The Time a Teacher Took My Cultural Question Seriously

Here’s another one from Esther about a good teacher. 
In seminary, we learned Vayikra. Most of my high school classmates had been glad that we didn’t learn the “useless” stuff about korbanos — even if some of us were kohanim or levi’im — as girls we wouldn’t need to ever know this stuff.
But in seminary, we were all happy  to flex our intellectual muscles in a way we hadn’t before, and there were underlying concepts that unexpectedly bled into the rest of our lives.
When we learned about korban mincha, one phrase sounded familiar to me, but I couldn’t place it. Until next Shabbos, when my roommates and I were sitting at the table for shalosh seudos and sang Baruch El Elyon – and hey, mincha al machavas! But that was the lesser version of a korban mincha (I don’t remember the rest of that lesson, but this part I remember).
So on Monday, I asked the rabbi: why is it considered the lesser korban if someone fulfilled shabbos exactly as he should? He didn’t know the answer right away, but he didn’t brush it off as “it’s just poetic language, it fit, whatever.” He looked into it.
(The answer is quite simple, actually: someone who fulfills shabbos exactly as he should is doing the minimum, so it’s the lesser korban. Someone who really gets into it and honors shabbos, that’s like the better korban. I obviously have issues with that answer and the way it unnecessarily stratifies religious observance, but it is an answer.)
I think the reason that stayed with me all these years is that I’d been asking questions like that for ages.
Every time I connected something we learned in class to something I encounter in my day-to-day life, or in song or piyyut or whatever, my teachers would treat me either with amused indulgence — it’s just a song, sweetheart, don’t think so much about it – or with righteous indignation — it’s just a song, how can you compare it to the serious stuff we learned in class!
But here, a rebbi we all respected not only didn’t brush off my girlish question about a song, but treated it seriously, and showed me in the process that the things that mattered to me mattered to him because they mattered to me.
Well yeah! The piyutim we sing were generally written by people well-versed in their Torah lore, and there are many deeper meanings, like you’d find in any good poetry. 
I can’t help but wonder if the fact that she got a decent answer had to do with the fact that it was a male teacher (with a better general sense of how Jewish culture connects) and not a female teacher (with a deep knowledge of her area of expertise, but not much outside of it). 
The Time a Teacher Took My Cultural Question Seriously

Criticism: A Lesson in What Not to Do

I have some criticism for the way many principals do criticism. It’s like being a principal turns you into  the evil overlord from a YA Fantasy book. Thing is, even Voldemort can’t impress his values via force. Being vociferous certainly transmits your values. But does it make your audience receptive? 

Here’s my test for all teachers and principals administering criticism to their students: Is there anyone else in the universe you would treat this way? 

This story from Esti Wieder: 

I went to a seriously Yeshivish elementary school in Brooklyn. The principal of the school had two go-to methods for education:  intimidation and humiliation.

Our school had very strict Tznius rules. Our uniform shirts had Tznius buttons that must be closed at all times. I didn’t like closing mine, partially because it was uncomfortable and partially because I was told I had better keep it closed or else.

One day I was walking in the hallway and the principal came over to me, grabbed me by the collar in a choke-hold, and hissed at me, “Close your Tznius button!”

Yeah, you can bet it was never closed after that.

Same principal yanked a “bra strap” headband off of a girls head and threw it right in the trash because we weren’t allowed to wear headbands with ponytails. Because, you know, Torah.

As someone wise once said: Who is respected? He (or she) who respects all the creations. 

Criticism: A Lesson in What Not to Do

The Time My Shopping Habits Were Critiqued

This one is actually out of a chassidish school (Bais Someone Else), not a Bais Yaakov. But it’s kinda awesome so I’m posting it anyway. 

I didn’t understand why I was being called to the principal. I’m a good student and follow the rules.

The principal asked me to sit down, and then delicately broached the topic. “Someone” had seen me on 13th Avenue on Sunday. I had been going into a lingerie shop.

So far so good.

But I went in with a friend.

“Shopping for undergarments is not a group activity,” my principal explained. “Tznius means privacy. Some things in life are necessary — undergarments certainly being one of them! — but they are still private. Not something that one does with friends for fun!”



The Time My Shopping Habits Were Critiqued

The One Shavuos Lesson That Really Stuck

Shavuos doesn’t have a whole lot of halacha or even minhag. And Megillas Rus has a whole lot of stuff that teachers would probably rather not go into in depth. So I guess it’s not surprising that we wind up with this… 

For most of my life, I attended Modern Orthodox schools. But I did spend a good chunk of time in a Charedi school where I was a complete fish out of water. However, the following tale is one I think all girls learned at some point in their schooling.

