Rhetorics of Tznius in 20th- and 21st-Century American Bais Yaakov Schools

I presented the following talk at an international conference on Bais Yaakov, Bais Yaakov in Historical and Transnational Perspective, hosted by the University of Toronto in March 2023. With some edits for a different medium, you can read my talk below.

My main area of work is Haredi children’s literature, so my approach to tznius in Bais Yaakov is through texts. My research questions center on the rhetoric of texts produced and used for and by Bais Yaakov students and faculty. My preliminary conclusion from looking at texts between 1998 and 2022 is that despite appearances to the contrary, the rhetoric around tznius in Bais Yaakov schools and communities has not changed much over the past couple of decades.

I begin, as many discussions of contemporary tznius begin, with Rabbi Falk’s 1998 publication of Oz veHadar Levusha, with the English title Modesty: An Adornment for Life. While tznius was a part of Bais Yaakov chinuch before this, Rabbi Falk’s book codified many of the customs that were not seen as halakha beforehand. After the publication of this book, which sold tremendously well and spawned numerous editions, faculty (and students) were able to cite specific measurements that Bais Yaakov girls were expected to adhere to – for example, that a skirt had to reach 4 inches below the knee. Debates among students about skirt length began with that as a foundational point now, replacing debates of the 70s and 80s concerned with whether “knee-length” meant above or below the knee. In the 2000s, it was taken for granted that a skirt had to reach 4 inches below the knee – the question was just whether that 4 inches should be counted when standing or sitting.

In his preface to the daily-study edition, Rabbi Falk explains that he is happy that his book was received well and has influenced women and girls for the better. But then he says, “sadness is indicated by the very fact that a detailed sefer had to be written on this subject. In earlier times there was no need for a sefer of this type, because the Jewish woman and girl knew instinctively what was expected of her in terms of tznius and refinement…in this generation there is a serious spiritual pollution in the air resulting from the permissiveness and the misconduct of the world at large…” A common theme in discussions of tznius is how hard it is for the modern girl or woman to resist the amorality of the world around them – a talking point that’s not limited to discussions of tznius, especially when it comes to children’s literature and education.

Lest the contemporary reader feel like she’s being attacked by this, though, Rabbi Falk goes on: “Despite what has just been stated, the present day Bas Yisroel should not feel indicted and censured by this sefer. She is probably as worthy as her counterpart of previous generations, as she had to contend with a far greater exposure to bad influences and her nisyonos in this field are much more severe than those of previous generations.” Between this statement and the previous one I quoted, Rabbi Falk adds details to the “spiritual pollution” by saying that today’s mothers are not imparting the correct ideas about tznius, whether intentionally or not, and that girls following the example set for them at home are falling into this trap of spiritual pollution. He attempts to lessen the accusation against today’s girls and women by saying that they are starting from a lower level than their historical counterparts, who didn’t have to contend with all these negative influences. This isn’t necessarily a false statement, though it is definitely an exaggeration or a collapsing of many centuries into one idea of “the past,” a common theme in Haredi historiography. This rhetoric, though, is representative of how tznius is often talked about in Bais Yaakov today: striving to be as good as previous generations, looking to the past for inspiration, etc.

The next few texts I’ll discuss come from a Bais Yaakov High School shabbos in 2005. Every May, the school heads up to the Catskills to a summer camp for a shabbos. Each year’s shabbos has a different theme, sometimes based on a concept or mitzvah, sometimes based on a possuk. There are performances on Friday afternoon and motzaei Shabbos, workshops on Friday night and Shabbos afternoon, speeches from teachers, rabbis, and students at each meal, etc.

In 2005, the theme of the shabbos was tznius. The shabbos became notorious among Bais Yaakov schools, especially in Brooklyn, because a good number of girls wound up in tears by the end of the shabbos, overcome with fear that they would burn for eternity in gehinnom. This message came mostly from a Friday night workshop led by seminary students, whose scripts included lines about how each limb would burn for every moment it was uncovered in this life. 

I start with that just to give you a sense of why this shabbos holds so much importance in the discussion of tznius in Bais Yaakov. That rhetoric came from the seminary teachers and students. But what were the high school students saying? For that, we’ll have a look at two songs that represented the shabbos theme. Both of them center on the idea of “bas melech ani,” that a Jewish girl is the daughter of the king, i.e. God, but they come at the idea from two different angles.

The first song that Bais Yaakov students encountered during this weekend getaway was the theme song presentation on Friday afternoon. You can see here the rhetoric of being attacked by the outside world, which we saw in Rabbi Falk’s preface to his book. A sense of action pervades this song: tznius is not a passive mitzvah of quietly choosing the right clothing, this song suggests, but a battle – and we’ll see echoes of this in a moment.

