When Bais Yaakov Prudishness Sabotaged My Seminary Interview

It doesn’t get more ironic than this, I think:


The literal translation is “the man knew Chava his wife.” But my teacher had translated it simply as “Adam married Chava.” The following phrase is “and she got pregnant and gave birth to Cain.” I hadn’t questioned the translation my teacher gave us, because it all seemed to make sense – after all, the order of things is marriage and then babies, right?

Rabbi Neustadt clicked his tongue impatiently. “I didn’t ask you to give me the meforshim on the posuk, just tell me the translation of this posuk.”

I just did, I thought. But how do I say that to a rabbi, especially one who’s interviewing me and deciding on whether I belong in his seminary?


When Bais Yaakov Prudishness Sabotaged My Seminary Interview

Outside on the Inside: Part 2 – The Rebel Clique

Continuing Ayala’s narrative, which starts in part 1 over here. 

Considering that Suri and I were two previously unconnected weirdoes, the administration was shocked as our friendship lasted beyond the first week of school. We quickly fell in with a group of malcontents from the ninth grade, with a few 11th graders mixed in, who were definitely rebels by any standard. But Suri and I always remained a pair.

We had a lot in common. For one thing, I had been in a coed school before this, and Suri had had a few boyfriends.  I found the other ninth graders’ naivete about boys to be immature, but Suri knew about as much as I did about boy brains. We both were also trying to find some kind of solution to our family problems, while everyone else seemed to be content with constant screaming matches with their parents. In a word, we were more mature and worldly than the other girls.

The only other girl who liked reading was very wary of new people and never trusted anyone all the way. I could talk to her, but there was never the warmth that I felt with Suri. Suri was all heart, a force of nature, able to spin multiple boys, and always able to find the right clothes at the right prices.

But then… the concept of taking the SAT and going to college was foreign to her. School was literally one big nap for her — I would often peek in her classroom window when I “went to the bathroom” and see her out cold — where she recharged for her nights.

Instead of doing homework, she was always babysitting, hanging out and flirting, or chilling at a random person’s house. Sometimes she’d go into Manhattan to meet up with friends.

All of this was completely exotic to me. Sure I was “rebellious” in that I didn’t cave to the pressure to become an aidel maidel, but at heart I was a nerd who loved books and music. I worried about my grades, and so I studied.  My parents were also much more alert than her parents were, so I had a harder time sneaking out to hang out.  I didn’t have people to babysit for.

I was also starting to understand that the boys I had known from my coed school, mostly nice and awkward boys who would treat girls nicely, were nothing like these guys my new “cool” rebellious friends knew. These new guys had problems and did not treat my friends nicely. I wanted a boyfriend who was like me, but I couldn’t find one in my new set of friends, and my optimism was flagging.

Despite all of this, I was definitely Suri’s new best friend. She would laugh and hang with anyone, but I was the one she told her true thoughts to because she knew I could keep my mouth shut.

“What should I tell him?” she would ask, dangling some poorly spelled text message from some loser in front of my face. “Does this shirt hide my stomach? My mom called me fat again.”

Sometimes we would talk about more serious matters. “My father confiscated my phone and I am so scared that some guy is going to call. I want to be able to be open with them, but they would never love me like this.”

Sometimes she would freak out about how people in the rebel clique wouldn’t invite us to all of their “chills” and parties. “They aren’t our true friends.  They just want to be my friend because I know guys. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Our little group was prone to frequent infighting and power struggles. One girl flirted with another’s boyfriend. One girl stole another’s cigarettes. One girl told another about her makeout session, and then a few people found out. Trust issues were always at the forefront of every fight, and everyone except Suri felt that I was not trustworthy because I didn’t party enough, so they couldn’t accumulate enough dirt on me to counter all of the dirt I had on them. Additionally, I was from a different elementary school, so I was unknown.

They also found my ideas about attacking the status quo to be weird. I was advocating classroom diversions that involved asking tough questions to teachers, to make our classmates think about the disconnect between their desires and what they were being told to do. I was pressing the group to actually explore the non-yeshivish world beyond the inside of some greasy pizza place.

