Monday, February 02, 2009

Miracle Ride: Bais Yaakov Revealed

I recently read Miracle Ride: A True Story of Illness, Faith, Humor- And Triumph by Tzipi Caton. The book is about an Orthodox Jewish girl's battle with cancer. But oddly, the book was meaningful to me for a completely different reason. This was because of two passages, which I shall reproduce below, that beautifully evidence the stupidity of Bais Yaakov teachers the world over. And what is more disturbing, the impact their stupidity has on the people who must struggle to withstand it.

Excerpt 1

Take the first day of school for example:

There was one teacher who was famous for her "first day of school lesson." She did the same thing every year. She would walk into a classroom, point to one girl, and say, "YOU!!!" That year she made the mistake of pointing at me.

"You," she said, "do you love G-d?"

I looked at her and answered, "No, I don't think so."

I didn't mean that I didn't have ahavas Hashem. I meant that I knew I wasn't up to the level of ahavas Hashem that she was trying to bring out. I knew that she expected me to say that I loved Hashem, and then she was going to disprove it by telling me that a sixteen-year-old couldn't possibly reach perfection in that area. It was what she did every year. I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of making me feel stupid on the first day of class. So I was honest with her.

The teacher was taken aback by my answer. "Let me ask you this then, do you follow His commandments?"


The teacher's face lit up as if she had just invented the light bulb. "If you don't love God, then why do you do His mitzvos?"

"Well, I do your homework," I answered.

The class was roaring. I was kicked out.

Yeah, well, I guess I did have an attitude problem.


Excerpt 2

Right before I walked in, some classmates snatched my cap off my head, saying that my sheitel was stunning and there was no reason to cover it with a cap. They refused to give it back and I was ready to call it quits on my whole day in school.

When Miss Riegler saw some girls trying to hide my cap in a locker, she made them give it back to me. She said that how I felt was not up to me but at least my hat was, and that it wasn't their business to help me get used to my new look.


Pessie called me that night to tell me how glad she was to see me in school and how much she missed sitting with me at lunch. I liked talking to her. I didn't know her for all that long, but from the time we first sat together eating three-day-old bagels at lunch, we got along really well.

She told me that she was really sorry that some girls took off my cap that day. She said that a teacher in the school had asked them to do it. The teacher wanted the girls to tell me how good I looked without the cap and wanted to encourage me to wear the sheitel without it.

When I hung up, I got really angry. I was angry at the people who thought they could tell me how to live and what to do and why. It was as if everyone was an authority on Hodgkin's.



Let me first say that I am extremely impressed Artscroll allowed these excerpts to see the light of day, although I am sure the fact that the teachers are left unnamed was a big part of that. Well, it's either that, or these accusations were completely overlooked, which would not surprise me. Of course, for someone like me, these excerpts would never be overlooked, because I feel them as I read them. She writes about her teachers, and I envision them in my mind. I know these women- not her women, not the particular ones who taught her, but the ones who taught me, who were just the same in their steadfast and earnest stupidity when it comes to educating children. For me, it was these throwaway excerpts that made the book valuable, more even than the entire description of her battle with cancer, not because that is not a worthwhile struggle to document, but because these excerpts impact me personally. As I read them, memories flooded me, my anger swept over me, and I remembered exactly what I had felt like. But more than all of that, the fact that this girl, who bears no relation to me, and went to a completely school, writes these throwaway excerpts, vindicates me. Even now, I look for proof- proof to assemble to show that it is the system, not the student, who is at fault. It is as though I think that even now I shall be called before a principal, made to plead my case, and I want to have the ability to do it well.

Let's discuss the first excerpt. To afford the teacher the benefit of the doubt, I can envision a scenario in which her actions would be appropriate. They would be appropriate were she speaking to a gathering of reprobates and sinners who needed to be shocked out of their complacency and realize that they were less than perfect. But to talk in this way to a group of sixteen-year-old girls, each one overflowing with love of Hashem, and desiring to strive to be closer to Him? To suggest that they are inadequate, to mock them and make fun of them, to claim that their efforts are puny, pathetic, that they lack proper love of God? To put them down? To make them ashamed of having even dared to think that their offering before their Creator was worthwhile? Ah this rings of the bitter guilt they fed me, upon which I was surfeited, all the times in which I was told that I was not equal to the pinky finger of a Gadol, that I was lacking, that I was shameful. It does not need to be said aloud. A teacher need not yell, shout or scream to deliver that message. Look at what this girl writes, this girl who wrote the book.

"I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of making me feel stupid the first day of class."

