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.

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The Time We Got Handed Bnos Melachim Newsletters

Diamonds in the Safe

Why do benos Yisroel need to be so tznius? The mashal is often given to a precious diamond, which is kept hidden away in a safe, not exposed where anyone can see or steal it.

In the opening anecdote of Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt’s latest article, a NYC taxi driver points out a problem with this comparison:

We usually don’t take a car,” the yeshiva boy says to the driver, an older Irish man with a hearty laugh and a dapper straw hat. “But the lady was inappropriately attired (he winks at his date), in her heels I mean, so we had to — “

The yeshiva boy’s date cuts him off and leans forward to the driver, deciding to turn her frustrations into a joke: “Sir, he doesn’t really care about the heels. It’s my actual choice of attire that he finds inappropriate. My skirts are too short, it makes him nervous, he won’t even call me by my name, you know how religious boys are…”

The driver turns the corner. “That’s the problem with religion, it’s sexist,” he says, looking at her in his mirror. “I know because my parents were religious Catholics. It’s all a bunch of sexist garbage.”

The boy and girl laugh nervously over the profanity, and the girl says slowly, “Well, I don’t think religion itself is sexist, it’s just that chauvinists still exist…” She casts the boy a look.

The boy turns back to the driver: “But don’t you agree, sir, that if you have the most precious diamond in the world, you keep it wrapped up? You don’t take it to the streets to show the entire world?”

The girl gasps silently — she is taken backwards in time, back to the apologetics they taught in 7th grade, again and again, bas melech, kol kvoda pnima, a princess’s honor is all inside, a divine jewel to be kept hidden…

But before she can respond, the driver presses the brakes. He turns around and faces the yeshiva boy, and says slowly, his voice shaking with rage: “Listen to me, boy. This is not an object you’re talking about. This is a living, breathing human being.”

What he is saying is: when you treat someone like a diamond, you are treating them like property, not a person. This is inherently objectifying.

The author goes on to point out some social implications of such diamond-like treatment, the more extreme of them being the elimination of women and girls from frum publications. (This, arguably, leaves the realm of mere objectification and enters the more insidious realm of sexualization. But let’s keep this family-friendly.)

Anyway, it’s an interesting article from a bais yaakov grad and one of the best chareidi writers I know of. Hop over and read it.

Diamonds in the Safe

Bas Melech Musing

I decided to find out what a bas melech actually looks like these days. 

I started with the wonderful website: What Kate Wore.  Then I searched the internet for Princess Mary of Denmark, Martha Louise of Norway, and Princess Haya of the United Arab Emirates.

That’s just to start. The world is still full of real, live, princesses.

Oddly enough, none of them quite match the bais yaakov dress code.

I’d love to start dressing like Kate and explain my new tznius code to my principal.

PS: Marissa Mayer seems like a pretty darn good role model too.

Bas Melech Musing

The Time I Did Research the Only Way I Knew How and It Was Wrong

This is another guest post by Esther, who still does research at the library, but also uses the sinternet. 

The annual school Shabbos in May, when all four grades spend the weekend on the grounds of a summer camp in the Catskills, is one of the main events of the school year. It’s a major deal, with preparations happening weeks in advance.

Miss Greenberg held the Shabbos in highest priority. Girls could be pulled out of class at any moment; teachers learned to turn a blind eye when a student sidled into class twenty minutes late and mumbled “I was – Miss Greenberg…sorry…”

It was mostly the seniors who got to miss class right and left. Every senior had a job for the Shabbos. But some lucky juniors were chosen for the eight-student newspaper committee, and I was one of them.

Let me explain what this newspaper is about.

Each year, the school Shabbos has a different theme. My freshman year was about valuing Torah, so all the performances on motzaei Shabbos were about how a woman could support her husband and sons in learning. I was in the freshie songdance that year as a PhD graduate who comes to the realization that “Can’t you see, Torah’s the key, to all knowledge and discovery.”

