Bais Yaakov girls are benos melachim in many ways. One of those ways is that they must always be kept under a watchful eye at all times, lest any harm come to them.
Practically, requiring secret service escorts for all students is impossible. So instead, our seminary made sure we were all indoors and accounted for by 10pm every evening through the simple expedient of locking the doors.
I don’t know why this wasn’t considered a major fire hazard. All exits to the building on the ground floor were locked; the windows were already barred. The only way you were getting out of the seminary dorm was with the active assistance of a dorm counselor.
Throughout high school I was an active shul-goer. This was because I’d heard the rumor on the Halacha grapevine that you weren’t supposed to read non-Jewish literature on Shabbos.
(This is typically how girls receive their halachic information. The only time I ever saw a Halacha inside an actual Hebrew Sefer was when I asked my father to go through the footnotes in Halichos Bas Yisroel in order to confirm the rumor that, in fact, there is no halachic requirement to wear tights.)
When I heard this, I decided to stop reading non-Jewish fiction on Shabbos. But since I couldn’t palate the Jewish stuff, and I lived too far from friends to spend the day socializing, I was very bored. So I went to shul.
The Halacha grapevine also passed me the rumor that women are more chayav in Shacharis than musaf, so I decided to do it right. I showed up in shul in time to say brachos, often before they’d even gathered a minyan.
“How many we got?” someone would ask the gabbai.
“Nine here, and one in the women’s section,” he’d reply.
“Are you sure we can’t count her?”
“If you don’t mind becoming a Conservative shul, I could accommodate you.”
The jokes got old, especially for a bas Yisroel who’d been taught that her goal in life was to fly under the radar. But I told myself that being noticed for being in shul was a good type of notice: like being noticed for wearing long sleeves in the summer, or wearing a skirt to do a ropes course.
So my first Shabbos in seminary I leapt out of bed at 7am, dressed, and marched to shul.
I got as far as the front door.
I rattled it, kicked it, and then it dawned on me: if the door was locked at 10pm, it must, by the laws of inertia, remain locked until an outside force unlocked it.
I did a cursory dash around the first floor, confirming that all doors were locked and all windows barred.
I was stuck.
Short of waking a dorm counselor, which seemed cruel on the one day a week she could sleep in, I was not going to shul.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I went to the library and reviewed the Parsha. I tried flipping through some Jewish novels and gagged. By then, some other students were awake and wandering around, so I went to look for friends.
“Hey,” Atara, said, when I flopped down on her bed. “What’s up?”
“I’m bored! I wanted to go to shul this morning but the door is locked!”
“So wake up a dorm counselor; that’s what they’re there for.”
“I’m not going to wake someone up so I can go to shul. Especially someone who was probably up til midnight last night with someone crying on her shoulder because she’s homesick.”
“Well, I guess you can just hang out here then,” Atara said, unsympathetically. She picked her book back up. It was Middlemarch.
“Where’d you get that?!” I gasped. Non-Jewish books were against seminary rules. Not that I cared about seminary rules, exactly. But I had decided to try to go a year without non-Jewish literature, in the ambitious hopes that isolating myself in a bubble for a year would finally turn me into an aidel maidel.
And here we were, only a couple of weeks in, and my resolve was wobbling in the face of Middlemarch.
“Here,” Atara said, pulling Travels With Charlie out from under her bed. “Want it?”
“No!” I said. I would stay strong.
I wandered down the hall to the dorm counselors’ room. The door was shut tight. I put my ear to it. No sound except the faint “huhs” of breathing.
I sighed, went back to my bed and stared at my stuff. No inspiration presented itself. I mean, there was Derech Hashem, but who was I kidding?
Travels with Charlie, I decided, was non-fiction and wouldn’t really break either of my kabalos.
So I went back and got it.
Travels with Charlie was only the gateway drug, though. I didn’t make it through the year without reading. Atara introduced me to Sefer V’Sefel, where Americans surreptitiously get their fix of novels. Soon, I was a regular. There, I was first introduced to the sardonic writings of Terry Pratchett, and a lifelong dependency was hatched.
Eventually, my books (fiction or otherwise) proved to be far more compelling than shul ever had been, and I started reaching for my reading instead of my shoes on Shabbos morning.
Bais Yaakov teachers are fond of telling stories about how one kabalah or minor act of holiness can start a lifelong change to your life for the better.
I wonder what might have been if that door hadn’t been locked.