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?

https://estherbernstein.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/december-2005/

When Bais Yaakov Prudishness Sabotaged My Seminary Interview

Pride & Prejudice & Seminary

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.

Pride & Prejudice & Seminary

The Time the Teacher Refused to Use My Name

I get it. I have an exotic name, and people have loved giving me trouble over it. “That’s not a name. It must be [insert similar but not the same name here].” Because I don’t know my own name, obviously. So I feel the pain of the people with these stories:

This first one is a seminary stereotype. Except in happened in Brooklyn. Granted, the teacher was probably just back from seminary, and teaching second grade — possibly as an assistant teacher.

I had a teacher who insisted that I spell my name with a kuf and a hyphen because “Elisheva” contains shem Hashem in Hebrew.

And this one:

OMG the same thing! My first name is Gabby and my second is Chava but I went by Gabby. My teacher decided my name wasn’t yeshivish enough. So the next day she came in and announced to the class that I’d be called Gabby Chava. The reason she gave to the class is that a bas Yisroel should have such a goyish name like Gabriella.

And this one, which is weird because this name is very clearly in Bireishis:

In seminary, one of my teachers decided my first name was too modern sounding (“Eden is such an unusual name. i don’t understand, why did your parents give u such a name?”)
Hence she would only call me by my second name. (Sarah).

 

The Time the Teacher Refused to Use My Name

The Time My Teacher Threw a Bentcher in the Garbage

This story submitted by Elana

My seminary teacher was a… fanatic. She once told us that girls dressing up on Purim was like eating pork on Yom Kippur.

One of her admirers… went to her house a lot to help her with all her many kids.

One day our teacher made this student a sandwich before she went back to seminary. After she finished eating, the student took out a bencher from her handbag and started to bentch. The bentcher happened to be from YU and had the YU logo on it.

The teacher looked at the bentcher, grabbed it, and threw it into the trash.

The student looked at her in shock.

“YU is treif!” the teacher exclaimed. “Their memorabilia belongs in the garbage!”

“But mommy,” her daughter protested, “It’s sheimos. How can you throw it in the garbage?”

“I promise you, anything that says the word ‘Torah U’Madah’ on the cover isn’t sheimos. Ask Totty when he comes home, you’ll see that he agrees with me.”

The Time My Teacher Threw a Bentcher in the Garbage

The Time My Principal Told Me To Disobey My Parents

My principal thought we should all go to seminary, and that meant doing all she could to beg and bully seminaries to take her students. Legend has it that, shortly after giving birth, she called a seminary menahel and said, “Mazal tov! I had a boy! Can you give me a baby gift and take Shira for next year?” 
This story  is from Shevach, a student who also had a passionate principal, but one who took things to the wrong extreme. 
I went to very frum bais yaakov type school in Boro Park, Brooklyn in the 90s. I was a pretty good student.
When we were in 12th grade, the principal went around asking the girls what’s our next year plan, which seminaries are we going to. This was before it became the norm for every girl to go. When it came my turn, I simple told her that I’ll be going into the family business, working in the office during the day and taking some relevant classes at night.
My principal was not happy. She launched a personal crusade to convince me that I should go to seminary in Israel. No matter how many times I mentioned that my parents don’t have the money and my parents need my help in the business or that my mother was simply against sending her daughter for the year overseas before getting married, nothing got her off my back.
So I told her to call my parents.
After a lengthy phone call to them, where my father explained to her how we don’t have the money for it, we barely had enough to make ends meet and pay all the bills, she still didn’t back off! The next day she called me into the office and started giving me a whole lecture on how sometimes parents truly don’t know what’s in their child’s best interests and how sometimes kids have to know that you don’t need to listen to all your parents tell you, just like in the Torah it says that if your parents tell you to be mechalel shabbos you should not listen to them, she feels that this situation is the same, that even though my parents were against sending me to Israel for whatever reasons (financing was one and the main….) this time I should not listen to them, and should go against their wishes  go to Israel for a year.
She got a visit from my father the next day. He completely lost it on her. The whole school heard the yelling that he did in the office that day. How dare she tell me not to listen to parents! How dare she compare a year in Israel to being mechalel shabbos!
I never heard a word about seminary again.
The Time My Principal Told Me To Disobey My Parents

The Time I Found Out We Had a College Counselor

I didn’t think I should have to pay for college.

I also didn’t think my parents should have to pay for my college.

So I decided I was going to go on scholarships.

Winning general scholarships is well-nigh impossible. I mean those scholarships that are open to anyone in the world as long as they can write a 500-word essay on why they deserve the money.

Let’s face it: you’re a white, Jewish, upper-middle class, private-school kid and you’re competing with kids who are clawing their way out of the projects, escaping abusive homes, or overcoming severe disabilities. Or maybe even kids who had to run ten miles across the Serengeti to school every day, being chased by soldiers with machetes.

You have nothing to compete with. It’s hopeless.

The way to win scholarships is to compete with a smaller pool than the whole entire world. For example, with students applying to your college only. Or with students studying your major. (Or both.) Or, in the case in question, with students in your high school.

The New York State Lottery gives a 3-year scholarship to a single graduating senior from every school in the state every year. I found this out in 12th grade from my mother’s friend, I think. I definitely didn’t hear about it in school. That’s actually the point of this story.

