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I’m enjoying this piece by Efrat Bruk, reflecting on her Bais Yaakov education and her journey to modern orthodoxy.
Here’s another story from Kaylie.
Somehow the topic of people who are otd came up in my twelfth grade chumash class.
My chumash teacher, slightly teary eyed, said, “girls, you know, sometimes you’d prefer someone would be dead than otd.”
We were furious. We all yelled at her.
“How could you say that?”
“You would wish someone dead?”
“You wouldn’t prefer that they were alive?”
I don’t think she had expected much opposition.
She replied, “sometimes someone is doing something so bad, that you think it would be better if they were dead.”
We were having none of it.
During the next period, we brought it up with a teacher we really liked. We were still angry about it.
She told us that the chumash teacher was obviously thinking about someone she knew. And that it was obviously not someone who was “just otd.” They were likely doing some terrible things.
It wasn’t a great explanation, but it did calm us down a bit.
To be fair, the tune was almost certainly written by a Jew.
I went to a school where “goyish music” was one of their #1 enemies.
One year the Chanukah chagigah girls couldn’t get the extra curricular head to approve any music for their chagigah song. Anything with a hint of a decent beat was discarded. “It sounds like it could be on the radio!” Mrs. R kept exclaiming.
Finally, in desperation, they brought forward a sweet, aidel melody which instantly got approved.
The day of the chagigah arrived. And the chagigah heads performed their song.
The theme of the chagigah: Winter Wonderland.
I knew the tune sounded familiar, and looked around. Some other girls were trying to place the melody too. As the song concluded, to rousing applause, they smiled sweetly and bowed.
And that’s when I placed the melody – It was a Christmas carol. I shepped so much nachas that day.
About a miscommunication in Kaylie’s high school class.
Every year, my high school’s eleventh grade chumash teacher would teach about the mitzvah of challah. For weeks leading up to that lesson, she tells each class that she’ll bring in a beautiful challah collage.
Finally, our class got up to the challah lesson. Our teacher handed out the collages. We all looked at each other, slightly confused. The challah collage was not a collage of pictures of beautiful challos; it was a collage of mefarshim discussing the mitzvah of challah.
She noticed our confused looks and asked us why. She seemed genuinely shocked that we would assume she’d bring in pictures of challah.
Later, we found out this happens every year.
Here’s another story from Elana. Don’t ask me any questions about it. I have no answers.
Right before my senior year started, my principal called me and asked me if I could come down to the school for a meeting.
I was very apprehensive. Picked my most aidel looking outfit, and trekked to school.
Mrs. B made small talk, then told me “I did something so amazing for you, you are not going to believe it. You’re going to fall off your chair when you see how much I care about you!”
Uh oh. This did not bode well. As I’d told Mrs. B 2 years earlier when she said she only meant well after destroying the friendship that meant most to me, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“No, not your hell,” I’d hastily fibbed when I saw her eyes widen in shock at my audacity. “My personal hell. Your actions, however well meaning, made my life a living hell.”
I had a feeling history was about to repeat itself. Sure enough, she said she’d spent all summer discussing me with my teachers. Apparently, they felt threatened by my questions, which because they couldn’t answer them, made students doubt their authority, which lowered the quality of their lessons.
“And so,” Mrs. B beamed up at me. “Because I care so much about you and want you to have an amazing year with no complaints from teachers, I’m going to have you a sign a contract to protect you.” “In order for you to be able to come back to school, you need to sign a contract stating that you won’t ask any questions this year.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “What?!” And then I blew up. I was so mad. “You know”, I said acidly. “I’m not sure what to think now. Because the most logical thing for me to think right now is that there are no answers to my questions, which means the Torah isn’t true.” “Because if there were answers, why would teachers be afraid that I was asking questions? Why would you tell me to be silent and stop asking questions, instead of telling the teachers to prepare better and actually know their material?”
I wish I had a picture of her expression. Frozen horror.
“Now I know that the Torah is true,” I hastily added before she could call me a kofer and kick me out. “But that’s only from my own research. If I didn’t know better, I would walk out of here thinking that the Torah is a lie and there are no answers, thanks to you.”
Mrs. B looked terrified, and horrified, at the thought of her having possibly caused me to go off the derech. “Of course there’s answers!” she said. “There’s answers to everything! Here, why don’t you ask me your questions?”
