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.

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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.

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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!!!

What’s In a Name

Step 1: Get birth certificate from parents’ basement. Fill out form. Go to courthouse. Find out this is not enough because my parents never actually filed the name after my kiddush, although my father wrote “Esther Shaindel” in – and that does not count legally, much to everyone’s surprise.

Step 2: Request certified copy of birth certificate from Vital Records. Redo name change form reflecting current legal name of “Female.” Submit to clerk’s office along with $65 processing fee.

Step 3: Wait a week.

Step 4: Receive mailed notification from the courthouse that the judge signed the order. Go back to the courthouse, get copies of the order with instructions to mail them to the Social Security Office and the Passport Agency and to have it published in a specific newspaper.

Step 5: Mail out the orders. Pay $5 each for certified mail receipts. Realize that in the excitement I forgot to include payment when I sent the order to the newspaper.

Step 6: Call the newspaper once a day for a week and never get through and never get a call returned. Finally get through, they say they’re processing it and I should wait for their call and they’ll get payment info then.

Step 7: Continue waiting another week. Call back and finally get assurance it will be published the next day. Cost appears on my card: $120. I don’t understand why it’s so expensive, but I just want this to be over, so I take the hit and move on.

Step 8: Check the classifieds the next day and stare at that notice for a while, happy that this is almost done. Wait for the affidavit to arrive in the mail.

Step 9: After ten days, get frustrated and call the newspaper office. Get told to wait another week before calling back.

Step 10: Find the affidavit in the mail that evening.

Step 11: Take the receipts from mailing and the affidavit of publication back to the courthouse. Get told I got the wrong kind of receipt from the post office. Try not to cry (it was a bad day to begin with). Clerk is nice to me and reassures me, prints out more orders for me to re-mail.

Step 12: Mail the orders, get the correct receipts that cost $1.50 each.

Step 13: Back to the courthouse again, submit all the receipts, ask for 5 certified copies. Need exact change, so a quick trip to the nearby deli to break a 20, back to the courthouse to pay $30.

Step 14: Submit certified copy to one of my workplaces, excited to get new IDs. They tell me they need my new Social Security card before they can do anything.

Steps 15, 16, 17, 18, please no more: Plan to go to DMV and Social Security offices, get new passport photo taken (more $$), get new passport ($110). Submit certified copies of name change order and documents to all my workplaces, my bank, health insurance, doctors.

It’s been a headache (which is not yet over) but I am finally legally

Dainy Esther Shaindel Bernstein

Hallelujah.

The Day Mommy Ran Away From Home

It was a typical spring evening. The kids all sat around the kitchen table. Two of the boys fought and argued and burst into tears, as per usual. The baby cried. The toddler repeatedly shouted for Mommy to help her with her food. The older sister helper the toddler with her food. The middle sister (that’s me) spooned her food into her mouth on autopilot, using only her right hand, eyes focused on the book propped up in front of her plate by her left hand. Mommy moved back and forth from the stove to the sink to the fridge to the table, getting food and drinks and dishes for everyone and making sure the seven of us were all fed and satisfied, breaking up fights when they got too intense.

Finally, Mommy snapped.

“I can’t do this anymore!” she shouted, and stormed out of the kitchen, opened the front door, and slammed it behind her.

We all got quiet and stared at each other. I even looked up from my book at my silent siblings. Well, besides the baby. She cried louder. My older sister picked her up and held her in her lap.

A minute or two passed. The baby grew quiet in my sister’s arms. Another few minutes passed. We were all frozen in our seats.

My brother got up and walked to the kitchen doorway, peered down the hallway at the front door. He looked back at us, his brow furrowed, then crossed the threshold and went to the front door. He opened it, and we all strained forward in our seats to see and hear what was happening.

A few moments later, he came back inside, accompanied by my mother. She was laughing.

“I was just sitting on the porch!” she said. “I just needed some air and some peace and quiet. What did you think, that I would run away? Where would I go?”

I’ve been thinking about this evening a lot lately. Where would she have gone? Where could she have gone? Where could a woman go, when she has seven children at home and two more who are at late-night seder in yeshiva, when her husband will come home shortly, when she’s responsible for all these people and is bursting with frustration at not having time or space to herself, is bursting with pent-up desires and has to constantly push them aside so as to serve others?

Where could a woman like that go?

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I Mourn

איכה ישבה בדד, העיר רבתי עם היתה כאלמנה

How can a city
Once bustling and joyous
Become so divided
So hateful and dark

How can a people
Once loving and smiling
Be splintered and fractured
And closed off alone

אם אשכחך
Oh I will not forget you
My brothers and sisters
Shut out all alone

תשכך ימיני
My right and my left hands
Must join now together
Bring all of us home

—–

Today is Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av – the day when the destruction of the Temple is mourned. But we don’t need to go back in time 2000 years to find reason to mourn. We can find it here and now in the exclusion and hatred being perpetuated in Jerusalem in the name of religion. So today, I rewrote Eicha. Today, I pledge not to forget Jerusalem – the Jerusalem that belongs to everyone, not only to Jews.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2014, my mother expressed her pain at my non-observance by saying “it hurts to know Tisha b’Av will be just like any other day for you, that you won’t be feeling connection with Judaism by mourning the destruction of Jews.” But Mommy, I do feel connection with Judaism – by mourning the destruction perpetuated in the name of continuity, by mourning the methods of dealing with pain that fight hatred with hatred – and I pledge to fight hatred with love.