And so the girl talked back. Well, tell me, what else could she do? Oh, she could have been like me, and attempted to prove to the teacher that everyone's love of God and effort is appreciated in accord with their ability. She could have brought in the Baal Shem Tov stories that I so love and told the teacher that God judges us in accordance with our intent, and knows the ways in which we strive and struggle to grow close to Him. She could have cited various Rabbis, including the Rav, regarding this concept. She could have taught her teacher that everyone's efforts, the way in which we all strive, is precious before God. But perhaps she did not know the sources, or perhaps, more experienced than I had been, she knew it would do no good. And so she did not bother. Instead she mocked the teacher, much as I did, and the teacher, sensing that her authority was questioned, threw her out of class.

The line that to me is the saddest is the one where the author admits her own guilt. "Yeah, well I guess I did have an attitude problem." Did you? Did you really? It is a sign of an attitude problem when you don't want your teacher to make you feel stupid, like a failure, to make you feel that you don't love God enough? Is it a sign of an attitude problem when you would like to be treated like a human being, and instead of being taught only in negatives, through a guilt-laden mussar oriented approach, you are taught in positives? You are taught instead of the fantastic heights to which one can reach love of God, the way in which one can strive from the level one currently inhabits and grow further attached to Him? Could the teacher not instead have asked the class how they loved God? She could have written their ideas and answers on the board, smiling as she did so. She could have praised them for their input and feedback. And then, she could have shown them sources, excerpts, actual texts, and shown them the wonderful ways in which this love could be developed further, taken to new heights. But no. It is much easier to tell a sixteen-year-old child that she doesn't love God enough, isn't good enough, won't ever be good enough. It is much easier to teach guilt and failure.

And then! What fool of a teacher could tell students to rob a girl of the cap she wears over her wig? Did it not occur to the teacher that the girl would feel self-conscious? That perhaps she is permitted to make her own judgements about her appearance and the way she would like to look? And then, for the teacher not to claim responsibility and own up to what she did, but instead allow Tzipi to find out about this through a fellow student- have you ever heard of such an act of cowardice? Who are these teachers whom we give leave to instruct our youth and why do we do it? Why do we educate our youth with the idea that the God who judges them is strict and cruel, desiring the every offering of the Gadol Hador, but throwing away the efforts of the sixteen-year-old? Why the emphasis on shame, guilt, failure, negativity, that which a person is not and potentially will never be? Why the endless comparisons to those who are meant to be far greater than us, better than us, always? It never ends! They never end, the feelings engendered by this, the failures we are taught we are. We exist for one purpose, and that is to support our husbands in Kollel, that most special of tasks a girl can accomplish. That is the sole purpose afforded a girl, beyond her consistent emphasis on tzniut. We are nothing unless it is in relation to someone else, whether it be a man who gives a purpose to our existence, a Gadol or Rabbi who can instruct us and who is worshipped by maidens who pursue him with honeyed devotion, or perhaps teachers to the next generation, raised to tell them what they are not, what they will never be. It is a vicious cycle! And the ugliness taught to one generation of students is parroted back by another; we live in a generation that lacks understanding and prefers rhetoric and rote to comprehension. It's sick; it's sick! It's the sickest, saddest thing I have ever seen, and it never fails to rouse my anger, when I see the way in which we persist in destroying children's souls before they have ever had a chance to breathe.

Do you know I still have to fight all of them now? All those teachers who told me what I wasn't, what I would never be, what I couldn't be, who poured guilt and shame into my ears for hours a day, and were angered by my "attitude," who saw nothing wrong with extolling the virtues of Gedolim and Rabbis and other praiseworthy figures, making them into saints, and comparing us to them in the most negative of never goes away. Am I shadowboxing, fighting with demons, shadows, hidden within myself? Most probably I am. But there is an insidious voice, lingering, which tells me each time I fall, no matter how much I cover myself over in the healing words of the Rav and every other teacher who writes of the ways in which we can grow and become stronger, that I am nothing, and will be nothing, and have ever been nothing, in comparison to the grey-bearded men who live in their cells, pouring over tomes that secretly I still despise- because I know that I will never live up to them. Even now- and it's been five years!- I harbor a hatred toward everyone who told me what I wasn't, and insisted upon my guilt and my sins, though I denied them, and said I did not have them. Well, guess what! Since then, I have sinned, and I am dirty, covered over in stains and mud, and perhaps God despises me! But I hope not, because I think He also sees what I can be, what I could be, and will be gentle with me, and help me to get there. My God isn't angry with me for a supposed lack of love for Him; my God only wishes to help me get there! Would that there was a world that echoed that opinion, where a girl doesn't have to accept their judgement of her, and echo them, believing their words, that she has an attitude problem because she doesn't want to be told of her failures, and what she lacks...instead dreaming of hearing, for once, what she does possess, and the ways in which she can make that serve her, and her God.


rashi said...

why do you feel a need to still fight? Why can't you just let go of that world and build your own life independent of what you were brought up with. The Bais Yakov teachers who instill those values in girls do not regret their actions... They do not think about the lives they have ruined... they move on without looking back. For the sake of your own happiness, Chana, close that book. Do not look back... Do not give those teachers the satisfaction of their lives... Move forward!