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s a question that has bothered me since I was in seventh grade, and I never got a good answer. How are we different than the Nazis?” “They killed millions of men, women and children just because they were Jewish. We killed millions of men, women and children just because they were Amaleki. Both claimed they thought it was the right thing to do. How are we different than Nazis who murdered babies and children who never did anything wrong, just because they were born into the wrong race?”
Mrs. B looked at me and laughed. “The answer to that is very simple! The difference is that Hashem told us to kill Amalek. We had Hashem on our side, so of course it was the right thing to do! The Nazis just listened to Hitler, yemach shemo, a man who was a rasha!”
I seriously just stared at her in stunned disbelief for a minute. She smiled triumphantly, basking in the glow of clarity and enlightenment. “Do you have any more questions?”
“Uh, no,” I said faintly, deciding to call it a day.
“Okay. Now that you see there are answers, here’s the contract you need to sign…”
Welcome back to part 4 of Ayala’s story. This is the one where you go “Wait, what would I have done at 14?” I’m honestly not sure. But I think it’s fair to say that one thing Bais Yaakov and all it’s tznius rules does NOT teach anyone is that women own their own bodies.
What I didn’t expect to see was four block’s worth of “rebellious” teenagers gawking at me, standing in a semi-organized formation so they could watch the drama. No wonder Bina had fled. These looks were not looks of admiration for my fighting prowess or astonishment that someone would dare to fight their principal’s son; these were hostile looks. It was time to leave, before they collected themselves and tore me to shreds.
Fortunately, this formation made it easier to pick Suri out. “Suri, we’re leaving!” I barked at her. I marched down the makeshift aisle, plucked Suri out of the crowd, and escorted her to Dunkin Donuts. I figured that it was the safest place nearby.
“Wow,” Suri told me, as we waited for my egg and cheese bagel. “You sure know how to kill your chances out there.” Her tone was deliberately neutral, but I sensed her disapproval.
“Now no one will ever want to be your friend or talk to you.”
“Stein was that popular?” I wrinkled my nose. “Are you serious? He seems low-energy, a real downer.”
“It’s not Stein. It’s that you overreacted.”
“No I didn’t!” I cried. “I just didn’t want him to touch me!”
Suri sucked in her breath. “Same thing.”
My anger flared up again. “You’re mad at me because I ruined your chances of being “friends” with guys who don’t even like us, who just want to grope us publicly or have their stupid arms on our shoulders, as conquests or “girlfriends”? Is this really what you want?” I glowered at her.
Suri started to cry. “You’re right. We don’t need them. We need guys like Rafi. Oh my God I miss Rafi…” I patted her shoulder, passing her some crumbly brown napkins. “Here I was going to throw him away for one of those jerks and all I even saw him do was like some photos of this girl.” She blew her nose. “I’ll call him after I walk you home.”
“Oh god. We’re going to have to go down Hangout Avenue, past all of them!” I glanced sharply outside, heart racing. “I don’t’ know how much strength I have left. I was talking big out there, but… what if he really does get me expelled?”
“Eh, you’re a genius. You’ll figure it out, take the GED or something,” Suri flagged down the server to order me another sandwich. “You always figure it out.”
“My parents would flip if I got kicked out of high school. No school is going to take a street-fighting public school girl, even if she pays full tuition.” I started twirling my hair.
“Why did you fight Stein?” Suri asked again, but curiously this this time.
As I looked at Suri, it crystalized. “I would be honored to get kicked out of Bais Yaakov under the banner of feminism.”
“What are you talking about?” Suri was not a person who read for fun.
“Feminism is the idea that female humans are people who eventually turn into adults, own their own bodies, and have the same voting, legal, and financial rights as any man. I would definitely be down to be a martyr over defending my right to control what happens to my own body. It’s expulsion, not being burned at the stake.”
“Feminism is about not shaving or wearing makeup and about acting like a man.” Suri retorted. “So really, why did you do it?”
I sighed. “Because I just did.”
To her credit, her loyalty was much more robust than her intellect, and she walked me the entire mile home. She also stuck by me through the gossip in the following months, and changed her tune from disapproval to exaggerating the volume of tears that had poured down Stein’s face.
When I was 20, I told this story to some women my age that were loosely affiliated with the rebel group from back then about what had happened. They toasted me three times because they had also had similar unpleasant interactions with Stein and finished two bottles of wine in the process.
I have no idea if Stein ever told my principal that I said “Hi,” but I never heard anything and I finished up high school in that same Bais Yaakov.