I was sitting with my good friend last Shabbat, an actual Bais Yaakov girl. We were sharing stories and suddenly I realized something. I have a weird “tznius police” character on my shoulder every time a woman bends down. I shall elaborate.

Every girl learns that Ruth is the most tznius woman in all of Tanach. We have this idea drilled into our heads over and over again. Why? Because when Ruth bent down in the field, she bent with her knees softly to the ground. Not at the waist leaving her bottom up in the air. Apparently, all the other women of the field were bending “bottoms up” which is why Ruth stood out.

Every time we had a tznius talk in school, camp, or anywhere else where tznius talks happen – someone mentions that tznius girls “Bend It Like Ruth”. Well I have come to realize that I carry around this weird terror and judgement. Every time I need to bend over I find myself being extremely careful to bend correctly. I’m also afraid that if I by mistake happen to bend the wrong way something ominous and terrible will occur to me. Every single time I see someone else bend over (Jewish or not) I am judging their form. Oh the horror should someone dare to bend “bottoms up” in public near me!

Ladies, last Friday night I realized that I too am brainwashed. Remember – always “Bend It Like Ruth” or you’ll never get a good shidduch.


It’s funny, because I totally identify with this. I don’t know what it is about Shavuos or Megillas Rus, but the one thing that really stuck with me over the years was the bending over lesson. Even stretching after a run I get incredibly self-conscious. I know my skirt is long enough but… the derriere in the air!

And yeah, this also colors my perception of other women. Watching my neighbor garden, I think “she’s bending over — that’s not tznius.” (Even though squatting in a garden is the #1 way to squash your flowers.) Watching the woman pick up litter around the neighborhood I think “Oh gosh she keeps bending over.” No woman bending at the waist is safe from my Tznius Patrol mental critique. 

Of course, if you aren’t trying to stretch your hamstrings (something every religious Jew needs to do; we sit too much) or protect your flowers, squatting is very much the more ergonomic way to go. So thank you Ruth for that, I suppose. 

The One Shavuos Lesson That Really Stuck

The Time My Teacher Noticed I Was Bored

I was bored in class a lot, so I can identify with this story. The teachers, in their earnest desire to get their point across, were repetitive and dull. I developed a strategy of only paying attention to every third sentence, which was all you needed to get the entirety of their message. I had a hard time unlearning this habit in college. 

For the other two sentences, I was busy with other enterprises. In 6th grade, I doodled a catalog of horses and stable items, which somehow went viral. My classmates would borrow it for class, make out detailed order forms for ponies, saddles, and bridles, and pass it back with hand-drawn paper money. I was rich, but it was all paper. 

In 7th grade I banded together with a few friends to start an underground newsletter, where we cataloged the fascinating goings-on in our classroom in journalistic style, including political cartoons. A teacher once confiscated a copy and threatened to send it to the principal with us. This necessitated carefully slipping some particularly incriminating cartoon sheets out of the stack before dutifully carrying it all down to the office. 

In 8th grade we created superhero alter-egos for ourselves and drew an extensive cartoon strip where we battled the forces of evil in the education system — mean teachers and corrupt principals, all led by the evil Ed, wielding his weapon of choice: a Board. 

In 9th grade we moved on to “buzz stories.” Everyone got to write one or two sentences to advance a story, and then it was passed on to the next person. The stories were long, rambly, contradictory, and utterly tedious if you weren’t in the writing group. 

In 10th grade we discovered epistolary novels, and decided to write one, passing our letters back and forth in class. But we could never agree on or conclude a plot, so they all died. 

And so on. Basically, my point is, a large number of students were able to spare plenty of brain power during class and still make straight As on their report cards. 

And how did teachers react? Mostly with dirty looks, outright demands that we stop, confiscations, threats, penalties, lectures about derech eretz… pretty much anything but address the actual issue: boredom. 

That’s what’s nice about this story from Kaylie. That a teacher acknowledged that it might be her responsibility to provide stimulation and prevent distraction. It could have been better — like if she actually did something about it. But still. 

My teachers often taught to the middle-lower half of the class. As a result, I was frequently bored in class. I didn’t exactly hide my boredom from the teachers.

In ninth grade, my principal taught us navi. She was an interesting teacher, but had a habit of repeating things over and over. I had a hard time paying attention in her class.

One day, she told me she wanted to speak to me after class. She was my principal, so I was a little nervous about what she’d tell me. I was pleasantly surprised at what she said.

She told me she had noticed that I was often bored in class. She said she was going to try to think of a solution, perhaps to give me additional work during class.

Nothing ever came of it, but I appreciated the fact that she noticed and cared enough to try to do something about it.

Story submitted by Kaylie. 

The Time My Teacher Noticed I Was Bored

Why I Was Oblivious on September 11th

For my generation, September 11th is our JFK assassination. Sometime, someone will ask, “Where were you when you heard the Twin Towers came down?”

