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.


Klal Yisrael’s Guarantee:Children as the Key to Messianic Redemption in Haredi Musical and Textual Culture

I presented this paper at the CUNY Graduate Center’s English Students Association annual conference on March 11, 2021. Pieces of this are drawn from my dissertation, which I’m in the process of finishing up now.

 In Jewish thought, the era of the Messiah – Mashiach – has not yet arrived. The exact theology surrounding Mashiach differs across various Jewish denominations. Since my purpose today is not to focus on the specific theology, I won’t go into all of the minutiae of beliefs surrounding Mashiach – I’ll just focus on the ideas relevant to the connection between children and Mashiach in Haredi Jewish thought. So first, a brief background on the idea of Mashiach in Haredi theology, with a caveat that this theology is not unique to Haredi thought in all its details. Drawing on a tradition of textual commentary on the Torah and Talmud spanning millennia, Haredi Jews of the 20th and 21st centuries believe that the Jewish people have been in a state of waiting ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. At least as far back as Maimonides, whose thirteen essential tenets of faith include belief in the arrival of Mashiach, Jews have clung to the hope that Mashiach could arrive at any moment to redeem the Jewish people from their exile and diaspora, bring them to Israel, rebuild the Temple, and usher in an eternity of peace and purity. Though there are many calculations predicting the time of the ultimate redemption, it is believed that Mashiach can arrive early if the Jewish people deserve it. And in Haredi thought, the most powerful and potent force in hastening the arrival of Mashiach is children.

Children are a powerful symbol across the world and across history, though what exactly they symbolize changes from culture to culture and from era to era, often with multiple and competing ideas: in Puritan thought, children represent original sin; in Romantic thought, children represent pre-sexual innocence; in Victorian thought, children are miniature adults who need to be trained in proper behavior. In contemporary America, white children are often viewed as inherently vulnerable and are invoked as the reason behind moral decisions, like preventing same-sex marriage or bathroom use consistent with one’s gender. In systemically-racist America, Black American children are portrayed by white media as already-adult and already-defiant and aggressive in an attempt to justify racism. Contemporary children are increasingly portrayed in adult thrillers as alien and evil, in a reflection of the fear of children as radically other, incomprehensible to adults. At the same time, contemporary culture also views children as developing, in need of policies which nurture them physically and psychologically into their full growth and potential. And the list goes on.

(1:57-2:27 ; 5:29-6:01+)

In the American Haredi community, children most often represent the survival and the future of the Jewish people. This view is captured in a popular Haredi song from the 1990s, “The Man from Vilna.” The song opens with a conversation between an elderly Holocaust survivor flying back from a Chicago wedding and a younger Haredi man who asks him why he’d undertake the journey when surely no one would judge him from staying home at his age. The survivor replies, “no simcha – no celebration – is a burden,” and he tells a story about the months after the war ended. He, along with about 400 others, made their way back to Vilna – Vilnius – after they were liberated from the concentration camps. One person realizes that it’s Simchas Torah, the final day of the Succos holiday, on which men traditionally take the Torah scrolls out of the synagogue ark and dance around the lectern in celebration of the joy of learning Torah and living life according to its laws. The survivors make their way into the synagogue, determined to dance and to find joy despite the horror they had just survived. They find the synagogue destroyed, littered with scraps of desecrated Torah scrolls. They also find two children huddled under a bench, and – realizing that among 400 survivors there are only two children – they hold the children in place of the Torah scrolls and dance, using them as symbols of defiant joy and survival in the face of those who had tried to destroy them.

The structure of the song, much like a country song which tells a story, requires that the refrain happen before we have all the details of the story. The instances of the refrain that occur after we have all the relevant details each change two lines to reflect the new information, which allows for a rhetorical connection between the lines across the refrains throughout the song. In this case, those lines – and thus the ideas being connected to each other – are “though we had no Sifrei Torah [Torah scroll] to clutch close to our hearts, in their place we held the future of a past so torn apart,” which appears in the second refrain as “though we had no Sifrei Torah to gather in our arms, in their place we held those children, the Jewish people would live on.” The final version of these lines is “though we had no Sifrei Torah to clutch and hold up high – am Yisrael chai” – a popular phrase meaning “the nation of Israel lives.” The children are thus clearly figured as the Jewish people’s hope for the future, the replacement of a “past so torn apart” and a symbol of Jewish endurance and continuity.

The Hasidic community is clear about this idea in everyday life, as children are told that they are their parents’ and grandparents’ “revenge on Hitler.” Many Haredi matriarchs and patriarchs – both Hasidic and non-Hasidic – look at wedding photos of their large families, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren numbering the hundreds, and find satisfaction in the knowledge that the Jewish people is revitalized through the birth of new generations. I tried to find a photo I have from a cousin’s wedding, where we all lined up in rows like this first image I got off the internet – to have a personal tie-in here – but I couldn’t find it. So instead, here’s a couple of images of my grandparents – Holocaust survivors – with their grandchildren because my work is always personal and I like to include things like this…

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, a professor of Jewish History, characterizes Jewish historiography as concerned with “ruptures, breaches, breaks” and an attempt to “see how Jews endured them.” Haredi historiography asserts that there are no real ruptures and breaks despite the many tragedies and losses of life – that as long as children survive or as long as more children are created, there is an assurance of continuity not only of the Jewish people but of Jewish theology as perceived through the Haredi idea of continuity. Of course, the idea of “we must save the children” is not unique to Haredi thought – it’s the basis for foreign aid campaigns using images of children and at least part of the basis for the Kindertransport which allowed children from Nazi Germany to flee to Britain (incidentally, that’s how my paternal grandmother survived). While secular and academic Jewish historiography acknowledges the changes which Jewish theology has undergone in the millennia-long history of the religion, Haredi historiography draws a line of continuity from the Torah of Moses at Mt Sinai to the Judaism practiced in contemporary Haredi communities, claiming that despite the changes of the world around them, Jews have maintained the same practices and beliefs unchanged by time and technological advances. A major component of this belief is the symbolism of children.

In a collection of holiday stories for children, written by Shmuel Blitz and published by Artscroll-Mesorah in 1998, this theme of continuity is made clear by a story for Shavuos, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The young protagonist Betzalel tries to stay up all night to learn Torah, as is the custom, but he falls asleep and dreams that he joins figures of Jewish thought and Torah commentary in a study session, led by Moses himself.

He dreamed that he saw Moshe Rabbeinu sitting at the head of a long table. Seated around him were all the great leaders of the generations. Rabbi Akiva, Hillel, Rambam, and many others were all gathered around, learning together… Betzalel took a seat between Rashi and the Vilna Gaon. He sat and listened to Moshe teach the Torah.

These figures span millennia of Jewish thought and textual development – the Biblical Moses, Talmudic Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, medieval Maimonides and Rashi, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazic, the 17th-century Vilna Gaon who opposed Hasidism… The likelihood of all these figures being able to learn Torah together, with the same methods, philosophies, and interpretations, is very low. But the scene functions as a representation of the belief in the continuity of Torah thought and – through their invitation to Betzalel to join them – the child’s place in the line of Jewish continuity.

Esther van Handel’s A Children’s Treasury of Holiday Tales, another Haredi children’s collection of holiday stories, features the same theme of continuity. In the Rosh Hashanah story, “The Plot Against the Shofar,” Tzvi overhears “two rough-looking youths” plotting to do damage to the Rabbi’s shofar and laughing as they imagine “all those Jews in their old prayer shawls waiting for their old Rabbi to blow shofar, and then…!” Tzvi considers telling the police, the Rabbi, or his parents, but concludes that no one would believe him. Instead, when he goes to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, he brings along his own shofar, which he had been practicing on every day in the preceding month of Elul and lays it on the lectern. When the baal tokei’a [master of shofar-blowing] tries to blow the official shul’s shofar during the services, he discovers that it had been filled with glue. He then sees Tzvi’s shofar lying on the lecternand is able to blow shofar for the congregation.

Tzvi’s worry about the “rough-looking youths” plan results in a rumination that ties the Jewish past, present, and future together around this religious object and ritual: 

He thought about the sounds of the shofar ... He thought about Akeidas Yitzchak [Binding of Isaac]. He thought about the shofar at Har Sinai [Mount Sinai] when Hashem gave the Jewish people the Torah. He thought about the shofar at Mashiach [Messiah].

After a list of the moments in the Jewish nation’s past and future marked by the blowing of the shofar, Tzvi thinks sadly, “I sure hope the shofar will be blown in our shul on Rosh Hashanah.” Tzvi’s contemporary American synagogue is thus rhetorically connected to the events in the Jewish past associated with the shofar as well as the future that the Jews are awaiting, situating Tzvi himself along the chain of tradition and history. The final words of the Rosh Hashanah story belong to the Rabbi, who ties Tzvi’s actions on this childhood Rosh Hashanah to his future: “Tzvi’s shofar saved the say…And I have a feeling that when Tzvi grows up, with Hashem’s help, he’ll be blowing his shofar himself – every Rosh Hashanah.” Tzvi’s earlier list of shofar-moments in Jewish history connected his shul and his childhood Rosh Hashanah to the span of Jewish history, and the Rabbi’s words promise Tzvi an individual place in that connection and the continued survival of the Jewish people. 

(0:31-0:50 ; 1:16-1:50)

“Be a Friend,” a 1999 song from the Tzlil V’Zemer Boys Choir and the source for the title of my paper today, encapsulates the idea that not only do children have the ability to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people; they are “Klal Yisrael’s guarantee,” the Jewish people’s guarantee of futurity. In the context of a lesson about including everyone and not letting any of their fellow Jews fall by the wayside, the refrain features the teacher saying “Be a friend and understand. touch the heart of every man. Yeladim (Hebrew for children), you’re the key, Klal Yisrael’s guarantee.” The song goes on to say a prayer from the children’s perspective: “Hashem (God) help us grow, while we’re young and so, to become the new tomorrow.” Children who grow in friendship while they’re young, the song says, will carry the future, the “new tomorrow,” acting as a guarantee of the Jewish people’s futurity.

In van Handel’s book, the Yom Kippur story immediately following Tzvi’s shofar story continues the theme of children saving the day and emphasizes the idea that the salvation of the Jewish people depends upon the children. The story is in fact titled “Saved by the Children” and opens on the scene of the “heavenly court” where “[t]he Jewish people are in grave danger…Rosh Hashanah has passed, Yom Kippur is almost here, and the sins still outweigh the mitzvos.” The angels who argue on behalf of the Jewish people in the heavenly court set out to find more mitzvos to tip the scales. They decide to search among the Jewish children, because the scales carry “piles of tefillin, lulavim, and Shabbos candles,” all adult ritual items. The angels descend first to “an old neighborhood in Jerusalem,” where Menachem gives his coin to a beggar instead of buying a lollipop; they move on to “a sunny schoolyard in Australia,” where Shira and Rachel end a fight about whose turn it is to jump rope by giving in to each other; their next stop is “an ivy-covered red-brick house in England,” where Shaya asks his father to help him study the alef-bais; and they make a final stop in “a cozy New York kitchen,” where Miriam stops herself before speaking lashon hara [gossip]. Between each location, the angels fly back up to heaven to place the symbols of each mitzvah on the scale: a red lollipop, two jump ropes, and an alef-bais book. The final mitzvah, of avoiding lashon hara, is put on the scale as a “dazzling mitzvah.” This final mitzvah succeeds in tipping the scale, “and the Jewish people were inscribed and sealed for another year in the Book of Life.” The story thus puts the survival of the entire Jewish nation on the shoulders of children from all over the globe. The adults’ mitzvos were not enough to save the Jewish people from year-end destruction, but the small mitzvos of the small children were.


