Things My Teachers Said

I remember one time in 5th grade we were sitting around talking and one of my classmates announced — with too much drama — that her sister sometimes goes into the bathroom while chewing gum.

Our teacher gasped in horror. “She really shouldn’t be doing that!” she admonished. I remember being struck even then by how extreme her reaction was. It was like my classmate had announced that she picked pockets or something.


Then there was 6th grade. I was getting into the adolescent stage and I had a lot of acne to show for it. A lot. I was also very aware of all my acne and more than a little self-conscious about it.

One day, during math class, my teacher looked at me and joked, “You look like you have chicken pox.”

You can imagine my reaction. I wasn’t exactly amused, and the rest of my face turned red. I was visibly hurt.

After class, she called me over. “I noticed you were upset by what I said,” she said. And that was it. No apology. No admission that maybe she shouldn’t have said it. This upset me even more, and what stays with me until this day.

Things My Teachers Said

Things My Teacher Told Me: Why Women Can’t Be Witnesses

This one came from Tamar from the west coast:

Our Chumash teacher was also the wife of our principal. She was explaining to us that women can’t be witnesses, and explained it like this:

“If there was a car accident at the intersection outside of our school, and the police came to ask for witnesses, and they asked the students, the students would get emotional and say “Omg I don’t know!!! There was this car, and then there was this other car, and there was this terrible crash and there was glass and omg omg!! It was horrible! The poor people! OMG!”


“But [principal] would calmly say ‘there was a car coming down Beverly, probably going over the speed limit, maybe 50 miles per hour, and there was a red light and it went through the red light and hit another car, it was a Honda, and it was driving pretty slowly, which then flipped over, and the first car started spinning…[you get the idea].’ And that, maidelach, is why girls can’t be witnesses.”


I have forgotten 90% of what that chumash teacher taught. This, I will never forget.


So, I did a little bit of googling. Eyewitness accuracy is generally notorious, but is there research on gender differences?
There is.
Most of it is summarized in this wikipedia article on eyewitness gender difference studies, although you can find a good deal of it on PubMed with some persistence. To summarize for you: there is nothing conclusive, but people seem to recall things they are familiar with better than things they aren’t. Also, people recall better when they aren’t freaked out.


Oh, and why aren’t women witnesses in Judaism?  There is a wonderful source sheet on women and witnessing here (Thanks Aqibha!) and you will have some trouble finding something about women not being trusted. 


Reason 1 is grammar: that the Torah specifies two men as witnesses. (Why grammar doesn’t absolve women from all commandments is another question.) 


Reason 2 is to avoid compelling women to appear in court. 


Someone, I’m sure, says that women are unreliable, but I have not yet found the source for that. Pity then, that women seem to  be the happiest to parrot this idea. 


Things My Teacher Told Me: Why Women Can’t Be Witnesses

The Mezumenes

It’s time for another installment of bais Yaakov Halacha.  This one is inspired by a story from a now modern orthodox, formerly bais Yaakov friend:

‘Story from my bais Yaakov high school: I suggest to two friends of mine to do a zimmun.

They said no.

I said it was in the Shulchan Aruch.

They told me: “We don’t just automatically do what’s written in the Shulchan Aruch; things change over time.”

I regrettably did not record them conceding the gradual evolution of Halacha for use in future arguments.’

Immediately, another modern orthodox friend retorted, “Shulchan Aruch?! It’s also in the Mishna Berura and everything in between!” You could hear, from the angst in her voice, that modox girls trying to get bais Yaakov girls to participate in a zimun is a common frustration.

It’s not that us bais Yaakov maidels don’t know we can form a mezumenes. It’s that we don’t think we’re supposed to, and moreover, we don’t think that we should.

From a very young age, we are socially only exposed to men leading a zimun.

“Well yes,” you may argue. “But how often does a group of just women sit down to eat bread together?”

Funny thing. Every single day of elementary school, our entire school picked up a shared lunch in the cafeteria, ate together with our class at long tables, after which three students would lead us all in bentching.

Nobody ever suggested that the seventh or eighth graders lead us in a mezumenes. Even our principal, who got a huge iconoclastic kick out of shocking us with little-known halachos and Torah tidbits, never thought of it.

So, zimun is a Man Thing. And every chareidi girl knows she is not to presume to Man Things. If you do that, next thing you know you’re participating in a women’s tefillah group or women’s megillah leining, and it’s a slippery slope until you’re walking around in a tallis and tefillin like some crazy Woman of Wall.