The second theme song was performed on motzaei shabbos. This song, clearly, is far less aggressive. “Stand armed and erect” is about fighting; this song is about staying behind the walls. There are so many things I’d love to say about each of these lines, but two things I’ll point out here: First of all, there’s the emphasis on nobility again, on being part of a royal family, which directly informs everything about how the “princess” dresses, speaks, moves, even thinks. The second stanza of the refrain, though, is really fascinating to me for some of the underlying assumptions.

The first two lines “A princess secure for I live with the fact / I follow the truth and need no more than that,” seem to acknowledge the “more” that exists beyond the palace gates as something that’s justifiably alluring. Rather than completely deriding fashion and girls who are into fashion, the song concedes that following the truth might mean giving something up. This attitude appears in a number of other student-created texts, with sympathy for the girls who are struggling.

The second two lines are interesting for their inherent contradiction, something that shows up a lot in tznius rhetoric. If, as the next verses suggest, a princess’s “presence is rarely seen outside the gates,” how can she be a “confident leader?” What exactly does confidence and leadership even mean in this context? That’s left unanswered here, though it is addressed in many other tznius-centered texts.

The textual materials distributed at the shabbos carry on the themes of both these songs. One booklet titled “On the Battlefront: Sharing Common Battles” features short snippets of challenges girls faced and how they withstood temptation and remained tzniusdig. There’s a wide variety of incidents cited in the pamphlet, including those on the screen: not wearing earrings that dangled too long; not watching a “goyishe video”; giving up a sweater that rode up and showed the back; wearing tzniusdig clothing in a community where that’s not a norm; not drawing attention by saying something witty to her uncle; and wearing a nightgown even when classmates wore pajamas. Each snippet is followed by the tagline “another battle won.” Echoing the theme song about fighting, tznius is presented as an ongoing war, each single moment a battle to be fought and won in the war. 

Other material of the shabbos included a booklet containing rules as well as discussion about the ideology behind tznius. When the “why” of tznius is brought up, the songs focused on being daughters of the king and acting with “nobility and grace.” In this booklet, two main reasons are given: in the image on the left, the text says, “Casual, improper dress exhibits a lack of self-esteem and self-respect.” Interactive materials used in workshops took this same approach, asking students to evaluate whether they hang their self-worth on outer appearance and validation or on inner strength and beauty. In the image on the right, a number of answers are contained in what the writer seems to think is a cohesive answer. The idea of covering the body in order to focus on the soul is mentioned, but the text also seems to say “it doesn’t matter if you understand it, just know that it’s important.” I particularly love the line: “Do we understand why each limb must be covered? Can we fathom why a knee or an elbow attracts the attention of men?” 

The last bit from this shabbos that I’ll talk about is a booklet of stories and poems about keeping tznius. The booklet begins with a moshol, parable, about a king’s daughter who goes out into society and seems to disappear, because when the king’s men go to look for her, they can’t find anyone behaving the way a princess should. Stories following that highlight individuals whose tznius impressed great men; young girls inspiring older women with their tznius, like a young cancer patient more concerned about her body being exposed than the threat of dying; and a number of women sacrificing things for tznius, including the Chasam Sofer’s daughter praying to lose her beauty when she couldn’t do anything to stop men from looking at her. (A version of that story is also told about a tana’s daughter who prayed to have her beauty removed and was disfigured in a fire. The story is a trope, also indicating the collapsing of time in Haredi historiography that it can be applied in multiple time periods.)

One feature in particular, pictured on the screen here, is fascinating: an unattributed interview with a senior involved in planning the shabbos. The senior’s responses are enthusiastically positive, displaying the intended effect of the shabbos: joy and pride in following the laws of tznius. The effects of the shabbos do not match the sentiments in this interview, but this is an indication of the intent behind it and the conscious rhetoric around tznius.

Which brings me to the next “text”: Penimi.

Penimi was founded in 2013 and creates curricula in a variety of areas, including a junior high and high school curriculum for tznius. The stated goals of Penimi’s tznius programs are to “build positive associations with this special mitzvah – one that protects the grace and dignity of Jewish women, despite the degradation of the world around us.” These are the same lines used in Rabbi Falk’s 1998 book and in the 2005 BYHS shabbos about dignity and the outside world. So why does Penimi claim that theirs is “a refreshingly novel approach” which “offers students a view of the topic in a way they’ve never experienced before”? I have some thoughts about this, the main one being that Penimi’s approach is a reaction to the effects of previous tznius education that they’ve seen, not to the rhetoric of these previous tznius programs. The emphasis on dignity and grace in the face of a spiritually corrupt world has been a staple of tznius education since at least 1998. And while Penimi features testaments from students about how the program does inspire this positive enthusiasm for the mitzvah, we already saw how the 2005 BYHS shabbos made those same claims, demonstrably false at the time. So I don’t read Penimi’s student testimonials as pure fact.