My final text for today is “It’s Gonna Be the Little Kinderlach” (whose tune you might recognize as the annoying Kars 4 Kids jingle), originally recorded by Country Yossi, aka Yossi Toiv, in 1983. It has since become an extremely popular song in Haredi culture, sung in many pre-school classrooms and musical productions, clearly asserting the idea of children as the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people. The song begins by asking “So you wanna know who’s gonna bring Mashiach,” and goes on to answer: “it’s gonna be the little kinderlach,” the little children. Just as “Be a Friend” pins the continuity of the Jewish people on young boys behaving with friendship, just as “Saved by the Children” pins the salvation of the Jewish people on children performing mitzvos, this song lists the actions that will directly “make him come” – learning Torah, saying Grace after Meals, wearing tzitzis, giving charity, visiting the sick and the elderly – these are the actions through which little girls and little boys will “make Mashiach come.”

Many other texts and songs in Haredi musical and textual culture reiterate this sentiment. Ultimately, the function of children in Haredi ideology is both a rebirth after tragedy and trauma and a promise of eternal salvation for the Jewish people.

Call for Papers: Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhood

Thanks to an amazing series of serendipitous events, I am under contract with Ben Yehuda Press and am soliciting essays for a book tentatively titled:

Texts, Songs, and Cultural Artifacts of Orthodox Jewish Childhoods

The idea of the book is described below, along with some ideas for possible essays. When you’re ready to submit a completed essay, use this link to submit your manuscript.

Childhood and adolescent experiences are shaped in no small part by the artifacts available to children and adolescents: the books they read, the toys they play with, the songs they sing, etc., all affect and shape specific cultural childhoods. The cultural artifacts of Orthodox Jewish childhood and adolescence – including Modern Orthodox and Haredi artifacts – are a rich and virtually unmined resource for understanding Orthodox Jewish communities, ideologies, and practices. Through readings of these texts from both personal and academic perspectives, this volume aims to provide insight into the experience of Orthodox childhoods for both academic and lay audiences.

  • Essays should be at least 500 words and no more than 5,000 words. (I imagine that personal essays may be shorter, while critical essays will likely be longer.)
  • Multiple submissions accepted.
  • Submission deadline: February 1, 2021.
  • Jews of color, queer Jews, disabled Jews, frum Jews, secular Jews, and formerly Orthodox Jews are all encouraged to submit.

What we’re looking for:

  • Critical essays: Focusing on a single cultural artifact or set of artifacts, these essays will provide critical analysis. Essays can be situated in the fields of literature, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, etc.
    • An essay about connections between a text and Orthodox schools might perform a literary analysis by looking within the text and studying the ways in which the text portrays school environment.
    • Another essay about connections between a text and Orthodox schools may take a historical approach, using the text as a touchstone for a historical overview of development of and practices in Orthodox schools.
    • Still another essay might take a sociological approach and examine how the text was and/or is used in Orthodox school libraries and classrooms.
    • We welcome critical essays from both academics and non-academics. You do not need a degree in order to write an essay in this category! Editors will work with you, if necessary, to incorporate scholarship and references.
  • Personal essays: These essays will draw from personal experience with Orthodox artifacts to narrate and/or reflect on the experience of Orthodox childhood.
    • If you have things to say but are not a skilled writer, please submit anyway! An editor will work with you to revise your essay while retaining your personal voice. We want to feature as many voices and experiences as possible.

Possible cultural artifacts include but are not limited to:

  • books from Orthodox publishers: picture books, short story collections, chapter books, teen novels, magazines for children
  • Orthodox music tapes and story tapes (and videos) for children: the Shmuel Kunda series, the Marvelous Middos Machine series, Country Yossi, 613 Torah Avenue, Uncle Moishy, Kivi and Tuki, Rabbi Juravel, Pirchei, JEP
  • material artifacts from Orthodox childhoods: Torah Cards, Gedolim Cards, board games
  • Orthodox educational material: textbooks from Orthodox publishers, school publications (newsletters, yearbooks, etc), handouts, worksheets, curricula
  • songs from summer camps, youth groups, school plays
  • skipping or handclapping songs, games that leave no physical trace

Possible themes for both critical and personal essays include:

  • the roles played by a text or cultural artifact in promoting adherence to Orthodox beliefs and practices
  • connections between Orthodoxy’s childhood cultural artifacts and mainstream American childhood’s cultural artifacts
  • the ways a text or cultural artifact contributed or may contribute to alienation from Orthodoxy
  • how a text or cultural artifact reinforces or models gender roles in Orthodoxy
  • the models of literacy available to Orthodox children
  • connections between a text or cultural artifact and Orthodox schools or homes
  • when and how certain artifacts were used (ie, reading The Little Midrash Says on Shabbos, listening to The Marvelous Middos Machine in preschool classrooms)
  • the portrayal of relationships (between family members, community members, non-Orthodox Jews, non-Jews) in Orthodoxy’s childhood cultural artifacts

About the editor:
Dainy Bernstein is a PhD student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are working on their dissertation, which focuses on Haredi children’s literature between the years 1980 and 2000, the years of their own childhood and adolescence in Boro Park, Brooklyn. They also teach courses on medieval literature, children’s literature, and Young Adult literature at Lehman College.

About the publisher:
Ben Yehuda Press’s mission is to provide a home for books which exist outside the prescribed parameters for a “Jewish book.” Their titles typically don’t fall into any of the niches claimed by existing Jewish publishing companies – but aren’t of wide enough interest – that is to say, sufficiently pareve – to interest a general publisher.

From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

On October 29, 2020, over 60 people tuned in from all over the world to participate in “On the Margins of Contemporary Jewish Orthodoxies,” a symposium organized by Baruch College. The symposium featured talks on historical predecessors of contemporary exiters, the social realities of contemporary exiters, people who live on the margins of orthodoxies, and the portrayal of exiters in literature and film.

Naomi Seidman noted in the final keynote of the day that this is an “OTD moment” in multiple arenas: on social media, OTD groups abound; adding to the visibility of those social media groups are the films and TV shows centering or featuring OTD characters and narratives; and in the academic field of Jewish Studies, there is discussion of creating a separate OTD Studies discipline.

In addition to the formal presentations, the Zoom chat was alive with conversation from presenters and attendees. The presentations themselves were academic in style and content, and – in typical OTD fashion – the chat resembled a bais medrash coffee room, moving with ease between textual and philosophical analysis, social and emotional confessions, and jokes that ranged from intellectual or tinged with pain and sadness, to the kind with the punchline of “magical goyishe penis.”

There was much overlap between almost all of the presentations. I had prepared a talk about OTD memoirs and fictional films. Earlier in the day, Zalman Newfield talked about how the OTD experience matches or doesn’t match the experiences depicted in OTD memoirs, based on sociological research. His talk touched on both of the memoirs I would speak about later. Sara Feldman, speaking on the same panel I was on, talked about OTD films in Yiddish. Her focus was on a period earlier than the last decade, which I would focus on. But she did touch on the three films I would talk about. The overlap was generative, each of our talks building on what was said before.

In full disclosure, I don’t work on OTD Studies as part of my main work. I work on childhood and children’s literature, and my dissertation is on American Haredi children’s literature, 1980-2000. The focus there is not on those leaving the community, but on the community itself. Of course, the topics are connected. But I submitted an abstract to this symposium because I could not pass up the chance to talk with scholars about a topic so interesting in general and so personal to me; and because I had *thoughts* with a capital T about these memoirs and films, and this would give me an opportunity to talk about them and not feel like I’m shouting into a void.

But after this symposium, the whole day, left me exhilarated and recharged, I realized that while I may not be itching to be a part of that field, it has never left me. One of the organizers sent me a private message after I finished my presentation, asking if I had ever published any of this. I was startled – this talk was literally just me writing up some thoughts and conversations I’d had on Facebook with friends. I spent a grand total of three days actually writing the presentation, the weekend before the symposium. (I had been thinking about it for far longer than that, of course.) I wasn’t even sure I was saying anything that wasn’t obvious! And he thought it was publishable??

Anyway, I am not going to work on any of this in the near future because I really, really (like, really) need to finish writing my dissertation. But how can I deprive people of my brilliance? 😉 So I’m posting the presentation and my talk here, lightly edited for the different format of the blog.

Title slide: From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

Anyone who was aware of Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox, when it was published in 2012 undoubtedly remembers the controversy and furious debate surrounding the book – maybe even more than the book itself. There were three main groups of reactions to the book: The Hasidic and frum communities reacted with anger; people who had left Orthodox Judaism reacted with skepticism on the whole; and people who had no experience with either community ate it up eagerly and praised Feldman for her courage.

Slide: The cover of Feldman’s book “Unorthodox,” and lines quoted below.

This is not necessarily a flaw in the design: as Feldman acknowledges in the afterword to the revised 2020 edition:

“Writing a book was part of a much bigger plan, a necessity if I was to truly be free to start a new life with my son outside of our community. The publicity it would bring me would serve as a tool, my lawyer had explained, would provide me with leverage against people who would normally render me voiceless and therefore powerless.”

The project of writing the book was, for Feldman, both a creative process initiated by her classes at Sarah Lawrence, and a tool in her journey to self-actualization. That the people who loved the book enough to stand by her side were those who could prove useful and powerful in her fight against the forces holding her back is no coincidence. She wielded the tools she had at her disposal, and the ability to shock with a glimpse into a usually-cloistered community and the “scandalous” rejection of that community was one of those tools.

Even in the first edition of the memoir, Feldman acknowledges that she uses her unique past, ironically the place where her voice and individuality were denied, to stand out among the crowd. For her college admissions essays:

“The first two are autobiographical. I think to myself, This is my shtick. I gotta use whatever I got.”

All high school seniors are advised to find the one thing that makes them unique, makes them stand out from the crowd, and it just so happens that Feldman’s is her Hasidic upbringing.

Naomi Seidman makes a similar comment in her review of the fictionalized Netflix mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir.

In this version, the protagonist, Esty, is not a writer but a musician: a pianist and a singer. One of the most emotional moments in the mini-series comes in the fourth and final episode, when Esty auditions for admission into a prestigious Berlin conservatory. Her first song choice is Schubert’s “An die musik”. When the admissions committee asks her why she chose to sing that song, which is not the right song for her voice, she tells them the story of her Hasidic grandmother listening to Schubert’s records in secret.

