In seventh and eighth grade we had bas yisroel class.
I could probably end this post right here. I mean, twice a week, for 45 minutes, for two years, someone came and told us how to be a bas Yisroel. Seriously.
I jokingly referred to it as “finishing school.” We learned to be quiet and demur, well-turned out (but modest) at all times, and what life goals were acceptable to us. Basically, everything except how to curtsy and embroider a sampler.
One of the things we were taught was: what is tznius?
Tznius is a very broad concept in modern Jewish thought. It runs the gamut from covering ervah to not whistling in front of others, running to catch a bus, or wearing bright colors. (For a full treatment of tznius, please see all 450-or-so pages of Oz V’hadar Levusha.)
Sometimes, these ideas clash. For example, wearing long sleeves in an August heat wave is required by the “cover ervah” definition, but then you are contravening the “don’t attract attention” part. Bas Yisroel class is necessary to help you navigate these touchy areas.
Does it mean “don’t actualize your potential”? No – even your whistling potential can be actualized, as long as you’re alone in your room. Rather, it means not showing off your wonderful essence (your beautiful neshama, your diamond among the thorns) to every gawker in the universe.
(Keeping yourself precious is a wonderful goal that, somehow, only applies to women.)
Anyway, my point is, the sheer broadness of tznius as it is taught today makes it very hard to summarize. And, oddly, I don’t think our bas Yisroel teacher ever really tried to.
Now for the story:
I attended the elementary school of my high school, so we didn’t have to do interviews to get accepted. We were accepted by default if we applied, and then the principal made meetings with all of us to “get to know us” before we came up from eighth grade.
My friend Shevi had her meeting first. We all attacked her at recess, eager to hear what questions had been asked, so we could prepare for our own meetings. We all wanted to impress our future principal.
“I really impressed her with one of my answers,” Shevi bragged.
“Which one?!” we clamored.
“She asked, ‘What do you think tznius is?’ and I said it was not bringing the inside out. And she was all, ‘Wow, I really like that.’”
Well, soon enough it was my own meeting. And did I say I wanted to prepare? Maybe I forgot that part. Because I found myself facing the exact same question from the Rebbetzin: “What do you think tznius is?”
I went all deer in headlights. I had the perfect answer. And, if I used it, I was stabbing a friend in the back.
“It,” I hesitated, trying to think of my own version of what tznius could be. But I couldn’t. Really, Shevi’s definition was the very best one I’d heard.
“It’s not bringing the inside out,” I blurted.
I could see the Rebbetzin’s face change. She knew what was going on. I hadn’t just stabbed my friend in the back — I’d also stabbed myself in the front.
“That’s a wonderful description,” she purred. “Where did you get it from?”
“We learned it in bas Yisroel class,” I invented, hastily.
“Oh, you have a bas Yisroel class?”
“Yes, twice a week. Mrs. Olds teaches it.”
“Oh, I see. Well that’s very nice.”
And we moved on to other things. I gave all the pat answers I’d been taught in two years of finishing school. She was impressed. I made it into ninth grade.
“What did you answer for the tznius question?” Shevi asked. She wanted to hear my lame-o answer so she could bask in the pride of her win.
“Um,” I said. But again, I couldn’t think of anything to say.
So then I confessed. She was – understandably – indignant. Not only had I stolen her thunder, but I’d given the credit away to a teacher who decidedly didn’t deserve it.
But my sin became diluted in the sins of others as everyone else in our group went and did the same thing. By the end of the day, the Rebbetzin could be sure that all of us were the most attentive students in bas Yisroel class – because nobody else had an answer as good as ours.