Also, it’s a status-driven ritual. Not only does the honor go to men, but it goes to a Kohen, or the most distinguished guest at the table. Chareidi women never take public honors. Which bais Yaakov girl is going to have the chutzpah to honor herself with leading the zimun?

Also, the text is obviously written for a group of men. Every woman who has ever led a zimun had struggled with the awkwardness of the very first line.

Finally, even when zimun for women is encouraged, it’s simultaneously discouraged.

Our Halacha teacher informed us all that the Mishna Berura says we should form a zimun if we have three women eating together. Then he  informed us that if there was even a single man present at the meal we should not. It would be presumptuous and inappropriate for a group of girls to form a zimun in the presence of a man.

(This opinion, I should note, puts him in direct opposition to R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, R’ Elyashiv, R’ Dovid Cohen, and R’ Dovid Feinstein, who are all quoted in this OU piece  by Rabbi Zivotofsky  as saying that not only should the women form a zimmun, but the man is obligated to answer*. This, is yet another lost opportunity for girls to see women form a mezumenes – at a Shabbos table where there are three women and fewer men. To be fair, there are others, such as R’ Moshe Shternbuch, who come down in the anti-zimun-in-the-presence-of-men camp.)

Our Halacha teacher then went on to decry the fact that girls don’t form a mezumenes these days, not realizing that he was part of the problem, not the solution.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. So much of Halacha has evolved based the minhagim people actually do, with apologies to what they should be doing. (Refer to quote above about Halacha evolving over time.)

So, it’s okay for modern orthodox women to follow the Mishna Berura, because they’re barely frum anyway. But Bais Yaakov girls know better.




The Mezumenes

The Time Our Halacha Teacher Dissed Persian Practice

Let’s talk about diversity.

You probably think, “What diversity?” Bais Yaakov is full of white, middle class American Jewish girls. Yes, there are varying incomes, and varying shades of hair, but on the whole, a more homogenous school cohort you surely couldn’t find.

So, when you find a little diversity, it’s something worth respecting.

I’m remembering Halacha class, 11th grade. Hilchos Tefillah.

“You must say Nishmas standing up,” the teacher said (I don’t think he actually had smicha, so I won’t say “rabbi”).

The Ashkenazim jotted this down in their notes.

The Sephardim stirred uncomfortable.

For some reason, the teacher felt very passionate about standing for Nishmas. He went on a bit about why Nishmas deserved this special honor, and what a terrible Jew you are if you dare to sit. I remember thinking that it was all a bit excessive. I mean, fine, we’ll stand! Big deal. Can we move on to Borchu?

Then one of the Persian students raised her hand. “We sit for Nishmas,” she pointed out.

The teacher stopped and gaped. “Well, yes,” he admitted. “Some Sephardim do sit for Nishmas. But you really shouldn’t. You should really stand for Nishmas.”

“Standing is the Ashkenazi minhag,” the girl pursued. “And sitting is the Persian minhag. So Persians should sit.”

“Well, yes…” the teacher said. “That’s what Sephardim do. So you can follow the minhag of your shul. But it’s really better not to.”

“Why is it better not to follow the minhagim of your community?” the student asked, with a cool politeness. You could see the resentment of the overlooked minority in her dark glare. She had to listen to Nusach Ashkenaz at davening, learn Ashkenazi halacha, read Chumash with an Ashkenazi accent, but she was not going to stand for Nishmas like an Ashkenazi and this teacher was going to admit that she was right.

“…you’re right, you’re right, if your minhag is to sit, you should sit,” the teacher backed off hastily. “Now, Borchu. Everyone stands for Borchu…”

It always seemed to me that, aside from sensitivity to our fellow Jews, this lack of acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Sephardi customs missed a grand opportunity: to address relativity in halacha, how different halachic streams evolve, and the fuzzy grey areas between “mitzvah,” “halacha,” and “minhag.”

Sephardi practice can be very different than Ashkenazi, sometimes extremely so. And yet, their mesorah is as good (some argue, better) than ours. How is that?

This question alone would be a fascinating subject for a class to spend a few months examining.

But first we need to be able to admit that it’s perfectly fine to sit during Nishmas – if you’re Persian.

The Time Our Halacha Teacher Dissed Persian Practice

How Seminary Influenced Me to Stop Going to Shul

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.

How Seminary Influenced Me to Stop Going to Shul