Slide: Still of Esty singing from the show “Unorthodox,” and lines from Seidman’s review quoted below.

When the committee asks “why secret,” Seidman writes:

“Maybe, just maybe Esty heard that question and saw her shot. The only way forward was through the one thing she had that everyone wanted, the story of the “insular community” she had left behind.”

The admissions committee allows her to sing another song, and she performs a powerful rendition of “Mi bon siyach,” the song traditionally sung as the kallah circles the chosson under the chuppah. Again Seidman explains:

“Even the Hasidic song was only what it was because it came with this story of a woman finally allowed to sing, a secret finally “scandalously” shared.”

Just as Feldman used her scandalous, titillating story to break her way into the writing market, Esty does too. She knows that this is her “shtick,” that outsiders would sit up and pay attention to this story about a community of repression and strict rules, and about a young girl breaking free and finding her voice.

The structure of Feldman’s memoir is somewhat at odds with the title of her book. Although the title promises a “scandalous rejection,” the book delivers eight chapters of Feldman’s life within the Satmar community and only one chapter detailing her escape.

Part of this is due to the timeline on which she wrote the book: She had only just left the community when she wrote it. In fact, her meeting with her editor and subsequent rush to finish the book is a significant component of Chapter 9: Up in Arms. If she was going to use this memoir as a tool, as a way to prevent the community from silencing her, it makes sense that it comes at the beginning of her escape. But that means that the focus of the book is on the ills of her family and community, rather than on her life outside of it. Her sequel, Exodus (2015), chronicles more of her journey afterwards.

But the first book, Unorthodox, not only focuses on the community more than the rejection; it also includes reflections that are not thought-through, at times childish, and almost always angry. As any good therapist will tell someone experiencing post-traumatic stress, anger is a natural and necessary stage. But anger is not the goal – the goal is to be able to reflect on the trauma and heal from it. Anger is an indication that the affected person is still hurting.

Slide: Feldman signing books, and lines from her book quoted below

Feldman addresses this, albeit obliquely, in her afterword to the 2020 revised edition, when she describes the feeling that overcame her when she wrote her first memoir: as she sank into one memory, and then the next:

“the process began to feel intuitive, like I could shut off the part of myself concentrated on outlines and chapter and characters and all the other things I had learned in college workshops and just trust some long-lost inner voice.”

As she writes a novel years later, she waits “for that ghost to haunt me again,” and

“I have come to understand that she has always been ready and willing, and that it is I who have not always been tolerant of her presence. Because she is from the past, and the rest of me is very much trying to be in the present, so as not to be burdened by anything that came before. We are two women, one lost and one found, still trying to find a way to work together to tell a story.”

One of the key rules about writing memoir is that it’s not therapy – the writing process is an extremely useful tool in therapy, but the public-facing work needs to move past that. The purpose of memoir is to give readers something they can identify with on some level. But Feldman’s book, written by someone who, by her own admission, had not yet reconciled the parts of her that were still hurting, aims to expose, to “provide a glimpse,” as many reviews said, into a secretive community.

Later memoirs, even those published just a few years later, are less angry; their structure is not so heavily weighted toward the author’s childhood and adolescent years; and they provide enough reflection to provide relief from the pain, and from the anger that characterizes the first stages of healing from trauma.

Slide: the cover of Deen’s book “All Who Go Do Not Return,” and lines from the book quoted below.

Shulem Deen published his memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, in 2015, three years after Feldman’s. But he began writing his memoir before Feldman’s was published. Unlike Feldman, he was not using his memoir as a tool in his journey, so he had the luxury and the advantage of revising, editing, revising, and editing again. Feldman’s memoir begins with a prologue in which her mother tells her about their family, and the story proper begins with Devorah as a young child. Shulem Deen’s memoir, on the other hand, begins with the sentence:

“I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others.”

The story Deen tells is personal. But from the very first sentence, the reader is aware of a vast number of others who have shared this very personal experience and is thus invited to see themselves in whichever part of the story resonates with them. This is a story of a single individual within a community, whereas Feldman’s is a story about a single individual and a community. The difference is subtle, but crucial. Deen does not shy away from describing traditions, rituals, and practices of his New Square community. But the story is not about the community, nor is it designed to shock or to titillate outsiders who want to peer into this “strange” world. It is a story of one person who finds other like-minded people despite the community.

In addition, Deen had spent years reflecting on his past by the time his memoir was published. The Shulem of the text is easily distinguished from the Shulem who wrote it for the first half of the book, because Deen is able to critically reflect on his past. He does not paint himself as a saint. He is anxious for the reader to understand that he is not a saint, speaking frankly about the times when he hit his students, when he perpetuates the system that he later comes to be horrified at. Deen takes the reader on an intense emotional journey, a journey of interiority.

The epilogue of All Who Go Do Not Return narrates a day Deen spends with his son Akiva. When he is told that his son Hershy would not be joining them as planned, he feels “a rising sense of fury.” He writes that

“it was eight weeks since I’d last seen the boys. Several years since I’d seen Tziri and Freidy – and even Chaya Suri stopped coming soon after I moved to Brooklyn, after she turned thirteen.”

He thinks about how their lives may have changed, and how he knows nothing about that.

“My calls and letters continue to go unanswered. The cell phones I bought them must never have been charged, always going straight to voice mail, my messages unreturned. In the beginning, Akiva would call on occasion, but now, even he no longer does. I can sense, with each visit, the growing distance between us. Soon, I am all too aware, the boys, too, will turn thirteen.”

The paragraph begins with “a rising sense of fury” at the response of “does it matter” to his question about why Hershy will not be joining him that day, but Deen leads us right past that anger and into a sense of deep sadness about the reality of missing out on his own children’s lives. Deen lays himself open, vulnerable and raw, in a way that Feldman doesn’t.

So what accounts for this difference? A lot of things, of course.

Slide: comparison of Feldman’s memoir an Deen’s memoir

We can’t ignore the gender difference – men have certain advantages, even in such restricted communities. There’s also the stage each author was at when writing their memoir.

But I want to turn from the authors themselves, from their choices and lives, and look at the market. Would Shulem Deen’s raw, vulnerable, painful memoir have sold as well if the non-frum and non-OTD world had not been shocked and scandalized and titillated by Feldman’s memoir first? That’s a speculative question, but I think the answer is no.

Shock factor, as we all know too well now, plays an important role in disseminating an idea. To the non-frum and non-Jewish reading public, that delicious feeling of being able to express horror at “them,” and to righteously support a young woman fighting for her freedom, opened the doors for more memoirs about this community and those who left it.

And of course, publishers accept and reject manuscripts based on how well they think the books will sell. The controversy raised over Feldman’s memoir, no matter where you come down on that question, also helped open the market. Those who stood firmly with Feldman – most often non-frum and non-OTD people – jumped at the chance to read more exposé, more scandal, in Deen’s and other memoirs. Those who were disappointed in Feldman’s style or portrayal – mostly OTD people – jumped at the chance to read a different version of their own story and to perhaps find more identification and catharsis through that. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Feldman’s book, with all its controversies and all its problems, paved the way for more nuanced and more vulnerable memoirs, including Deen’s.

[As a side-note: I’m not including One of Us because it’s neither memoir nor fiction. But of course, the documentary play a large role in this whole story.]

This same trajectory appears in fictional portrayals of those who leave Hasidic and frum Orthodoxy.

Slide: stills from the films “Mendy: A Question of Faith,” “Felix et Meira,” and “Disobedience”

The 2003 film Mendy: A Question of Faith portrays the freedom and wild abandon experienced by a young man breaking free of his Hasidic community. Mendy is immediately caught up in drug-dealing, he has sex workers thrown at him in seedy clubs, he takes psychedelic drugs and dances away the night in a flashing, whirling sequence, and wakes up in bed next to a naked woman whose name he never knows. Basically, it’s a vision of what our parents and teachers warn is waiting for us. It’s a wild breaking free, and it deals with very little of Mendy’s feelings about his community except anger.

The 2014 Felix et Meira is quieter. It focuses on Meira’s pain – and joy as she finds her own path. The final shot of the movie, in which she holds her son and sits with her new partner in a boat drifting down the river, suggests that she stays on the “outside.” But it doesn’t make it look like an easy future. She and her new partner are both aware of the painful journey still ahead.

The 2017 film Disobedience, based on the book of the same name, is likewise quieter, more internally-focused. The story centers on Ronit’s feelings about her father, her uncle, her childhood friends; and on Esty’s feelings about her husband and Ronit. There is some scandal in that people in the community find out about Esty and Ronit’s relationship, but the focus of the story is on the pain and grief of leaving one’s community, of finding one’s path – not on shock or scandal. That Disobedience was embraced by non-frum, non-OTD, and non-Jewish lesbians as a “lesbian film” is further proof of its resonance on an emotional level, rather than the titillating narrative of repression and freedom in Mendy’s story.

The mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir encapsulates this shift: while the 2012 memoir focuses on the harshness of Feldman’s family and community, the 2020 fictional mini-series focuses instead on Esty’s deeply intimate struggle to find herself and carve a place for herself in the world.

Slide: Titled “Conclusions,” showing covers of 6 memoirs, 3 films, and 1 miniseries, with contact info

In terms of the market, exposés and scandalous narratives may have been necessary to jumpstart interest in the OTD experience, as the earlier memoirs including Feldman’s suggest. But by now, thankfully, there is room for emotional vulnerability, for narratives of pain and grief, which can lead to a collective healing for both OTD individuals and the frum community.

Sharing Spaces, Shaping Identities: American Haredi Children’s Literature

On Friday, March 6, 2020, I presented a paper at NeMLA in Boston. It was a fantastic experience. This was the first time I talked about my work on Haredi children’s literature in a professional context outside of my own institution. It was the first time I presented a formal argument and cohesive narrative. I always knew I had a lot to say on the subject.

But for a while, I’d been feeling like I hadn’t made any progress – like I was basically just saying some obvious things, making observations about the texts that anyone could see just by looking at them. I felt like I hadn’t written anything, because I have not yet finished any single chapter. Of course, I had been writing, but I work best by moving around in my writing – which means I have multiple half-finished chapters. It’s hard to feel a sense of accomplishment like that.

Now, having presented a paper that essentially took bits and pieces from a few chapters which I had already written and having gotten incredible feedback from the audience, I am newly invigorated and ready to keep going – I can acknowledge the huge amount of work I have already done (I wrote a single new paragraph for this paper, and the rest was literally copied and pasted and moved around from documents in my drafts folder) and I can use the palpable enthusiasm from audience members to fuel my ongoing writing.

