I used to love The Importance of Being Ernest, because it seemed like a farce about shidduchim; it was super-important to be something you weren’t because that is what was ostensibly desired.
But the truth is, being a Bais Yaakov maidel is more like being stuck in a Jane Austen novel: perpetually trying to “fit in” in order to maintain or gain social status. Worrying about what the neighbors will think. And losing sleep over your eligibility.
They start you young, and it doesn’t rub everyone the right way. Here’s some reminiscing from Leeba Weisberg.
About halfway through 9th grade at Bais Yaakov of Barely-Out-of-Town, I noticed the older students acting strangely one afternoon. The 12th graders were usually the calm and collected ones — the mature students we lowly 9th graders were meant to look up to. But today they were chattering nervously, biting nails, slamming locker doors shut harder than usual. They were a uniformed wave of unsuccessfully repressed anxiety. Of course voices lowered to whispers as teachers passed. But I knew something was definitely up.
So I did what I always did when I sensed I was out of the loop. (Which was often.) I asked my friend Dina who had eleven siblings — most of whom had gone to our school once upon a time. She had an honorary doctorate in everything Bais Yaakov as far as I was concerned.
Dina grabbed my hand, pulled me into an empty classroom, hastily shut the door and said “You don’t know?!”
“No, I have no idea,” I responded, feeling even more clueless than before.
“The 12th graders are getting their seminaries acceptance letters tonight. Most of the best seminaries send them at the same time on purpose.”
“So what? Aren’t there lots of seminaries? If you don’t get into one you can always get into another one, right?”
Dina looked aghast. “But there are only a few top seminaries. And it matters a lot for shidduchim. Getting into the right seminary shows everyone what kind of girl you are and what kind of boy you want to marry. It affects your whole future.”
The thought had never occurred to me before. Did I even want to go to seminary? What kind of seminary? I was fourteen and still relieved that I had gotten into high school. I felt a little sick — like I had been punched in the gut.
For the last several years before high school, all the teachers ever seemed to talk about was getting into high school. Sure some of it was along the lines of “You better master that and study hard because you’ll need it for high school”. But far more was like “How can you let your socks slouch like that, Ruchy?!! You’ll never get into Bais Yaakov looking like that!” or “If you don’t start behaving yourself I’ll tell Bais Yaakov not to accept you!”. It was all “do this” and “don’t do that” in the name of getting into high school.
I had cleared that hurdle. I (mostly) kept out of trouble. I wore the long socks. I managed to seem moderately ‘aidel’. I studied well enough to pass the entrance exam and my yeshivish Hebrew was passable. When I was told at my interview that I was invited to attend, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was done. I was free. My life didn’t revolve around ‘getting into Bais Yaakov’ anymore.
And now, only a few months into my school year a new hurdle was set in front of me: Getting into seminary. Would it ever end? Getting into high school, then getting into seminary, then getting a good shidduch, then getting my children into the right kindergarten, getting them into the right yeshiva and on and on and on forever? Would I have to worry about fitting the mold until I was dead? Would I be closing the curtains to watch a movie at age 75 out of fear my grandchildren won’t get a good shidduch? Was this any way to live? Was it the way I wanted to live?
“Are you okay, Leeba?”
Dina was tapping me on the shoulder.
“Oh, I’m fine” I lied.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah….it’s just that I don’t know if I want to go to seminary. I might want to go straight to college or just start working or something.”
“Um…..” Dina looked a bit uncomfortable, like I had just said I thought four suns revolved around the earth.“Okay….just don’t tell anyone, okay?”
And we never spoke of it again.