The Exhilaration of Teenage Rebellion

Originally published on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov.

A few years ago, my sister was in her BY high school play. I sat in the audience and watched the girls having the time of their lives on stage, over-dramatic acting and all. During my sister’s dance, though, I was jolted almost right out of my seat by one of the moves.

It was nothing very exciting. The girls in the dance dropped down onto the floor for two seconds and rolled over, then popped back up and flowed into the next move. They were great, and it looked terrific.

But it sent me way back down memory lane.

In the play I was in, Listen With Your Heart, there was a scene about “The Doctor’s Plot,” when Stalin accused nine doctors, six Jewish, of plotting to kill him, and had them arrested. The dance following this emotional tale had half the girls dressed as KGB officers and half dressed as doctors.

At one point, the dance heads had choreographed the doctors dropping onto the floor with the KGB officers standing over them. The KGB officers would do some motions, and then step away, at which point the doctors would all roll over toward the edge of the stage.

Everything was going fine throughout practice and rehearsals. During the last week of dress rehearsals, one rebetzin came to the public school whose auditorium we had rented out, to watch the “run-through” and comment on any lack of tznius.

She commented on this move.

It’s a complete breach of tznius, she said, total pritzus, to have girls lying on the floor, kal v’chomer when you have other girls standing over them, and kal v’chomer even more when the girls roll on the floor! And even if it weren’t so untzniusdig, it’s definitely not dignified. (Because dressing up in our shiny gray choir costumes was definitely dignified…)

 

The dance heads listened, nodded shamefully, and let her finish.

But then a discussion ensued when the rebetzin left. How could they change this? It would affect the entire choreography, and there were only two days until the first performance on motza’ei Shabbos (three, but you couldn’t count Friday).

The girls in the dance were in an uproar and refused to change it. The heads were ready to change it, because you can’t outright disobey the rebetzin like that.

“But listen,” one of the dance girls reasoned, “Rebetzin Overseer always comes to the first performance. And everyone knows the first performance is basically like the last run-through, no one expects it to be perfect. So make up some stupid change, don’t stress too much over it, and we’ll do it in this first performance. Then she’s gone, and satisfied we’re not being pritzusdig, and we can go back to the way we practiced for the next four performances. And I mean, we could even leave it in for that performance. What’s she gonna do? Get up on stage and make us stop the performance?”

I don’t actually remember what they did. I do remember that the move was in the play, but I don’t know if they used that bit of subterfuge.

Perhaps they did speak to Rebetzin Overseer and convinced her that there was nothing pritzusdig about it. That might at least explain why it was okay for my sister’s dance ten years later to include that move.

There was one time where the logic of this subterfuge did work.

In the same play, the girls in songdance wanted to make use of the audience aisle.

They were originally supposed to exit the stage at the end of their songdance by forming two lines, each one exiting off to one side of the stage. The problem was that the right side led to the classrooms where the rest of the grade was hanging out, waiting for their turn on stage, but the left side led to a tiny room where the props were kept.

And the scene after the songdance lasted another ten minutes, so the girls who exited to that room would have to stay silent there for ten minutes. Not a fun prospect.

So they proposed to their heads that instead of exiting sidestage, the two lines would use the two sets of stairs leading off the front of the stage, walk up the aisles of the audience, and exit out the back doors of the auditorium. Those stairs were being used by the actresses throughout the play already anyway.

The directors of the play said no.

The heads of songdance relayed this message to their group, who weren’t very happy. They grumbled through the first two performances, but were fed up after the third night of having to wait before they could join their friends in shrieking when their performance was over.

So they decided on this plan of action: banking on the directors’ desire for the appearance of a smooth, perfect performance, they knew that they wouldn’t be stopped if they did something ridiculous (one actress had already taken advantage of this and shouted out a hello to her mother in the audience while she was supposed to be acting drunk).

So if they just marched off the stage, no one would stop them.

Sure, they’d get a yelling afterwards, but it was the last performance anyway.

They had to get the two girls who led the two lines to agree to this pact, and to resolve not to lose their nerve. And it worked! They all marched off, still singing as they were supposed to, and walked out the doors. Of course, they were so excited at their little rebellion that they shrieked as soon as they exited, and everyone in the audience heard it through the open doors…

They got a yelling.

But they also got that exhilarating feeling – that sweet, sweet feeling of adolescent rebellion!