It was also a good reminder that writing can be lonely, that writing a long project like a dissertation can be isolating. I talk about my project with friends, and I do often get the chance to excitedly talk about my work with new acquaintances. But there’s something so wonderful about sharing carefully crafted work and getting that validation. So I’m sharing my paper and PowerPoint presentation here, because more validation can’t hurt, can it?

PowerPoint slide showing an image of a car-lined street. In the foreground, a man wearing a white kittel and a tallis. In the background, a woman wearing a black top and black skirt with a white tichel on her head.

On Saturdays, the streets of Boro Park and Midwood in Brooklyn are quieter than usual. It’s Shabbos (Shabbat), and the neighborhoods with large concentrations of Haredi and Hasidic Jews are at rest. On Thirteenth Avenue in Boro Park and Avenue J in Midwood, usually bustling with crowds of shoppers, the stores are shuttered. People on their way to and from shul (synagogue) and family meals walk down the center of the empty streets. It’s like a world separate from the weekend hustle and bustle of the rest of New York City. 

But this separate world is very much an integral part of New York City’s fabric. The neighborhood may have well-defined borders, which are a necessity when its inhabitants need everything essential to be within walking distance once a week. But the borders are permeable, with influences going in both directions. Haredi Jews work all over New York City, not only in the neighborhoods where they live. Some attend university outside of the enclave, bringing their own Haredi sensibilities to secular college classes and often bringing secular ideas back to their Haredi neighborhoods. Haredi Jews participate in elections, often electing “one of their own” to represent them in local government.

PowerPoint slide with four images of the 2016 presidential election results, showing neighborhoods with Haredi communities red amid a sea of New York blue.

In state or federal elections, the Haredi communities hold power because they often vote based on rabbis’ direction, and their concentration means that they can turn whole neighborhoods red or blue. Economically, socially, and politically, Haredi Jewish communities are an integral part of New York and of the United States. 

My dissertation aims to situate American Haredi culture and ideology within its American contexts by studying the literature that Haredi Judaism produces for its children. In my paper today, drawn from my dissertation, I’ll provide an overview of the literature and the reasons I think this study is important. The title of today’s paper – Sharing Spaces, Shaping Identities – is about my two major focuses (foci?): the space that Haredi children’s literature shares with mainstream American children’s literature, and the cultural and religious identity that this literature helps shape. I think that understanding both of these together is essential to study of the literature.

First, a definition of the term Haredi:

PowerPoint slide showing images of Hasidic, Haredi, and Modern Orthodox men and women, and text listing features of Haredi Judaism.

An over-generalized distinction between American Haredi communities and other Orthodox communities is that Hasidic communities are more insular than Haredi communities, while Modern Orthodox communities are more open to secular culture. As Finkelman defines Haredi Judaism, “[m]ore countercultural and enclavist than their Modern Orthodox peers to the left, this Haredi Jewry is also more acculturated and less rejectionist than some of the more isolationist Hassidic groups to the right” (58). There are numerous other boundaries within this not-completely-isolated but not-completely-acculturated group, of course. But the defining characteristic is this blend of insularity and interaction with the outside world, the defined yet permeable border. 

Haredi literature is also distinct from Hasidic and Modern Orthodox literature as well as from mainstream literature. Differentiating between Hasidic and Haredi books is simple due to the language difference: Haredi popular literature is almost always in English, while Hasidic books are generally in Yiddish – a surface distinction that denotes an underlying difference in ideology. Haredi and Modern Orthodox books are often more difficult to distinguish from each other, because they share a language as well as most basic beliefs and ideologies.

But while Modern Orthodox books are also in English, they have a different tone to them. They are more likely to include characters with “English” names or “modern Hebrew” names, i.e. names that are not Biblical or Yiddish. In general, while their explicit messages appear to match Haredi ideology, they differ in the degree to which they are inclusive of American or non-Orthodox modes of being Jewish. In line with each community’s boundary-setting, Modern Orthodox children’s texts might include mention of non-observant family members or even non-Jewish friends, while Haredi texts portray a world where the only sympathetic characters are Haredi Jews. 

As I’ll discuss in a moment, books that became part of the Haredi publishing world may contain traces of Modern Orthodox ideology because of the way these two communities diverged around the 1970s-80s.

PowerPoint slide listing Haredi publishers, with images of their logos.

Besides the ideological differences, Haredi literature also exists in a self-contained market. Haredi books are written by Haredi author, published by Haredi publishers, and sold in Haredi bookstores. While many Haredi household and school libraries contain non-Jewish books, they almost never contain Jewish books from non-Haredi authors or publishers.

There is a relatively small number of Haredi publishers even in 2020, and at the very beginning of the existence of Haredi children’s literature, there were only four: Feldheim, Artscroll-Mesorah, CIS, and Hachai Publishers. Each of these publishers started independently of each other, with founding dates spanning from 1939 to 1989, and two did not publish children’s books until they had been in business for some time.

I’m focusing on American Haredi children’s literature produced between the years 1980 and 2000 for a few reasons. First of all, there is little to study before this: the earliest American Haredi children’s texts appear at the tail end of the 1970s, growing exponentially in the 1980s. Through the end of the 1990s, the market of American Haredi children’s literature was dominated by four main publishers: Feldheim, Artscroll-Mesorah, CIS, and Hachai. Towards the end of the 1970s, independent groups had begun to publish books aimed at Haredi children, some of which were picked up by Artscroll.

For example, the Dov Dov books:

PowerPoint slide showing images of four book covers from the Dov Dov series.

The first of these short story collections appeared in the late 1970s in pamphlet-form, published by “Dov Dov Publications” and printed by Gross Printers. In the early 1980s, Artscroll printed additional Dov Dov short story collections under their imprint The Artscroll Youth Series.

After 2000, another growth in the industry occurred, with many more publishers appearing on the scene. They often worked in conjunction with Feldheim and Artscroll-Mesorah for help with distribution while still retaining their own distinct characters.  This creates clear boundaries for where my study should begin and end: It begins with the first appearance of Haredi children’s texts, and it ends when the market for Haredi children’s texts expands beyond the core few publishers that dominated these two decades. 

PowerPoint slide titled “Watershed Moments” with bullet points listing changes around the decades 1960, 1980, and 2000.

In addition to the obvious marketing trends, significant cultural shifts also occurred at the turn of the decades marking the beginning and end of my study. As Samuel Heilman, Yoel Finkelman, and Jeremy Stolow discuss in their surveys of American Haredi literature and of Artscroll-Mesorah, the 1980s was a crucial time for the rise of American Haredi ideology. Although the insularity of the American Haredi community began at least as far back as 1960, the 1980s saw a tightening ideology of insularity and distinction from mainstream society, a reaction against the perception of moral depravity in secular America, among other factors. 

The final year of my study, 2000, also marks a shift in American Haredi culture. While the 1980s saw a growing insularity, the 2000s saw a move away from insularity. When I began my study, relying on personal memory and research of the years 1980-2000, I was confident in my claim that Haredi literature excludes certain genres, most significantly science fiction and fantasy. While this is certainly true of the decades before 2000, there have been a significant number of fantasy novels written and published in American Haredi children’s literature since then.

This is indicative of a continuation of the phenomenon that Finkelman discusses: while the Haredi community espouses insularity and distinction, it creates materials that draw heavily from secular American culture. The fantasy novels of the post-2000 decades display a distinctive Haredi Jewishness, but they undoubtedly belong to the same genre as Harry Potter, a series banned by most American Haredi schools and summer camps in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

One of my arguments based on this narrative, with watershed moments occurring every 20 years, or the span of a generation, is that children’s literature is crucial to the development of Haredi ideology – the rapid ideological change, more rapid than even the rise of the Christian Right, is in large part due to the changing face of the literature and opportunities for writing made available to Haredi children, in what I call a limited literacy sponsorscape.

PowerPoint slide showing quotes from Deborah Brandt appearing in the following paragraphs.

In her 1998 paper on “Sponsors of Literacy,” Deborah Brandt demonstrates how the kinds of literacy someone has access to affects the ways their literacy grows. Her case studies indicate that the child’s socioeconomic environment and political surroundings will influence the modes of rhetoric they engage in later in life. Moving beyond the idea of access to texts and literacy education, Brandt explores how the various kinds of literacy a child is exposed to will affect the development of their literacy and the ways they engage with the world. More specifically, she argues that a child has access to literacy through sponsors, and that these sponsors “deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (168). The child’s parents, teachers, librarians, and religious leaders – among others – provide access to the various forms of literacy a child will encounter. And each one of these sponsors presents that access with embedded ideologies, not only in the content but in the form and rhetoric of the texts and engagement with the texts. They “enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy – and gain advantage by it” (166). 

Further studies have taken up Brandt’s ideas of literacy sponsors and extended the analysis to focus on literacy sponsorscapes, focusing not only on the individual sponsors that appear in a child’s life but, more importantly, on the cumulative effects of the networks and relationships among those sponsors. Catherine Compton-Lilly, for example, in her 2017 publication of a longitudinal study following a group of students and their families from elementary school through high school, analyzes the effects of the relationships among the numerous environments in one student’s life. In addition to the individual sponsors – home and school – the tensions between the sponsors affect the child’s (or adolescent’s) literacies. 

Although Compton-Lilly’s case study demonstrates the negative effects of tension between literacy sponsors, because the school misunderstands and misreads the contexts of the student’s home and social lives, tensions between sponsors of literacy is usually a positive force. Since, as Brandt’s seminal essay explains, the various sponsors deliver “ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (168), if numerous sponsors provide access to literacy with varying ideological freight, the child will experience more than one underlying ideology. Being tasked with navigating a multiplicity of worldviews is assumed by most educators and scholars of rhetoric to be a good thing. It trains the child in considering multiple ideas and making critical decisions about which to align themselves with, and it encourages tolerance of diverse opinions and thoughts. 

The American Haredi child attending Haredi schools and raised in Haredi communities does not experience as much tension as their public-school counterparts. Mainstream American sponsors of literacy include parents, educators (including the government and individual teachers and administrators), publishers of popular books as well as textbooks, libraries and librarians, religious leaders and communities, and social groups. All of those exist in Haredi children’s lives as well, with the possible exception of the government’s involvement in education policies. But the ideological freight delivered by each of these sponsoring bodies is less diverse than that of their mainstream counterparts. Where a child in mainstream America may be exposed to varying ideologies from the books their teachers assign versus the books that they have access to in their public library, a Haredi child is more limited. Many Haredi schools prohibit their students from using the public library, for example, and Haredi children have access only to books deemed appropriate enough to be included in the school library. 

PowerPoint illustrating the web of the Haredi sponsorscape as outlined in the following paragraphs.

In addition, there is much overlap in the leadership of the sponsoring institutions. For example: Artscroll runs the TextWords imprint, providing Haredi schools with literature textbooks and editions of Shakespeare – which means that two sponsors of literacy – popular publishing and textbook publishing – are one and the same in the Haredi world.