The motzaei Shabbos performances are the highlight of the Shabbos. As soon as the rabbi makes havdala, everyone galvanizes and sets up the stage, gets into costume, does “one last runthrough.” The performances start about an hour after Shabbos is over and go until 3am or so, at which point everyone relocates to sit in concentric circles on the lobby floor for a kumzitz with singing led by one of the rebetzins, until the last bus pulls out to go back to the city at 7am.

The other components of the Shabbos include Friday afternoon Chidon, a quiz game; Shabbos meals with speakers and singing; Friday night and Shabbos afternoon workshops; a post-shalosh seudos dance to fill the twilight hour as we waited for the men to finish davening and make havdala; and the newspaper.

This newspaper is written before the Shabbos and doesn’t report on the events. It’s a collection of inspirational material. Stories of mesiras nefesh, lessons and testimonials relevant to that year’s theme, quotes and pesukim and ma’amarei chazal…

That year’s Shabbos theme was tznius. At the first meeting of the newspaper committee, Miss Greenberg explained her vision to us editors.

The posuk of the Shabbos was :”kol kvudah bas melech penimah,” the honor of a princess is on the inside. Which means that Jewish girls, daughters of the king, don’t emphasize their outside appearances but instead strive for inner perfection and proper comportment. Or alternately and additionally that a princess stays behind the palace walls and has no need for the outside world to validate her honor.

Miss Greenberg wanted to play on that princess idea and design the newspaper as a manual for how to behave in the palace. Like a handbook for guests telling them what behavior is proper and what isn’t. She asked us, for our next meeting, to find out what a manual like that might look like so we could begin gathering appropriate material.

On my way home after school that day, I stopped off at the Brooklyn Public Library. I mean, I stopped there every day after school, so this was nothing new. But this time I went over to the reference desk and asked about manuals for palace behavior.

The reference librarian looked at me like I was crazy. Luckily, the head librarian, who incidentally is an Orthodox wig-wearing woman named Sara who I’ve always viewed with much awe, came over just then and overheard. I re-explained what I was looking for, and she told me she didn’t know of anything like that.

A couple days later, at the second newspaper committee meeting, when the idea of a palace manners manual came up again, I reported what Sara had told me.

“Ah,” said Miss Greenberg in her trademark soft almost-whisper. “How did you find that out?”

“I asked the head librarian at the library.”

“The library?”

“Um, yeah, the Brooklyn Public-”

Her head started shaking side to side, slowly, with such sadness. “A Bais Yaakov girl doesn’t go to the library…”

That was the end of that, as far as I remember. I didn’t say anything else in that meeting and I didn’t go to any more meetings. The newspaper that year was gorgeous, but it looked nothing like a palace manual.

This memory cost me some dignity last semester, when I snorted quite audibly in class as the professor mentioned medieval conduct manuals and the quite modern manual she had to read when she was invited to the Queen’s box on one occasion.

The Time I Did Research the Only Way I Knew How and It Was Wrong

How My MO Friend’s Skirt Made the Principal Cry and Got Us All Out of Parsha Class

I went to Sternberg first half, back when it was six weeks and considered by many a pit of impurity. It probably was. After all, that’s where I learned the facts of life: something I would not have otherwise have learned from an educated source. (My educated source  being an  girl a with sex ed class under her belt.)

Perhaps worse, I walked out of Sternberg with an MO friend.

Then again, she walked out with a whole bunch of bais Yaakov friends. If anything, she flipped out by association with us, and not the reverse. She joined us in accepting all the important practices of bais Yaakov women, like long sleeves and tznius buttons. We exchanged copious emails tracking our progress, bemoaning the fact that we still, somehow, hated duty-length skirts, even though our teachers promised we’d get used to it after a month and never want to go back. We wanted to go back so badly, but we wanted to be good even more badly.

However, since she didn’t attend a bais Yaakov, some of the finer points of tznius were lost on my Friend. As was illustrated when I brought her to school one day.

I spent the evening before on the phone with her, reviewing all the guidelines for her Friday attire.