This is part 3 of a new series by Ayala. For part 1, in which she is first introduced to the loveable Stein, click. For part 2, in which things heat up a little bit, click.
“We have to wait for dark,” Suri glanced outside. We were in an ice cream store on Avenue Hangout. School had ended for the year two days ago. I watched her eyes watching the sunset, admiring how effortlessly perfect her eye makeup was. “If we’re out there before dark, everyone will think we’re pathetic.”
I nodded, fiddling with my spoon, stirring my ice cream into soft ice cream. “Is this really the best way to deal with Rafi? You really can’t just talk about it?” Suri was in one of her numerous vicious fights with her boyfriend. She wanted to cheat on him. I was there to stop her from doing anything she might regret.
“Whatever,” Suri peered at her cup as if it was a fascinating piece of art. “If he wants to be with some skinny girl, I can also upgrade.” The light outside faded from white to gray. I doubted that any of the guys emerging after dark would be upgrades compared to Rafi.
I tried another tactic. “I don’t know anybody. Maybe tonight we can just start small, talk to just a few people.” The rebel crowd wasn’t really my scene; I was a social floater. Even after an entire year in Bais Yaakov, I was still the weirdo who had come in from public school. I hadn’t exactly found my place yet. I was considered part of three groups of girls, but I didn’t exactly fit with any of them. Suri was my main connection to anything that was going to be happening tonight.
“Ayala, don’t worry so much. I know everybody! You’re my friend; that will be good enough for them!” She glanced outside again and flung her cup into the trash. “Ok, it’s dark enough. Let’s go!”
We went onto a side street so Suri could check her hair in a car window. “You saw how there were two guys hanging out there? We’re waiting here until there are about 10 guys. I will see who I know and we will take it from there.”
About 15 minutes later, Suri decided that there were just enough guys out that we would not look desperate, but there were few enough that we would not be too outnumbered. “Ooh, Kohn is back from Israel! We should talk to him about your phone issues!”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” I plastered a lukewarm smile on. Anything to stall us from any cheating. Kohn was being mobbed by all of his friends who, like Suri, hadn’t seen him since Israel. We waited in the clump of people. I shifted my weight, feeling awkward.
To my relief, a car drove by, and I knew one of the guys in the car. While I didn’t know him well, he wasn’t horrible. Talking to him would be better than hanging around like a blob. Suri was already having five different conversations with people. Walking three short blocks to where they were parking wouldn’t be a big deal.
It was really crowded on the sidewalk now. I was stuck in another cluster of people on my way to the car, when I felt two hands clutching my butt. It wasn’t a grab-and-run kind of grab either, but the kind where the other person holds on and is savoring the feel of it.
I whirled around, trying unsuccessfully to shake the groper’s hands off, and came face to face with Stein! “You asshole!” I roared.
Stein just grinned his trademark grin at me. “How appropriate.”
I saw red. Stein knew that he could do whatever he wanted because all he’d have to do was mention that he knew me to my principal and I’d be out of a school with nowhere to go. He was blackmailing me. The situation was so clearly tipped in his favor: he was a guy, the son of a principal, versus me, a weirdo girl who no school would want if she got expelled. The situation was bleak for girls who got expelled. The injustice of the situation was intolerable!
Well, I wasn’t going to take it! This was worth getting expelled over! My heart pounded. I took a deep breath and took a step towards Stein, clenching my fists. His smirk wavered. Then I charged, my deceptively skinny twig legs in their Converse high tops slapping the pavement. Stein’s ever-present smirk vanished. He started to run for his life.
At that point in my life, I ran three miles a day for exercise. Stein clearly didn’t. I caught up to him on the corner as he gasped for air. “I’m going to kill you!” I growled.
Just then, a guy stepped out of the shadows. Stein and I froze. Neither of us knew him. The guy stepped over to Stein, grabbed him by the shirt collar, and nodded placidly at me.
I didn’t hesitate a moment. As my skirt was too tight and short for kicking Stein in the balls, I settled for kicking him in the shins, right on the tibia bone, until he cried. “By the way, tell Principal Stein that I say “HI!” I spat at him. Stein sobbed and averted his face. The strange guy just held him in place, oddly at ease.
“You psycho!” A dark shape hurtled at my left shoulder. It was Bina. “You beat up my boyfriend!”