A more extended and complex example: Some of the first children’s literature to be published by Haredi institutions was a monthly magazine called Olomeinu / Our World, published by Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools The editor in 1960s was Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, a teacher in boys’ yeshivas who later became the editor of The Jewish Observer, the monthly magazine published by Agudath Israel of America, the leading organization for Orthodox Jews in America. Wolpin’s involvement in these two organizations (Torah Umesorah and Agudath Israel of America), as well as his experience as a teacher, is an indication of the overlap among the sponsors of literacy for Haredi children. In the 1960s, children would read magazines he edited. In the 1970s, their parents would read magazines he edited and continue to pass his ideologies on to their children.

After Rabbi Wolpin left the children’s magazine (Olomeinu) to lead the adults’ magazine (The Jewish Observer) in 1970, Rabbi Nosson Scherman became the editor of Olomeinu. Scherman had been writing articles for Olomeinu for a while by then, including features on prayer and great rabbinic leaders. He taught in a boys’ yeshiva (Torah VoDaas of Flatbush, later Yeshiva Torah Temimah) (Hoffman). From 1970 to 2009, Scherman is listed as the editor of the Olomeinu. In 1975, he and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz began publishing English translations of Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinic texts and founded Artscroll-Mesorah Publications, which quickly became one of the leading publishers of Haredi texts. In 1989, while Scherman was still editing the Olomeinu, Artscroll published its first children’s book: The Best of Olomeinu, a collection of stories from the pages of the children’s magazine over the previous decades. After that, Artscroll published many books for teens and children. As recently as January 1, 2020, at the gathering to celebrate the completion of a 7-year cycle of studying the Talmud, Scherman led the children’s portion of the celebration.

With the literacy sponsorscape of Haredi children so interwoven, it’s clear that the ideological freight being delivered by the various sponsors is not diverse and does not ask the child to grapple with competing ideologies. In the minds of the Haredi leadership, this is a benefit rather than a drawback. While the links between the various sponsors of literacy is not a deliberate attempt to limit children’s access to a diversity of literacy approaches and ideas, it is a manifestation of the underlying ideology.  

With all that in mind, I want to move now to look briefly at some specific genres and texts in the corpus of Haredi children’s literature. I’ll start with the Olomeinu, because that was first on the scene and because its impressively long run makes it a useful touchstone for tracking the development of Haredi literature and ideology.

PowerPoint slide showing pages of the Olomeinu magazine.

At first, Olomeinu was very much an American-Jewish magazine, for children whose connection to America was of near-equal importance as their connection to Judaism. Issues from the 1940s and 1950s often ran features like “An Early American [Holiday]” or biographical sketches of famous early American rabbis and Jews. In stories about contemporary kids and in write-ups of individual readers, the children had names like “Harry” and “Cynthia,” rather than Hebrew or Yiddish names. Coverage of the creation of the State of Israel focused quite a bit on politics, though the magazine was never aligned with Zionism (the Haredi world, unlike the Modern Orthodox world, was never and still isn’t Zionist, but has a complex relationship with the State).

Towards the end of the academic year 1959-1960, Torah Umesorah (the publisher of Olomeinu) suffered financial difficulties. The magazine took a hiatus but was able to continue printing in 1960 thanks to a sizable donation from a community philanthropist. Their renewed magazine had a design makeover, and it also changed subtly in its ideological content. Children writing in still had American names, but children in the stories were more likely to be named “Eliyahu” and “Yocheved” than Harry or Cynthia. Biographical sketches of rabbis continued, but the emphasis was on Eastern European rabbis or American rabbis who “rebuilt” Orthodox Judaism in America after the Holocaust, rather than features on “early American rabbis.” Coverage of Israel dropped all mention of politics and instead focused on mitzvos that are unique to the land of Israel or coverage of religious events and institutions in Israel. The magazine changed subtly again in the 1980s, but those changes are too subtle for me to track in an overview like I’m doing today.

But the 1980s was also when Haredi publishers began to produce books for children, so I’ll turn to that now.

PowerPoint slide showing covers of Gemarakup, Encyclopedia Brown, The Babysitters Club, and The B.Y. Times

Some of the first books to be printed for Haredi children were very clearly inspired by popular mainstream American children’s fiction. Gemarakup was a series about a very smart boy with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmud (the Gemara), who was able to solve mysteries ranging from school-level accusations of stolen snacks to government-level terrorist threats. It is quite clearly modeled on Encyclopedia Brown – it follows the same format, asking readers to turn to the back at the end of each short story, where the solutions can be found.

Another very popular series was the B.Y. Times – B.Y. standing for Bais Yaakov, the generic term for Haredi girls’ schools. The series follows a group of middle school girls who run a school newspaper. It echoes The Babysitters Club series, providing a glimpse into the lives of the girls at school, at home, and in their social circles. These books don’t make their connection to the secular series explicit, but they are an obvious attempt to provide Haredi children an alternative to the popularity of books that depict non-Jewish families, characters, and situations.

Other cultural artifacts like Torah Cards and children’s music and storytapes follow the same pattern, with the creator of Torah Cards explicitly saying that he created them to provide Haredi boys an alternative to collecting baseball cards.

Haredi picture books have less of that one-to-one comparison. But they function in similar ways, taking mainstream secular themes and putting a Haredi spin on them.

PowerPoint slide showing cover images of three picture books.

Here are three examples: The Little Old Lady Who Couldn’t Fall Asleep tells a story about children who make so much noise at night that their elderly neighbor can’t sleep. Eli and His Little White Lie is a story about a boy who tells a harmless lie and gains a fluffy white “lie” on his shoulder, which grows and grows until it takes over his life and makes him miserable. Messes of Dresses tells a story about a girl who has lots of friends and only two dresses until Sarah Saks from Fifth Avenue comes to offer her loads of fancy dresses. She loses all her friends because she’s so obsessed with getting the latest styles and she has no room for hosting guests, until she comes to her senses and gets rid of her dresses except for her two original dresses, and all her friends come back.

All these books teach basic character traits that you might find in mainstream books: being considerate of others, being truthful, and valuing friendship over possessions. But the books are uniquely Haredi in the way they end: with a verse from Torah or Talmud to encapsulate the lesson.

PowerPoint slide showing pages of picture books with lessons in Hebrew and English.

The lesson of The Little Old Lady WHo Couldn’t Fall Asleep is “Ve’ahavta LeRe’acha Kamocha,” usually translated as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” here translated as “You shall love and care for your neighbors and friends.” The lesson of Eli and His Little White Lie is “Midvar Sheker Tirchak, Keep far away from lies,” and the lesson of Messes of Dresses is “Aizehu ashir, hasame’ach be-chelko, Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what he has.” Everything – even social competence and intelligence – is tied back to Torah and rabbinic authority.

PowerPoint slide titled “conclusions”

What I presented in this paper is really just an overview of the work I’ve begun to do. My basic arguments and conclusion center on these points, as I hope I’ve explained clearly by now:

  1. Haredi ideology of insularity and distinction offset by clear American influences
  2. Limited sponsorscape of Haredi children’s literacy
  3. Rapid ideological change due to changes in children’s books

Data-Mining Olomeinu Magazines

Over the past few months, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole that’s hard to dig myself out of – and I don’t particularly want to.

My dissertation is about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children’s literature, with a focus on the decades of 1980-2000. My initial idea was that I would focus on four publishers (Artscroll-Mesorah, Feldheim, Hachai, and CIS), and I would study the children’s and teens’ books they published during those two decades. I knew I wanted to include analysis of schools and educational settings as well, but the main focus was going to be on the books.

Then I read more, and even more, and things shifted slightly, and then again – and before I knew it I was more focused on literacy and the world of the Haredi child reader during these decades.

My intended brief look at Olomeinu magazines turned into a full-blown intense study, as I uncovered and discovered more and more fascinating details about the magazine, its connections to various religious and literary factors, and the people involved in running it from 1960 onward.

So while I’ve continued to read about things like portrayal of the Holocaust in children’s literature, character focalization in children’s literature, history textbooks across the world, etc. – I’ve also been doing lots of intense study of the Olomeinu magazine.

I’m more focused now on discourse analysis. To that end, I’ve been gathering data in a spreadsheet, noting as much information as I can about each issue. The more I work with the magazine issues, the more I notice details I should have been noting all along – which means eventually I’ll do a second and third run over all these, making sure I have all the info I need from each issue. Meanwhile, here’s my working document:

screenshot of an Excel sheet showing data for individual issues of Olomeinu magazine
[yellow rows note issues I’ve cataloged but have not yet scanned; blue denotes issues I have PDFs of but haven’t yet cataloged; green denotes issues both cataloged and scanned/downloaded]

Despite its messiness and clunkiness, this spreadsheet is a major improvement from what I had been doing before. At first, I was trying to track features across issues, so I had columns labeled with recurring features like “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” and “Mitzvah of the Month.”

two-page spread, with “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” on the left side (December / Teves 1999)
two-page spread, with “Mitzvah of the Month” on the left side (February / Adar 1976)

That proved to be cumbersome and impossible, because new features were constantly being introduced from year to year, and some features had their names tweaked over the decades – and that is important to consider in my study!

So I switched to simply documenting the features of each issue, leaving the patterns for later. My next step – which I haven’t figured out exactly how to do yet – is to tag each feature with topics. I want to track topics like the Holocaust, Israel, and chagim. I also want to track their sub-topics: how many pieces on the Holocaust focus on faith, Nazi brutality, Jewish suffering, etc., for example? Is there a trend over the decades?

Another aspect of my examination will be on a more granular level. I started working with issues I was able to download from chinuch.org, and supplemented that with a collection lent to me by a friend. I scanned all the issues I had in physical copies (I still don’t have a complete set!) and ran them through OCR so that I could copy the text over into various other documents. Again, I’m not entirely sure yet how I’ll accomplish this next bit, but I want to think about the words used in each issue, each year, each decade…

I started playing around with this using a word cloud program (partly for fun, partly to motivate me to finish the tedious task of cataloging all the individual issues). I just pasted the text – minus Hebrew words – into the program. That means that words like “Olomeinu” (which appears at the bottom of every page) are over-represented. When it’s time to do this “for real,” I’ll clean the text before running it through a program. Some basic results:

word cloud created from the text of the February / Adar 1976 issue of Olomeinu
word cloud created from the text of the January / Teves 1977 issue of Olomeinu

I’m far from done, and I’m of course considering the historical contexts in addition to this granular examination. But I’m excited about the insights this level of analysis will yield! (Also, I get to play with cool toys 😉)

CFP: Sharing Spaces in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Kristi Fleetwood and I are organizing a session at NeMLA 2020. Below is the CFP for our session.

NeMLA’s 51st Annual Convention, March 5-8, 2020, Boston, Massachusetts

The collection Children’s Geographies explores children’s places from playgrounds, social networks, schools, streets, villages, etc. Peter Hunt’s “Unstable Metaphors: Symbolic Spaces and Specific Places” differentiates between the internal/personal of the “space” and the external/reality of the “place.” Drawing on these ideas, this panel seeks to continue the discussion of children’s spaces and places by asking how children exist in the real world and the fictional world, in addition to how their literature serves (or doesn’t serve) as a distinct place of its own.