1 – No denim. Denim is the cloth of the working man. Benos Yisroel are not men. Benos melochim do not work. Denim is not appropriate attire for aidel maidels.

2 – No zipper fly. Flies are placed in a location that is wildly inappropriate on a woman. All it does is alert men to the available access points. NOT TZNIUS.

3 – No cargo pockets or similar accoutrements. Twofold problem here: firstly that cargo pockets were “in” and trendy is never tznius. (Fashion is decided by men in Paris whose sole goal in dressing women is to expose them in new and exciting ways. In contrast, tznius is decided by men in Manchester, whose sole goal in dressing women is to hide them from new and exciting male imaginings.)  Second problem: see item 1 on functional work clothes.

4 – Skirt must reach four inches below the knee. This is so that when seated, the skirt still covers the knees and nobody can see up your skirt.

5 – Skirt must not be longer than two inches above the ankles. Long, sweeping skirts are untznius because they draw attention to oneself, they’re sloppy, and they’re fashionable (at least among the gothic crowd, and a bas melech is not gothic).

My Friend promised to heed all these rules, although she clearly thought I was overreacting. She was visiting for one day. What did my principal care what she wore?

I almost died when I saw what she brought to wear. It was a jersey t-shirt fabric with a drawstring and cargo pockets. And it went down to her ankles.

“You can’t…” I didn’t know where to start. It was obvious to me that benos melachim didn’t wear jersey skirts for anything but lounging around at home. Drawstrings hearkened to exercising, which has all sorts of immodest associations in the imagination of strangers. Worst of all, it was too long!

“I’ll roll it up,” she shrugged. “What’s the big deal?” Rolling the waistband hid the drawstrings, so I calmed my palpitating heart and took her to school.

“Maybe we can avoid seeing the Rebbetzin,” I comforted myself. My classroom was literally across the hall from her office, but she was a busy woman and we didn’t have many breaks in our day. It could be managed.

“You’re crazy,” my Friend laughed.

We did not avoid the Rebbetzin. At one point, we walked out of the classroom for a bathroom break and there she was.

I saw her eyes drop to my friend’s sneakers (yes, she wore sneakers *face palm*) and begin the slow climb of the Bais Yaakov teacher elevator eyes. I saw her take in the hemline (the skirt had slipped down), the cargo pockets, the jersey fabric, the drawstrings…

I cringed.

The Rebbetzin forced a smile, welcomed my Friend. Asked her a few questions. Let us go.

Phew…

“See? That wasn’t so bad,” my Friend gloated. “You were all nervous for nothing.”

We were halfway through Parsha class when the announcement came over the PA. We were all required to attend an emergency assembly in the lunch room.

We exchanged puzzled glances. Had something happened? Were we being gathered to say Tehillim?

No, we were being gathered for something more important: a tznius reminder.

The Rebbetzin was a big believer in the power tears. Public tears. Mainly: her tears in our public. After all, how could we sit there stony-hearted listening to a full-grown woman sob about the state of our souls (or wardrobes) and not be affected?

It’s like Jewish mother guilt, but for an entire school.

And we were affected. We sat there, heads lowered, and listened to how important tznius was –- how it was the highest calling of an unmarried Jewish woman, the most important mitzvah of our gender. We listened to how important it was to present ourselves as benos melochim in our dress and our behavior. We listened to how important it is to hem our skirts two inches above our ankles to avoid looking sloppy or goyish. And we absorbed the visceral pain the Rebbetzin felt on seeing girls who didn’t value  tznius cheapen themselves with the clothes they wore.

“Does this happen a lot?” my Friend leaned over and whispered.

I shook my head. Maybe two or three times a year.

“It’s because of me, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I told you so,” I whispered back.

“Wow,” she said. “She really cares about the length of your skirts.”

We filed out of the assembly soberly, weighed down by guilt over denim and with a new resolve to keep our hemlines restricted.

On the bright side, we missed most of Parsha and a good deal of Biology.

How My MO Friend’s Skirt Made the Principal Cry and Got Us All Out of Parsha Class