As time wore on, I began to speak out more vocally against the guys they hung out with. I was arguing that if we allowed these guys to be such assholes to us, we were just going to be rewarding them for bad behavior. I argued that we should focus on ourselves first and try to find nice guys somewhere else, but that we first had to stop all of this fighting amongst ourselves or we would have no one to turn to if a guy hurt us.  This branded me as a narc, a sellout, a closet frummy who disapproved of their hanging out with guys.

As this drama reached its peak, Suri also sharply diverged from the group by getting a real boyfriend. When I had first met her, her average relationship lasted about 6 weeks, but that midwinter vacation she met “a great guy.” I had rolled my eyes, since they had all been great guys, but when it hit 6 weeks and they didn’t break up, I started to pay attention. This new boyfriend was a college freshman who was not involved in all of this high school bullshit.

Without ever discussing it, the group decided to kick us out, but we had already left.  This solidified our existence as a unit. The administration watched as we would have hushed conversations that always stopped when they got close, but yet they could never find us with the other bad kids on Avenue J and M or smell pot on us.

Part 3 will be available at this link when it goes up next week. 

Outside on the Inside: Part 2 – The Rebel Clique

Outside on the Inside: Part 1 – The Silver Lining

Ayala reflects on her high school experience as a decided outsider — but not quite a rebel in the mainstream sense. (Is there such a thing as a mainstream rebel? Anyway…) 

It was a scorching bright August day that had me lazing around in bed and wearing sunglasses indoors.  I was 14. High school started in five days. I hadn’t picked Bais Yaakov, but I was going, reluctantly, with no intention of coming out the other end a cookie-cutter Bais Yaakov maidel. The house phone rang (because it was 2008), and the caller ID showed a strange name and number. I picked up.

“Can I speak to Ayala?”

“Who are you?” I asked. “I am Ayala.”

“My name is Suri. I’m in 11th grade. I’m your school big sister.”

This was news to me. “We get big sisters?”


I digested this news. If everyone got a big sister, then everyone probably vied for their relatives and friends, and getting a stranger like me was getting one of the undesirables. Suri must not have any relatives or 9th grade friends.

I sighed. “Can I be honest with you? I’m really not that excited to go to this school. I don’t think I’m going to fit here. Don’t take it personally if I don’t seem super-happy at orientation, and please don’t try to change my mind, ok? Let’s just find my locker and textbooks and skip the pep talks.”

There was silence on the other end. I figured that I had scared this annoying peppy person away. Only, now I was starting to get scared that she would tell other people about my outburst. I wiped my palms on my sheets, regretting my poor impulse control.

Wahooo!” Suri cheered. I started, falling off the bed. “I also hate it here. I was afraid you would be an annoying normal person!”

“Oh my God.” My heartbeat returned to its normal rate.  “I feel so relieved!”

“Me too! I felt like how was I really supposed to bond with you if I couldn’t tell you anything about myself?”

The next hour passed by pleasantly as we discovered that we both spoke to boys and felt extremely constricted by our parents and neighbors, but that we both avoided smoking and drugs, so we existed in this weird middle zone between “good girl” and “rebel”. We both liked to look pretty and have adventures, and felt that our peers were too cautious and had no sense of fun.

Sadly, she didn’t know who the Ramones or Weird Al were, and she didn’t like reading much, but no one is perfect. I had an ally. It was no longer just going to be me standing out among everyone at school. Suri might even have friends who were also different!

I leapt out of bed, galvanized, slathered on sunscreen, and sprinted off to the library to stock up on my usual assortment of trashy novels, young adult novels, and non-fiction.

To be continued at this link, when it goes up in a few days. 

Outside on the Inside: Part 1 – The Silver Lining

Jane Austen and You

I’ve noticed that Bais Yaakov students are powerfully attracted to Jane Austen novels, and I’ve always suspected it’s because of the resemblance our lives have to Regency lower-aristocracy; the standards are high, the means are low, the desperation mounting.

Am I right? Why do you like Austen? How does or doesn’t it resemble your life?

What other books should be in the Bais Yaakov genre?

Jane Austen and You

The Time My Mother Called the Rabbi Listed on the School Letterhead

Here’s a funny one from Rose about the need to have the right names listed to garner community approval. 

In sixth grade we had this awful English teacher that we didn’t like. She had us read a book called Wringer by Jerry Spinelli, which was about wringing pigeons’ necks. I read the first chapter and complained to my mother about it. The people in it were pretty awful to each other (as well as the pigeons.)  My mom read the book in one night and said “You are not reading this book for school.”