Children’s and Young Adult literature are often treated as their own cohesive categories. However, the spaces of children’s and YA literature are shared by many genres and cultures, and children’s and YA literature themselves share space with adult literature. The readers of these categories frequently overlap, despite publishers’ marketing. The conventions of the books divided by readers’ age also overlap when they share genres (for example, children’s historical fiction and adults’ historical fiction share generic conventions, although those conventions may manifest differently).

This panel aims to put these various elements of children’s and Young Adult literature into conversation, exploring the spaces that they share in order to deepen our understanding of how children’s and YA literature function on the page and in real life.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • shared spaces in children’s literature
  • shared spaces between children’s and adult literature
  • shared spaces between genres of children’s literature
  • What happens when we consider distinct cultures in children’s literature in relation to each other?
  • How do children carve out their own spaces in a world where adults ultimately control all spaces?
  • How do gender, class, race, and other social influences affect how children navigate their spaces?
  • Where are children allowed authority?
  • Where are children allowed a voice of their own?How does movement between places and spaces affect the role of the child?

Submit 250-word abstract to the NeMLA website by September 30, 2019.

Textual and Emotional Complexities for a (formerly-Orthodox) Jewish Medievalist

This past weekend, I attended and participated in the wonder that is ICMS Kalamazoo. Thousands of medievalists descended on the campus of Western Michigan University for our annual session of conviviality of all kinds, including intellectual, social, emotional, and nonsensical.

I presented twice this year: Once on a traditional panel of 20-minute presentations, and once on a roundtable, semi-informal talks on a particular question followed by general discussion among the presenters and the audience. The roundtable was an amazing experience, centering the identities of the speakers and audience members as we talked about what we do. I loved how the session ended: with an affirmation that the “default” identity of scholars has for so long been “Christian white male,” and that our acknowledgement of biases (based on religion, cultural identity, gender, sexuality, etc.) does not mean we’re more biased than the “default” Christian white male – just that we’re aware of our biases in a way he isn’t. And calling out the inherent bias in the “default,” traditional mode of scholarship is a large part of why we assert our own identities so much.

That session wasn’t live-tweeted, at the request of the presenters, because of the sensitive and personal nature of the talks. It was hard enough making ourselves vulnerable to the people in the room! But I do want to share my remarks, so I’m posting them here, lightly edited.

In a tweet that got a lot of attention a while ago, a medievalist joked that people who grew up religious have a leg up as medievalists. My reply: “depends which religion.” The tweet referred to Catholic terms, for sacraments or other practices, that show up in medieval literature that isn’t explicitly religious. Growing up with ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion did not give me a leg up in understanding Catholic terms. But the religion I grew up with does sometimes give me a leg up in my studies. It also adds a lot of complexity and complications to my study, in both textual and emotional spheres.

So first, here’s a few examples of when it helped me:

In a class on animal studies and Middle English literature, we talked about the way insects can be viewed as a category separate from “animals.” Having grown up with the idea that eating a bug is a sin with such severity that it would give me the equivalence of seven other sins, I was at least primed to consider bugs as “not-animals.” Not only that, I was able to draw on halachic discussions, conversations about Jewish law, that I had grown up with. When I was a teenager, someone discovered that the New York reservoir doesn’t filter out all organisms – it allows a non-harmful number of organisms to remain in the water. But some of the organisms are non-kosher “bugs,” and an argument raged in haredi communities about whether microscopic bugs can even be considered non-kosher. So in this seminar on medieval ideas about bugs and fleas, I explained the halachic concept of “able to be seen by the naked eye,” and I recounted the way people in my community sat staring at glasses of water to try and see these bugs – because if they didn’t see the “bugs,” they could drink the water.

In that same class, I mentioned that we would always check figs before eating them, opening them up and spreading them out to see if there were any bugs inside the fig. Someone did a quick search and found information about wasps that die inside figs and then decompose, fertilizing the fig. That added to a great discussion about the connections and interactions between humans, non-human animals, and plants.

The thing is, bringing these things up in class was emotionally complicated for me. I have bitter associations with these concepts. They were stringencies that made my life unnecessarily complicated – for example, I couldn’t refill my water bottle from the college’s water fountains, because they weren’t filtered according to rabbinic stringency. The knowledge that my Jewish upbringing gave me, the knowledge I was able to bring to class to enrich discussions, was always emotionally loaded.

We also talked a lot about decomposing bodies in this class. At one point, we talked about how people in the Middle Ages thought that uncorrupted bodies were signs that the people were holy and sainted in life. I joked (bitterly, to myself) – Christians in medieval Europe, and Jews in twenty-first-century Brooklyn believe the same thing… There are stories still told and fully believed today, about great rabbis whose graves were desecrated, and the bodies were intact years after burial – interpreted as signs of their greatness. This wasn’t solely an academic discussion for me – it was viscerally connected to things I had grown up with, and things I had consciously left and distanced myself from.

Before I left that whole world, I encountered emotional complexities involuntarily as well. When I started grad school, I was still religious and living with my parents in Boro Park, Brooklyn. I moved out and left religion that January, after my first semester was over. In my Old English class that first semester, when I was still visibly religious, I was once assigned a passage from Aelfric’s Preface to Genesis. I translated it as usual. It happened to be arguing that the Old Testament book of Genesis proves the Trinity, because God says, “let us make man in our likeness” – plural “us,” singular “likeness.” I had fun with the translation, as I always do – I love the puzzle of grammar and translation, and the fact that this one was focused on a bit of grammar itself was added fun! This kind of exegesis is also very familiar to me – Rashi, an eleventh-century Jewish commentator on the Torah and Talmud, often uses grammar to make a theological point. The moment it became not-so-fun for me was when I read the lines aloud in class and my professor’s immediate comment was, “I’m sorry for making you read heresy.” I hadn’t cared about the “blasphemous” content of the text – it was an academic exercise for me. And while I appreciate his thoughtfulness in trying to spare my religious sensibilities, it lifted me out of the academic dissociation (which had been a good thing!) and forced my Jewish identity back into the room, where I didn’t want it.

During that semester, I also became painfully aware of how little my deep and broad knowledge of Torah and Judaism would help in the sphere of mainstream medieval studies, centered as it is on Christianity. We were reading the Old English Judith, and the class turned to me, as a Jewish person who has extensive Jewish education, to clarify where in the Torah the book of Judith appears. I said, with great certainty, that Judith and Maccabees are books that do not exist in Hebrew – they exist only in the Christian Bible and as oral Jewish history. I was half-right. These books are not part of the Hebrew Torah (there are 24 books which I can still recite by heart). But they do exist in written Hebrew versions. They just weren’t accepted as canon in the Jewish Torah.

Being surrounded by medievalists means that I find out more about my own heritage. I grew up in ultra-Orthodox Boro Park and attended a Bais Yaakov all-girls school, where I often did not get a historically-accurate account of Jewish history or theology. In an attempt to portray haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism as the one true version of Judaism that has its roots at Mt Sinai, the community often flattens out the many twists and turns that Jewish theology and Jewish law took through the ages (this is something I discuss in my dissertation about haredi children’s literature).

Bais Yaakov schools also often bowdlerize Torah and commentaries to avoid uncomfortable discussions about sex (among other things). So when I was in twelfth grade, I learned “Adam yadah es Chavah,” Adam knew Eve, as “Adam married Eve” – no mention of sex. I knew enough by that point to recognize that this “knew” referred to “carnal knowledge” (I read books from the public library against my school’s rules…) But I wasn’t always so aware and sophisticated… So I often retain wrong knowledge of Torah and commentaries.

Recently, I discovered another verse in Genesis that had been censored in Bais Yaakov. Rashi has a controversial explanation for Adam’s request for a mate. As we had learned it, Adam saw that every other animal had a mate, and he felt lonely and asked God for one of his own. But according to Rashi, Adam tried to have sex with every single animal, realized that none was compatible, and only then asked God for a mate. We usually read Rashi’s commentary on every word in every verse – we only skipped the comments where he translated words into “la’az,” the French vernacular. But we had apparently skipped this comment of Rashi’s, where he talks about Adam’s bestiality (or, possibly, the haredi-published edition of Torah we used in school leaves out this comment). I found this out because I read medievalist blogs – this one in particular was on Karl Steel’s blog, where he was writing about medieval posthumanism and the various ways in which medieval people wrote about human-animal interactions.

Again, while this is a “cool” moment of discovery for many people, for me as a formerly-ultra-Orthodox Jew it’s tinged with bitterness – this is my own heritage (I mean, not just that I’m Jewish, but according to my uncle, who traced our genealogy, I’m actually a direct descendant of Rashi), but that heritage was stolen from me by omissions from the text we supposedly knew very well. It’s being given back to me by medievalists – and by my own studies in medieval literature. In a more direct incident, my paper for a class on “Medieval Conversions” with Steve Kruger focused on Hebrew chronicles and liturgical poetry of the Crusades. I recognized some of the poetry from the times I went to services on Tisha b’Av, when the Book of Lamentations is read along with liturgical poems commemorating Jewish tragedies throughout the centuries.

My dissertation is no longer medieval (I’m writing about contemporary haredi children’s literature). But I’m working on an article I hope will be ready for submission this summer, an extension of that seminar paper examining twelfth-century Hebrew chronicles and poetry about the Crusades, when many Jews in Europe were slaughtered by Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. It’s a difficult process for me – these atrocities happened to my ancestors, and I often break down in sorrow as I read the texts.

But the rhetoric in these texts, about the martyrs who gave their lives rather than convert to the “horrible impure” Christianity, is far too similar to what my parents and grandmother said to me, when they told me not to associate with goyim, and when they told me that I owe my faith to my ancestors who suffered to hold onto their own faith. But at the same time, studying these texts gives me release – I can reclaim my heritage through academic study. I also finally have that “leg up” because Biblical references are embedded throughout the texts, often unexplained, and I can recognize them – I can recite many verses of Torah and Talmud because of my twelve+ years of school, and I grew up with many of them as part of my everyday language.

So being a Jewish medievalist, especially an ex-Orthodox medievalist, is emotionally very difficult. But davka because of the very things that make it difficult, it’s also emotionally great.

Grief and Glory: Use of Hebrew Crusades Chronicles and Piyuttim to Deter Adolescent Conversion

Way back in 2015, what feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote a seminar paper titled “Affective Use of First Crusade Chronicles and Piyyutim to Stem Adolescent Conversion” for a class on medieval conversions. In 2017, I presented a revised version of that paper at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds.

My work has since shifted in multiple ways, and that paper doesn’t fit into my dissertation anymore. But I’ve kept it simmering on a back burner, always intending to do something with it. Now, after a Twitter conversation with someone who encouraged me to write and submit this to journals, I’m working on it again.