In order to complete the application, you had to get it signed by your college adviser. I was in Bais Yaakov. I had no college adviser. So I went to the office and asked who could sign my application. The secretary informed me that Mrs. Sharpe took care of these things for the seniors. So I went to Mrs. Sharpe and had her sign my application.

A couple of days later the Head of Chesed walked across the classroom to talk to me.

“I heard you were also applying to the Lottery Scholarship,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s $1,000 for three years. It’ll help pay for seminary and college.”

“Mrs. Sharpe told me about that scholarship.”

“Yeah?”

I was puzzled. But over the course of the conversation what she meant became clear: Mrs. Sharpe hadn’t told her about the scholarship. Mrs. Sharpe had intended to give her the scholarship. By informing the Chesed Head that the scholarship existed, and not a single other student in the senior class, Mrs. Sharpe had created a zero-competition field for her selected student.

“Well, it’s about community service,” the Chesed Head pointed out. Indeed, the scholarship was called “Leaders of Tomorrow” and the essay was about how you were going to make the world a better place.

If anyone was well-positioned to write about how they improved the universe, it was someone who had coordinated community service for an entire school of 250 students. It was not the slacker student who had passed off helping of her Israeli neighbors with their homework (for pay) as chesed. (That was me. Well, the school-provided options of visiting old ladies and so on were really not my speed. The school didn’t have any chesed options for introverts.)

The gauntlet had been thrown down. May the best student win. Obviously, the Chesed Head thought she was still the shoo-in. But I was determined. Also, I was affronted. How dare Mrs. Sharpe decide who should get the scholarship? Weren’t we all going to seminary? Plus, the three-year scholarship would be wasted on someone who wasn’t even going to college after.

did win the scholarship, in the end. Based on my work with the Israeli neighbors, I wrote a great essay about the struggles immigrants face coming to America in pursuit of a better life. I noted the language and culture barrier, not to mention the generational gap, that turned harmonious existence frustrating. Everything, from disputing a gas bill to redirecting children from bad company was a difficulty to be surmounted.  I wrote — lying through my teeth, but hey, it’s a scholarship essay — that I hoped my college degree would enable me to work with the immigrant population to ease their transition. (To be fair, I’ve donated to literacy centers using money I earned because I have a degree. That counts, right?)

The scholarship was great — it helped cover part of my higher education. But even better was giving the finger to Mrs. Sharpe and her pet scholarship recipient.

(This was over a decade ago. I doubt Mrs. Sharpe would be able to get away with this kind of thing in the modern age of internet.)

The Time I Found Out We Had a College Counselor

The Time We Didn’t Know How To Talk to a Friend’s Fiance

My friend likes to remind me of this one whenever she feels like making fun of “how frum you were.”

For the record, I’m not ashamed. Until I was 20, I had barely spoken to a man who wasn’t related to me. I had been taught that making eye contact or appearing too interested in what a guy was saying was flirting. Our teachers warned us about the plague of young couples sharing Shabbos meals, because his wife talks to her husband, and they’re all talking and laughing together, and next thing you know everyone is jealous of everyone else’s spouse and marriages are in shambles.

Bad things happen when you talk to men you aren’t married or related to.

So when my modox friend Shana got engaged to her high-school boyfriend in seminary and decided to introduce him to her Bais Yaakov friends in the Central Bus Station on motzai Shabbos…

I mean, is there any clause in the previous sentences that isn’t treif? High-school boyfriend. Introduce to female friends. Central Bus Station. On motzai Shabbos no less. This was a terrible idea!

Seriously, I have Bais Yaakov friends whose husbands I could barely recognize on the street. Why would I need to know them? Why would you introduce them to other women?

Besides, we were equivocal about our feelings regarding this match. Obviously, no relationship involving a high-school boyfriend could last. We had it drilled into us that teenagers were incapable of making clear-headed decisions regarding members of the opposite gender, so anyone you crushed on in high school was, by definition, a Bad Idea. It made much more sense to wait until you were older and could pick a guy based on a paper shidduch resume and a few hours spent sipping drinks in a hotel lounge.

But, being good friends (and also feeling guilty about missing the vort) we showed up to that pit of tuma’ah, the Central Bus Station on motzai Shabbos.

In some ways it delivered on its reputation and in some it didn’t.

Sure, there were girls I recognized, wearing jeans under their skirts, hanging out with boys. But they were the girls from summer camp you expected to own a pair of jeans and a boyfriend. And honestly, they weren’t doing anything but eating pizza together. As scenes of horror go, it was fairly innocuous.

Besides, there  was as well, eating pizza with a guy. Granted, it was three of us and one of him, and he was appropriately engaged to Shana, but…

It was profoundly uncomfortable. Was I supposed to look at him when he spoke? Respond to him when I had something to say? Wouldn’t that be flirtatious? And then he might notice there were other women in the world and jealousy and relationship shambles would follow. That was a fact.

So we focused our attention on Shana instead, chatting with her about engagement and wedding plans, and her poor fiance got the cold shoulder. Sometimes, to be inclusive, we’d give him a sidelong glance. Eventually, he stood up and walked away, leaving us to it.

I felt relieved.

Shana felt embarrassed.

She and her husband still laugh at me for it.

(For the record, my husband and I hosted them for Shabbos recently. No spouse-swapping or other improprieties ensued. Another side point: All Shana’s sisters also married their high-school boyfriends and have remained married for, on average, a decade so far. So much for that theory.)

The Time We Didn’t Know How To Talk to a Friend’s Fiance