She decided not to fight this with the low ranks, and went straight to the top. So she called the (big, local) rabbi whose name was on the school letterhead. She read him passages and said that he was on the Halachic board, what did he think?

He said “What school?” She named it. “I’ve never heard of this school. Are you sure I’m on the letterhead?”

She confirmed it was true.

“What’s the number? I’ll say that in this day and age you can’t make a girl read a book that her mother doesn’t approve of.”

The principal was kind of upset. She said they had read passages to a rabbi and he said it was okay. Obviously, that was a different rabbi. Not the (very prestigious) one listed as their Halachic Board.

I got to read a different book “Among the Hidden.” The principal graded it because the teacher refused to have anything to do with my book report.  The principal noted on my report that it was a great book – one of her favorite – and a great book report.

My friend also wanted to read “Among the Hidden” and wanted to have a second book discussion with me. She didn’t succeed. Because her mother didn’t call the rabbi. The teacher made a speech about how you can just move past the icky parts and get over it. So she did.

The Time My Mother Called the Rabbi Listed on the School Letterhead

The Time We Got Handed Bnos Melachim Newsletters

This story is also from Rose. Her conclusion: “Then, two years later the principal got ousted and the school went downhill quickly, and now they’re embroiled in a legal battle and scandal.” 

My principal in elementary school was really good – there’s been some positive stories about her on this blog already. She had a requirement that any paper handed out by any teacher had to be signed by her. Any homework or anything. I remember sitting in her office once because I was in trouble and she had a huge stack of papers to go through for the entire school.

She was very involved.

Once we got handed out a Bnos Melachim newsletter. It had tznius standards that were… not in line with the school’s. Things like your skirts need to be four inches below the waist and four inches of fabric out from the waist (so it isn’t snug), opaque tights and the like.

There were also three stories for inspiration. One was about a girl who threw out her skirts so she could buy new ones, and paid with a post-dated check because she had no money and had none coming in (which I think is technically stealing?)  and for some reason the check didn’t bounce; Hashem magically made the money appear in her account.

One of the other stories was about a woman who wanted to take a class to help her special-needs child. But the class was going to be mixed. She didn’t know what to do — how could she compromise her ideals, but how could she not do everything to help her child? I forget how it worked out, but in the end she didn’t need to compromise.

Many parents read the tznius standards and called the school to complain. They wore nude tights. They didn’t want to have to deal with the inevitable grilling from their 8th graders.

The principal gathered our classes together and came in and apologized that we got handed this newsletter, explaining that the standards expressed therein didn’t match those of the school.

But she added that the story about the special-needs kid’s mother did make her tear up, and she pointed out that disagreeing with something doesn’t mean you have to throw out any value it has.

She also offered to take back any newsletters that anyone wanted to get out of their possession.

The Time We Got Handed Bnos Melachim Newsletters

The Time We Tried to Celebrate Yom Haatzmaut

This story illustrates one reason I think Modern Orthodox Judaism and Yeshivish Judaism are two very different strains of the same religion. The other being the approach to history and tradition. This story is from Rose. 

It was sixth grade. We got to school a little early and the teacher wasn’t there yet. We decided since it was Yom Haatzmaut that we’d make Israeli flags to wear on our backs. So we went to the office for colored paper and they asked us who our teacher was. So we named our teacher, Mrs. Isaanman.

When Mrs. Isaanman got in, she was angry, because in the office they asked her what project she was doing that required all that blue and white construction paper. She told us that Yom Haatzmaut was not a holiday that we celebrate.

Then she asked us to start davening.

I asked if we were going to say hallel. Steam coming out of her, nose she said ABSOLUTELY NOT.

She also made us take off our flags.

Our second morning teacher came and we asked if we could wear our flags.

She said she doesn’t really understand the entire story but some say that the reason mashiach hasn’t come yet is because there’s a state of Israel, so she’d rather we didn’t wear the flags in her class.

Since she didn’t issue a strong, blanket ban, some of us left them on.

That’s the only time the words Yom Haatzmaut were ever mentioned in my Bais Yaakov elementary school career.

The Time We Tried to Celebrate Yom Haatzmaut