The paper I presented at Leeds needs a lot or work and revision – essentially a whole rewrite – to make it journal-submission-worthy. I’m sharing it here as I begin to revise, rewrite, rework it.


The first few sections of the paper lead you through my thought-process and research process because I was still working through these ideas at the time and was far from being able to write decisively and authoritatively. Hopefully, returning to this all after having it rattle around my brain for two years, I’ll be able to write it more seamlessly for publication!

I ’m going to begin with three introductions. First, about how this paper fits into my work more broadly: This paper is really only tangential to my dissertation topic. My dissertation focuses on educational and pedagogical moves in medieval British literature. [Edit: no longer true. My dissertation no longer focuses on medieval British literature, but on contemporary American Haredi literature.] There is a consensus in childhood studies and in medieval studies that various constructions of childhood existed based on differences in class, gender, religion, etc. I’ll be arguing that the ideologies of education and of childhood are dependent as much on differences in the formal conventions of literary genres as on the lived differences of medieval children. This paper is focused on a different geographic area (Ashkenaz) and doesn’t deal directly with educational texts. But it does focus on the ways in which adults try to teach or influence young minds, and that is the focus of my dissertation. [This part is still true.]The argument of this paper is based on an exploration of how these texts may have been used to influence young minds, how adults thought certain moves and associations would affect teenage boys’ decisions.

So now for a brief introduction to the texts and the events they commemorate, with an acknowledgement that this is not my main area of study and I may at times gloss over some of the more important aspects in order to get to my point of interest… In 1096, as Crusaders headed to Jerusalem during the First Crusade, they passed through Europe and killed many Jews who lived in the area called Ashkenaz, particularly in the cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. This tragedy became an integral part of Jewish history – in fact, growing up in a twentieth-century Jewish home and attending Jewish schools, I thought the Crusades were only about the Christians killing Jews – like a precursor to the Holocaust. The Hebrew chronicles and poetry written in the twelfth century to commemorate the tragedy of course also focus on the Jewish victims, with only brief mention of the main purpose of the Crusades – as one would expect from texts memorializing the massacres of Jewish communities.

Susan Einbinder argues that the martyrological poetry was aimed at least in part at an audience of potential converts after the threat of the Crusades had passed – medieval Jews converted to Christianity at times voluntarily due to a variety of factors including social, economic, and political factors. William Chester Jordan claims that adolescent Jewish boys were the group most vulnerable to voluntary conversion to Christianity in the twelfth century. Einbinder draws on that argument to suggest that aspects of the poetry do show signs of being directed at adolescent males rather than (or, in addition to) adults – the poetry sets up the extreme cruelty and evil of the Christian Crusaders in contradiction to the pure and valiant martyrdom of the Jewish teens, which adults hoped would convince teens to align themselves with the pure and valiant (the Jews) rather than the cruel and evil (the Christians.)

The third introduction is about my personal connection to the topic. When I read Susan Einbinder’s argument that the piyyutim, the poetry, were perhaps used to persuade teenage boys not to convert from Judaism to Christianity, my first reaction was – I was baffled. If adolescent boys were at risk for conversion because of the suffering and degradation they experienced as Jews and because of the perceived release from suffering that conversion could bestow – how, then, could poetry which agonizes over the suffering and deaths of the previous generation convince young boys to remain Jewish? If the poetry keeps telling them how bad it is for Jews, wouldn’t that serve to convince them to leave rather than to stay in the Jewish community?  Einbinder does address that, but from my own childhood and adolescence, I could find an answer – I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, where the Holocaust is invoked often to prove that Jews are the most persecuted people in the history of the world, and there is an expectation that this reminder will engender Jewish pride and a sense of belonging and obligation rather than a desire to leave – in fact, when I left religion, my mother said to me, “you’re demeaning the sacrifices your ancestors made in order to keep the faith.” So, I could begin to see that perhaps stories of ongoing persecution could be used as a means of convincing people to remain part of the persecuted group. Whether or not it works is a different story… But it does indicate that it is thought to be effective.

As I continued to read about the chronicles and the piyyutim, and as I read the texts themselves numerous times, I had another question, this time about the glorification of the martyrs, especially the young martyrs. It would seem that these figures, the young adult males who sacrificed themselves, would be the point of identification for boys in the following generation, boys who are ostensibly the target of anti-conversionary uses of the texts. But the point can’t possibly be to convince these teenage boys to martyr themselves? I began to read about the ideas of martyrdom, and about the uses of these texts in later generations, etc. And again, this is addressed in the scholarship, which emphasizes that the martyrs were not an ideal to emulate. But another memory from my own childhood and adolescence surfaced: the many times I had heard the phrase, “it’s wonderful to die al Kiddush Hashem (in sanctification of God’s name), but it’s much more difficult and much more beautiful to live al Kiddush Hashem.” So again, I could see that rhetoric being employed with the Crusade chronicles and piyyutim as well – the boys would see the impossible choice the martyrs had, and the adults hoped that this would inspire them to live according to God’s principles.

These personal conclusions were borne out as I continued reading. I think it’s important to make this connection, to acknowledge that the kinds of arguments scholars see being made in medieval texts are still used today. And here I leave the personal behind, and get to the analysis of the Hebrew texts themselves…

Both sets of texts grapple with theological ideas like whether the victims of the Crusade massacres were sinful and being punished or were in fact holy and being tested – the resounding conclusion is that they were holy and passed an extremely difficult test set by God, and that this heralds hope for an immediate redemption rather the absence of God’s help seen during the massacres. But these complex problems are dealt with not via theological reasoning but via strong emotional expression: expressions of outrage and despair at God turn quickly into expressions of hope and blessing, making the jump via emotionally-charged language rather than rational explanation. If we accept Einbinder’s claim (as I do) that this body of poetry was utilized to dissuade teenage boys from converting, then it would seem that emotional rather than theological argument was the preferred strategy for preventing young converts. While the prose chronicles are less forceful in their emotional expression and do include some theological reasoning, they also use emotional language. (Of course, the prose wasn’t used the same way the poetry was, as part of the liturgy, and wasn’t as widely read as the poems. But there is of course reason to include them in an analysis of rhetorical attempts to dissuade conversion.)

The reason this matters a lot to me is that Einbinder bases her argument on the following factors: first, “the stylistic features and some of the motifs in Hebrew martyrological poetry suggest that its textual matter targeted an audience characterized by a high level of linguistic sophistication and a high susceptibility to images of vulgarity and pollution” (12). That’s in her introduction, a brief overview of this point. Later, in the chapter where she lays out the full argument, she writes that “young men experiencing the characteristic frustration and volatility of adolescence could see in conversion a powerful way to rebel” (25). This assumes that medieval teenage boys were in essence the same as contemporary teenage boys – frustrated, volatile, wanting to rebel – an assumption I think is made too quickly.

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, in an essay about madness, conversion, and adolescent suicide among Jews in twelfth-century England, defines adolescence according to a mix of contemporary and historical views: first, there’s the “radical changes associated with puberty,” which in contemporary thought is linked to hormonal changes “causing emotional and personal changes accompanied by a growing awareness of the self and a projected self-image,” at times linked to an identity crisis and defining oneself vis-à-vis others. He also says that adolescents tend to “wrestle with ideological issues rather intensely,” and that adults tend to interpret all of this as “impulsive and incoherent” (73).

The problem with all of this is that it assumes that once the category of adolescence is proven to be applicable to medieval youth (as Einbinder acknowledges that it is an often-contested category), contemporary ideas about adolescence are mapped onto medieval adolescence. While the consensus among medieval childhood scholars is that there was in fact a category of adolescence during the Middle Ages, the characteristics associated with that stage in medieval minds could be different than the contemporary ideas, and could vary widely between Christian communities and Jewish communities. While I saw no reason to discount Einbinder’s and Shoham-Steiner’s assumptions, I did want to check their accuracy. After analyzing the texts for evidence of attitudes toward adolescents via the ways in which adults spoke to or attempted to influence adolescents, I concluded that (according to these texts, at least) these assumptions could be accurate. The ways in which the chronicles and poetry attempt to influence the minds of these adolescent boys indicate that the medieval Jewish Ashkenazic idea of teenage boys does focus on their volatility, and does view their “intense wrestling with ideological matters” as simply “impulsive and incoherent.”

Eliezer bar Nathan begins his chronicle with the technical details of where and when, referring to the Torah in the midst of this very briefly in order to say that ״כל הצרות האמורות בכל התוכחות הכתובות בעשרים וארבעה ספרים, כתוב ולא כתוב עבר עלינו ועל נפשנו״ (Haberman 72), “All the misfortunes related in all the admonitions written in the twenty-four books, those enumerated in Scripture as well as those unwritten, befell us and our souls” (Eidelberg 79). In this way, the chronicle of simple historical facts is already set up as an attempt to explain the events theologically, not only to describe them. And yet for the next while in the text, events are described and no explicit theological reason is given for the troubles plaguing the Jewish communities.

Later in the chronicle, there are two clear instances of a kind of explanation. The second one occurs during the narration of a failed attempt by the bishop of Mainz to save some of the Jews by relocating them to the villages of Rheingau, where Bar Nathan says that fleeing was futile, ״כי בעוונותינו ניתן רשות למשחית לחבל״ (Haberman 75), “for because of our sins, the slayer had been given permission to injure” (Eidelberg 84). This is a common explanation for tragedy, but again, doesn’t seem suitable for an attempt to win young boys back to the faith. The first instance, though, is a perfect strategy for playing on emotions of pride in saying that ״וזה הדור נבחר לפניו להיות לו למנה, כי היה בהם כח וגבורה לעמוד בהיכלו ולעשות דברו ולקדש שמו הגדול בעולמו ועליהם אמר דוד ׳ברכו יי מלאכיו גבורי כח עושי דברו״ (Haberman 73), “this was the generation that had been chosen by Him to be His portion, for they had the strength and the fortitude to stand in His sanctuary, and fulfill His word, and sanctify His Great Name in His world. It is of these that King David said: ‘Bless the Lord, ye angels of His, ye mighty in strength, that fulfill His word’” (Eidelberg 80).

Though the boys susceptible to conversionary efforts would not have been part of this generation chosen for their strength, the chronicle’s narrative shifting between communities, community leaders, and brave young individuals does have the potential to inspire a fierce pride and to create an alignment in the young readers’ minds between themselves and these brave chosen ones. (Others have read this shifting between leaders and individuals differently, but this explanation does work here in the context of adolescents…) And although the chronicle does not do this very much, some of the poems make a clear connection between the word בחורים meaning young men and the idea of נבחר, the chosen ones. בחורים does literally mean chosen ones, and the juxtaposition of these words in some poems (particularly אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi”) provides strong suggestion that the young men are the best and bravest.

One of the anonymous poems, אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi,” uses the explanation of the people’s sins as well, but the nuances there are different.