Fortunately, Bina was shorter and stouter than me, and in worse shape. Jumping me knocked the wind out of her. I quickly spun around, shaking her off so that we were face to face, grabbing her arms so that she couldn’t punch me and wouldn’t be able to stabilize herself enough to kick me. “Your boyfriend is a psycho who grabs people’s asses because he thinks they will just take it because he’s the principal’s kid!” I bellowed. “Who is the psycho here?”
Bina’s face blanched. She tore herself free and ran away as fast as her little legs could carry her. As I watched her go, I genuinely felt sorry for her, but I had more immediate concerns. “Would you mind holding this cretin for about five more minutes? I really appreciate everything you’ve done, and I just have to find my friend before I go. I don’t want this to escalate.” The stranger nodded.
Safe in the knowledge that this stranger would hold Stein, I finally turned my back on him to scan the crowd for Suri.
This is part 2 of a new series by Ayala. For part 1, in which she is first introduced to the loveable Stein, click.
On my usual Shabbos excursion to visit friends who were not in my school, I decided to take a shortcut through a playground and save myself an entire half a block. The park was packed. I had to actively focus on picking my way through the hordes of children.
“Hey!” It was Stein, who was sitting on a bench with some girl who was around my age. I groaned. I had clearly chosen the wrong thing to focus on. Breaking my neck tripping over a toddler would have been preferable to talking to Stein.
“Who are you?” The girl glowered up at me. Her dislike surprised me, as I had never met her before in my life.
“I’m Ayala. I met Stein at a bus stop last week. Who are you?”
“I’m Bina,” she paused dramatically, giving me a significant look. I looked at her, bewildered. “His girlfriend!” she said aggressively, putting her arm around his waist.
I burst out laughing. The idea that someone could love a person like Stein, and find him physically attractive, was just too absurd. Bina bristled visibly.
“Relax babe,” Stein droned. His hand flopped to her back. He spat listlessly, and then rested his head on the back of the bench. He looked pale.
As much as I hated Stein, he did not seem well. “Are you ok?” I asked, heartily wishing that he would get stuffed into an ambulance and go to some hospital, preferably one on the moon.
“He’s trying not to smoke on Shabbos!” Bina informed me haughtily.
I raised my eyebrows. Stein’s cell phone was sticking out of his pocket. “Well at least he isn’t dying. Have a fun Shabbos with your boyfriend!” As I scurried off, I felt Bina’s eyes burning holes in my back.
Here’s another tale from Ayala. Her previous series described what it’s like to be a non-rebellious outsider in Bais Yaakov. Coming from a public school elementary school, Ayala never really felt at home in her bais yaakov high school. In this story, I suspect that’s also the reason she had the guts and awareness to do the only right thing. I mean the right thing in part 3, but part 1 isn’t bad either.
The sun beat down. I was waiting for a bus and feeling very ugly. My parents were stalling on getting me contact lenses, I was wearing my Bais Yaakov uniform, my hair was frizzing, I wasn’t wearing makeup, and I was sweating a bit. I was thankful that only a little old lady at the bus stop was seeing me in this decrepit state.
A scrawny boy with a pizza face peered at me from a store window across the street. Even underneath his acne, his face was ugly. His gaze made me feel like squirming uncomfortably, but I restrained myself as a matter of pride. He crossed the street and walked up to the bus stop, peering closely at my uniform. “Hi. You go to That School?”
I disliked him immediately. “No, I go to another school and I wear this to fool people,” I snarled.
He smirked. “What do you think of Stein?” Rabbi Stein was one of the principals.
“I don’t think anything of him. I avoid authority figures whenever possible. After all, they don’t understand that girls at bus stops might not want to be talking to the boys that bother them there.” The last thing I needed was to be hauled in to explain this situation.
His smirk broadened. He took out a cigarette and lit it. “I’m Stein’s son.”
My jaw dropped. I had heard that Stein had an asshole son, but I had assumed that it was like all other Bais Yaakov rumors — often overblown and, usually, at least partially untrue.
The old lady at the bus stop chose that moment to cut in. “Do you mind moving over?” she said in a scratchy Russian accent. “ I have a lung condition.”
Stein’s smirk did not waver. He didn’t budge. My dislike turned to blinding rage. I took a step towards him and jutted my face into his so that our noses almost touched. “Move!” I bellowed. Somehow, his smirk grew even bigger, but he took a few steps away so that the smoke didn’t blow in the old lady’s face.