My answer never fails to fascinate, because it’s so convoluted. Technically, I heard the rumor in school. But it wasn’t verified by a reliable authoritative source until I got home at 5:30pm that night.

Yep, you heard that right.

Here’s what happened.

It was 9 in the morning and we had just finished davening. We were finding our places in our Chumash when the principal walked in. With some solemnity – but not that much – she said there had been a crash in Manhattan (a helicopter into the Empire State Building?) and we were all going to say a kapittal Tehillim for the injured.

This was only a month after some kid flew his plane into a building in Florida, apparently because he was on Accutane, so I didn’t think much of it.

Class proceeded as usual.

Between classes, however, rumors started accumulating. The secretaries were not at the office window because they were glued to an ancient radio in the office – presumably something kept in the back of the filing cabinet for emergencies. They were somber, but not officially supposed to talk. Still, if you were friendly with them (I was not) you heard some rumors.

And the rumors were weird.

We said another perek of Tehillim before the next class, and together at lunchtime. It was never completely clear what we were saying Tehillim for, though. The crash was obviously bigger than initially described, and someone said Hatzolah was on the scene so we were saying Tehillim for them, although it was unclear why they would need it, or maybe it was all the Jews who worked downtown who might be in the Empire State Building (or the Twin Towers. It might actually be the Twin Towers. Or both. Or something.)

The most prolific information came from the students with illicit cell phones, or who called their parents on the payphone at lunch or during gym class. The Twin Towers had been hit by a plane, the White House had been hit by a plane, the Empire State Building had been hit (by a plane not a helicopter) – it was utterly ludicrous, so of course I didn’t believe it. “And Manhattan Island is sinking,” I joked. We played machanayim in gym and then went back to the classroom for Global History, where we learned about the French Revolution.

I walked home after school and burst through the door with my usual, “Hi Ma! What’s for supper?!”

“Lasagna is in the oven,” my mother said, looking at me strangely. “How was school?”

“Boring. When will it be ready?”

“Did you hear what happened today?”

“Oh I heard a lot of things, most of it crazy.”

And that was when I found out that, actually, three jets had been flown into three American landmarks, and another had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, there were an estimated 10,000 dead, and it was thought to be terrorism.

Most people think this is completely nuts. My friends who were in school in the Midwest were sent home early. It was a day to huddle with your family in front of the TV wondering if the world was going to end. And we, across the bridge in Brooklyn, were learning Navi as usual? Nobody from the school had made an official announcement? How is that not crazy?

To be fair, I understand my principal’s thought process completely. If the world was going to end, where was a better place to be: at home watching TV or getting in some last zechusim learning Torah?

And if you were going to be learning Torah, why be distracted by distressing rumors of current events? We would learn much better without this information. Besides, everything was unconfirmed and speculative. We were better off shielded from such things.

And honestly, I kind of agree. Although it would have been nice to get a proper, official, news update at some point, so we weren’t actually the last people in the entire world to find out what happened.

Why I Was Oblivious on September 11th

The Time My Teacher Claimed Prophesy

Okay, this wasn’t actually a claim of prophesy. But God gave us the Torah, the prophets, the oral law, and a bunch other stuff, and there’s one crazy omission from basically most of it: particulars of modesty. (Minor exception: some discussion of what constitutes “ervah” in the Gemara. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t include a lot of stuff that would be considered inappropriate today. Including — relevant detail — ankles.)

One thing I can assure you of: until the wondrous tome known as Oz V’Hadar was published for the shtetl of Manchester, and went viral, the concept of one’s skirt being “too long to be tznius” didn’t exist. 

This from Tamar, about the time her principal knew for sure that God disapproves of exposed ankles. 

I was chastised by my Hebrew teacher once because my nails were too long. I’ve been warned that wearing long, to the floor, denim skirts was not tznius because it was fashionable with the goyim.
This story does not come out of a Bais Yaakov high school, but it was from [REDACTED], the “college” closely associated with Bais Yaakov (essentially my school was the feeder school for that college) that featured many of the same teachers/administrators/perspectives.
I was attending a summer course during high school. Dress code specified covering up your legs, but I didn’t want to wear tights/long socks so I wore a long denim skirt, to the floor, and paired it with Chinese slippers (if you don’t remember those, they were cheap plastic slip-ons that provided a bit of coverage for your toes). Hey, nothing was showing.
I like to sit with my legs under me on my chair, so at one point the skirt shifted and you could see my bare ankle *gasp*.
The [female] principal saw me and called me into her office to chastise me.
I said “You know what, you’re right. I violated the dress code and I’m sorry, I should have covered my legs properly.”
She said “No! You should care about covering yourself because Hashem wants it, not because of the dress code!”
The Time My Teacher Claimed Prophesy