The last two texts I’ll discuss are very recent: a song album released in 2021, and a picture book published in 2022. 

The Best Compliment is an album of songs about tznius produced by Mrs. Rivki Friedman. The songs are sung by a young boy named Baruch Zicherman, presumably because tznius as interpreted by Haredim includes a prohibition against women singing in public. Ironically, this leads to a young boy singing lines like “I never forget that I’m a princess…”

Two songs that I’ll comment on: Track 15, titled “Yiddishe Kinder,” is a riff on the popular Yiddish song “ven yiddishe kinder zitsen und lernen,” based on “kad yasvun yisrael” – when Jews learn Torah, god says to his heavenly court “look at my children, setting aside their own concerns and immersing themselves in my delight.” Here’s how that song appears on this album:

When Yiddishe kinder dress b’tznius [modestly]
And act in a way that’s refined
What is happening in shomayim [heaven]
At that very same time?

Hashem calls together all his malachim [angels]
And he tells them:
Look at my bnos melachim [daughters of kings],
What a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of god’s name].

Even in a world with pritzus [vulgarity] outside
A bas yisroel [daughter of Israel] knows
That she carries a neshama [soul] inside
That needs tzniusdige [modest] clothes.

Track 15, “Yiddishe Kinder”

First of all, there’s the switch from the boys’ mitzvah of learning Torah to the girls’ mitzvah of tznius: a rhetorical association of the two mitzvos, echoing the idea that tznius is to women what learning Torah is to men. The song also contains the same rhetoric as we’ve seen previously: that tznius is based on Jewish girls being bnos melachim, daughters of the king; and that tznius is in opposition to the pritzus beyond the bounds of the frum community.

The other song that I want to comment on is Track 5, “T’hei Isha Tzenua.” As with many children’s song albums, the songs are often introduced with a little dialogue. For this one, we have two friends talking. One tells the other about how her sister was baking the night before and, as she rolled up each chocolate rugelah, she said “please be chocolatey, please be chocolatey.” Her friend says, “That reminds me of the story of how Hashem created Chava. Every part of her that was created, Hashem said…” The first girl interrupts and jokes, “That she should be chocolatey?” and then asks more seriously “That she should be cute? smart? talented?” Her friend responds, “No! Hashem said t’hei isha tzenua – she should be a tzenua.” Adding on to the already-established rhetoric about princesses and shutting out the world, this song also suggests that other characteristics – like being cute, smart, or talented – are worthless unless there’s also tznius, that the main (and perhaps only) trait a frum girl should be concerned with is tznius.

In the 2022 picture book Proud to Be a Princess, obviously the rhetoric of royalty and princesses continues. The book tells stories of girls who overcame temptations, girls who were saved because they were extra careful with tznius, girls who were horrified to learn what their lack of tznius caused, etc. Some of the stories are well known and have made the rounds of Bais Yaakov schools for a while. For example, there’s the story of a young girl on Kristallnacht, trying to get through the streets to join her family in safety. She’s blonde-haired and blue-eyed, so she can pass as non-Jewish. She tries to blend in by opening her top button and exposing her collarbone, but she feels so uncomfortable with this lack of tznius that she closes it again. When she reaches her family safely and tells them this, her mother points out that she’s wearing a Magen David necklace under her shirt, so being extra careful with tznius actually saved her life – if she had left her top button open, the Germans would have known she was Jewish and attacked her. There’s a lot to unpack there, and that’s a side of tznius rhetoric I haven’t gotten into much today: the emphasis on being saved by tznius or, alternately, the devastating effects of not being tzniusdig. 

The introduction to the book, though, focuses on the idea of royalty and tells a story about Queen Elizabeth visiting New York in 2010 and wearing long sleeves despite the heat. Says the text, “Thousands of Jewish queens and princesses throughout New York, and across the world, were dressed that way too!” This focus on what real princesses and queens dress like is a common trope in tznius discussions. “Do you think the queen of England would ever wear that?” is a common question. 

Some not-perfect Bais Yaakov girls like to compile photos of contemporary queens and princesses to highlight the cherry-picking of royal outfits and the absurdity of saying “dress like a princess” when the wardrobes of today’s princesses do not conform to today’s standards of tznius. 

But the truth is that the truth doesn’t matter. It’s not about the actuality of royalty. The argument is not that Jewish girls should look to real-life princesses and queens as examples. What’s important is the use of royalty as a rhetorical device to convince Bais Yaakov girls that these rules are not restrictive, that counting inches is not something to be dreaded but something to cherish as part of a frum girl’s status as royalty, on constant guard against the pritzusidge world around her. The outcry for a need to present the mitzvah of tznius more positively continues to result in the same rhetoric, though, in what by now has become a cyclical pattern.


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