על התורה אשר בקדושה נחקקה, כלו לומדיה שנתגזרו להפסקה ברית מילה חמחודה וחשוקה, שבתות ומועדים וכל יום צרה וצוקה

חסין יה, שוכן מעלים! מקדם על עקידה אחת צעקו לפניך אראלים, ועתה כמה נעקדים ונכללים – ומדוע לא הרעישו על בני עוללים!

ואנו אין להרהר על הרדומים, כי הם לחיי עד ערוכים ומחותמים: אבל עלינו, כי למאד חויבנו אשמים אשר עברנו מצוות תמימים (Haberman 62 and Carmi 373)

On the Torah which was enacted in holiness, her learners died because they were ordered to stop the precious and desirable bris milah, and the Shabbos and holidays and every day of tragedy and distress.

Almighty Lord, dwelling on high, in days of old the angels cried out to you to put a halt to one sacrifice [akeidah]. And now, so many are bound and slaughtered – why do they not clamour over my infants?

But we must not question the fate of the dead, for they have been destined for eternal life. We must question ourselves, for we have been found very guilty; we have transgressed the precepts of right. (Carmi 373)

There is a clear separation here, again not atypical of explanations of tragedy, between those killed, or sacrificed, and those left to mourn. Those killed are pure and holy – they have sanctified god’s name. Those left to live with the horrors must do a personal accounting of their sins and acknowledge their part in bringing suffering upon the nation. Two stanzas before the line confessing guilt, the poet talks about the holiness of the Torah and those who study it, and claims that the holy students died because they were told to stop practicing bris milah and observing Shabbos and holidays. It suggests the martyrs acted with steadfast refusal to leave their faith and implies that those who survived might not have been strong enough and instead brought god’s wrath on the entire community.

While that does not seem effective in inspiring good feelings in the youth and would rather inspire resentment at being called sinful, most of the other rhetorical constructions in both the poetry and prose ensure that the young readers would be identifying with the martyred heroes and not with those too weak to resist. The next stanza in this poem does that: ״חי עולמים, בצל כנפיך אנו בורחים, כי נשארנו עגונים ואנוחים מבלי להשתתף לתלוי שוחחים – פגר מובס, יבושו כל אליו בוטחים!״ “O everlasting God, we seek refuge in the shadow of Your wings. We have been abandoned, alone and suffering, because we refused to bow our heads before the crucified one, a corpse trampled underfoot. Let all who put their trust in him be put to shame!” (Carmi 373). Although the poem calls out the survivors for having sinned, the rhetoric negates that and instead places them in the category of those who sacrificed their lives for god – “we have refused to bow…” As Einbinder points out, the poems tend to ignore the individuals who did convert or were forcibly converted, while the prose chronicles do mention them (Einbinder 20). But the chronicles, particularly Bar Nathan’s, even as they relate conversions taking place, go to great efforts to present these converts in a heroic light as well. There is the instance of Master Uri and Master Isaac with Isaac’s two daughters all killing themselves after having been forcibly converted (Eidelberg 84), where it is obvious that the conversion was not a result of weakness and that they were spared from death not because they were unworthy of being martyrs. Their suicides make it clear that they are just as holy and above suspicion as those killed by the Crusaders. Their suicides, of course, are their acts of martyrdom.

The chronicle also mentions those who converted, or who were converted forcibly, and did not martyr themselves. Again using language evoking vivid images of vile putrefaction, the chronicle says, “שסופם מוכיח על תחילתם, שלסוף לא חשבו את יראתם עי אם לטיט ולצואה” (Haberman 73), “the later acts of those thus coerced are testimony to this beginning, for in the end they regarded the object of the enemy’s veneration as no more than slime and dung” (Eidelberg 81). Rather than leave an opening for the vulnerable teens to say, “but these people converted and made it!” the chronicle states clearly that even those who escaped dying, which the teens might connect to their own potential escape from hardship and degradation, knew by the end that their new environment was associated with “slime and dung.”

A technique which does tie fierce pride and community to faith-based identification is the relating of events to significant moments in the Jewish calendar or week. The connection is made between the calendar day when the Jews began to prepare themselves to receive the Torah and the day when the community of Worms began to seclude themselves and prepare to sacrifice themselves. The destruction of Cologne as ״ויהרסו בית הכנסת ויוציאו את ספרי התורות ויתעוללו בהם ויתנום למרמס חוצות, ביום נתינתה, אשר הרעישה הארץ ועמודיה יתפלצון״ (Haberman 76), “the foe destroyed the synagogue and removed the Torah scrolls, desecrating them and casting them into the streets to be trodden underfoot” happened “on the very day that the Torah was given, when the earth trembled and its pillars quivered” (Eidelberg 85), drawing a distinction between the holiness of the Jews on that day and the profanity of the Christians. A few times, bar Nathan mentions that the destruction began or the first person was killed on Shabbos or as Shabbos was about to begin, implying an inherent holiness to the action further imbued by the holiness of the day. As the youth admire the heroism and bravery for its exciting qualities, the overt connection to religious faith and bravery would (or would be hoped to) strengthen the affective bond of the youth to the Jewish faith.

Though the lack of theological discussion is obvious, a staple of lamentations – that of crying out to god and either pleading for redemption or accusing him of ignoring those pleas – is employed in the chronicle to serve a kind of theological purpose. Exclamations like ״העל אלה לא תפקוד בם. ועד אנה תביט בוגדים ותחריש״ (Haberman 76), “O God, will You not punish them for these acts? How long will you look on at the wicked and remain silent?” (Eidelberg 85) do raise the question about why god stands by and does not protect the Jews, but at the same time they answer that question with the implicit expectation of eventual salvation. Twice bar Nathan uses the sentence ״העל אלה תתאפק יי״ (Haberman 75 and 80), “Wilt thou restrain Thyself for these things, O Lord?” (Eidelberg 83 and 90), with the expectation obviously being that he will not. The poetry as a general rule employs more anger and accusation in these anguished cries, but the prose embeds answers within the questions.

Both of these match the functions of each set in terms of influencing young men. Even with the chronicle’s craft in evoking emotion, it is more logical than the poetry and it is understandable that the author would want to at least gesture toward a level-headed answer. If dissatisfaction with being a part of a community which suffers so much was a possible impetus for conversion, giving the youth a place to express anger at their situation was vital, especially when the speaker of the poem was one of the leaders of the community. For a few moments, everyone, both the scholarly old and the rash youth, could be united in their anguish and could acknowledge that believing that god will make things right does not take away the pain of the moment. Validating that emotion for adolescents would be more crucial in convincing them to stay with the battered community than any theological reasoning.

Playing on the emotions of the reader in relation to family, closer to home than the general community, the texts also set up the youth as a link between generations past and future. The examples of this are interestingly divided neatly, so that the prose chronicle contains more descriptions of fathers in this context and the poetry more descriptions of little children, especially younger siblings. Bar Nathan recounts many stories involving sons and fathers. One is skillfully crafted not only to showcase Jewish familial pride and legacy, but at the same time to juxtapose Christian expectations with that.

״וקידש מר שמואל ב״ר אשר את השם לעיני השמש וגם שני בניו אשר עמו. לאחר שנהרג, הוא ובניו, התעוללו בהם וגררום וירמוסם בטיט חוצות, ויתלו את בניו על פתח ביתו כדי להתעולל בו״

(Haberman 77)

“Samuel, the son of Asher, sanctified God’s Name for all to behold, as did his two sons who were with him. After he and his sons were slain, they [the Crusaders] defiled their bodies by dragging them through the muddy streets and trampling them. Then they hanged his sons at the entrance to his home in order to mock him” (Eidelberg 86).

The Crusaders intend this action of hanging his sons at his door to be an insult, displaying their own power and the sons’ degradation and therefore the shame brought upon the father. To the Jews, however, this would have been a symbol of great pride, albeit a somber pride, since the sons followed the father’s lead and martyred themselves for god’s glory, never succumbing to pressure. This works as a method of showing young teenagers how their dedication to their faith could bring their parents joy and pride even among grief.

The poetry plays on another aspect of adolescent pride by addressing the reactions of younger siblings and children more generally. אדברה בצר רוחי  “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi” describes how ״צעקת ילדים איך גדלה! רואים אחיהם נשחטים בחלחלה, האם קושרת בנה פן בפרכוס יחללה, והאב מברך על השחיטה לכללה״ “the children cried aloud! Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered; the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering; the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter” (Carmi 373). Since we’ve accepted that medieval Ashkenazic adolescence is similar to the contemporary idea, I’ll venture to say this: Teens usually can’t resist the idea of having an effect on their younger siblings, and the image of the little ones being so affected by their own sacrifice could have a strong impact on the way they behave. Obviously, they’re not expected to die in order to have this effect on their younger siblings. But as a ploy to get adolescent boys to think about themselves as role models or exemplars for their younger siblings, this moving description of children watching their older brothers die is very powerful.

There’s a lot more to be said about how the texts, both the poetry and the prose, attempt to influence teenage boys. Einbinder includes a question of whether the poetry was effective in these methods, whether it did stem the tide of conversions. There seems to be no real way of drawing direct correlations between the literature and the trends of conversion, and therefore no way of knowing whether the perceived efficacy of these methods worked, whether the way the writers thought teenage minds worked matched with the way teenage minds actually worked. (I know a few rabbis who would love to know which methods work – the director of Agudath Israel loves to call the current trend of youth leaving Orthodox Judaism a “hemorrhage,” though I’m fairly certain he has not read Shatzmiller…) However, it does seem important that the modes of persuasion are similar to some of the modes still used today in some Jewish communities. My work on medieval British literary modes of education and patterns of thought about how children’s and teens’ minds work, etc., suggests (at least so far, as I’m still toward the beginning of my work) that they differ greatly from contemporary modes and patterns.

Afterword:Reading this through again now, it seems so obvious to me that my dissertation shifted from medieval British Christian texts to contemporary American Haredi texts.

Educators’ Praise as Evidence of Their Ideologies

It stands to reason that the traits praised by educators are the ones they see as the goal of education.

My own report cards from elementary school provide an interesting window into this question.

As I continue to work on my dissertation’s central question (what is education, according to different cultures?) I have been asking what each system of education values. It stands to reason that the traits praised by educators are the ones they see as the goal of education.

My own report cards from elementary school provide an interesting window into this question. I was usually an excellent student, with some notable exceptions. But what exactly each teacher praises is telling.

Some teachers who wrote my report card comments value academics, self-discipline, and effort. Some don’t mention academics at all, and instead focus entirely on personality. Most are a mix of the two. 

Many talk about my contribution to the class, and many mention a wish that I provide nachas to my parents – as if the purpose of my excellence is to benefit my parents and community, not primarily to help propel my own future.

My favorite of these is my eighth grade Secular Studies report card. Mrs. Mitnick was my favorite teacher in elementary/middle school, because she so obviously valued intelligence and academic success for personal benefit. And her comments reflect that. Thank you, Mrs. Malky Mitnick ❤