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 fifth grade Secular Studies).

Esther Shaindel is doing very well scholastically and is a pleasure to have in class.

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.