my mother would say (in Yiddish), if I don’t laugh, I’ll definitely cry.


Image description: part of a page, topped by a yellow traffic sign with an arrow, and the title: “Hold that Thought?” Text beneath the title:

In general society, “thinking for yourself” is encouraged and applauded. But is independent thought a Jewish value? How can we raise children who won’t blindly follow the herd – but will follow gedolim (great leaders)? Who will ask crucial questions – but won’t challenge mesorah (tradition)? A thoughtful look at complex conundrums.

Elisheva Appel.


Image description: Part of a magazine page. Visible text:

Safe thinking.

Thinking, of course, can be dangerous business, which is why so many educators are hesitant to encourage it. “To think critically is always to be hostile,” said political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and hostility is hardly a value we want to perpetuate. “Out of the 10 or 20 high schools I knew, only one, maybe two, would teach the girls how to think for themselves,” says one young woman in her twenties. No one advocates raising automatons, but there are inherent challenges in teaching children to think deeply. Rabbi Yehudah Jacobs, mashgiach (supervisor) in Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, points out the potential risk in applying reason to Torah. “This has to be done very carefully. You’ll get a child into the mode of thinking…”

Incidentally, I also stumbled across this (very old) blog post from 2005, at the height of the skeptics’ blogosphere activity. It is a very, very long post, and I am chipping away at it bit by bit. It is revelatory. It is particularly satisfying to me to see the whole “heard it at Sinai” argument torn to shreds, because my mother used that to beat me over the head (figuratively) with my “intellectual dishonesty” when I left.

And it encapsulates exactly why the “gedolim” want to make sure people can’t think for themselves, and exactly why it is imperative that we make sure future generations can think critically and for themselves.

Say it with me: critical thinking is only dangerous to those who want to keep the oppressive status quo!!!