Unfurling Iris said...

Congratulations to this girl for her honesty and humor. We need more voices like hers.

I truly believe that it's not cruelty or indifference that keeps problems like those facing Jewish Education from being solved. It's that people don't know.

The Talmid said...

As a not-so-unrelated point, what are the best attributes to look for in a teacher? Is it with much knowledge, even if that person lacks pedagogical skills? Or a natural teacher who is not as highly educated? Or some other combination of knowledge and experience? And why do these Beis Yaakov schools love hiring 19 year olds who seemingly have neither attribute?

former classmate said...

To the Talmid:
Bravo for the following:.... "And why do these Beis Yaakov schools love hiring 19 year olds who seemingly have neither attribute?" Why indeed?!
On a more positive note-Chana,I can't wait to see you become a celebrated educator,principal of a high school and etc! You are warm,smart,sensitive and so very bright. We need female leaders like you in Jewish Orthodox School system to empower girls to become as good of individuals as they can be. You haven't changed one bit!Keep on shining!

Anonymous said...

"...that beautifully evidence the stupidity of Bais Yaakov teachers the world over."

After this line, I knew I wouldn't be reading one of your rational, well-thought out posts. You are so fuled with your anger at these "demons" of your childhood, that you honestly loose all discrimination, writing horrible general statements like the one above.

As someone who was educated in both Bais Yaakov and Modern Orthodox schools, I can tell you this- there are flawed teachers everwhere. There are people who should never become teachers- people with power, control, and anger issues- in every schooling system there is. I had a couple of teachers in BY that made me sit in the back of class and roll my eyes every three seconds. There were other teachers who were, and are, my role models- the warmst, most sincere, and deeply devoted Jews I have ever met.

In my MO school, I had the same experience. Teachers who seemed pure evil, who twisted Torah to give over a certain message, who taught in a cold and distancing way. Of course, I did have the teachers who made it all worth it, the kind and sincere ones who made me want to go to school.

BY is far from perfect. But to dismiss the entire system, a huge segment of Orthodox Judaism, entirely, is a terrible, terrible thing.

FTI said...

"...that beautifully evidence the stupidity of Bais Yaakov teachers the world over."

I'd like to extend this to administrators: they admit (and graduate) a girl who is not halachikly Jewish, and work to find a shiddach for her. The guy finds out the truth and the school (actually 3 orthodox schools and a seminary in Jerusalem) denies there's any shaila, but the city's Beis Din agrees she's not OK. Her rabbi denies it's a problem and hence she does not undergo geirus (and she remains forbidden to any Jewish man). What should the guy feel then? rashi & Anonymous, when you are betrayed by the people whose jobs are to nurture you, how else should you feel?
And rashi, BTW, molesters and rapists don't regret their actions either.

Chana said...


One thing I must correct. My teachers, and teachers the world over, especially within Bais Yaakov, never mean to ruin lives. They are not so cruel. It is because everything is done for our own good that it is so terrible. It is done innocently and sweetly and with the utmost kindness. It would give them no satisfacation to watch my fail; it was never their intent to cause that.

As for moving forward, I have been trying. In some ways I have succeeded. In other ways, I am still learning. I bow to the Master; He has the final word on how everything plays out.

Unfurling Iris,

I think you are right that people don't know, but I also think we have created a system where those in the best position to tell- the students- are not to be trusted. We mistake the concept for kavod to mean giving honor to those who do not deserve it.

The Talmid,

Above all else, a teacher must be understanding. This means that s/he must be interested and willing to listen to the student explain his/ her piece. S/he must also be able to understand that students have different opportunities and different backgrounds, and to judge a person in accordance to what their opportunities were, not in contrast to others, or to paragons who do not even exist. A teacher must also possess the critical ability to admit she is wrong, or does not know everything and will have to look up information. She must respect her students, and in turn, and in thanks for that trust, they will respect her.

Former Classmate,

Don't know who you are or if I deserve the accoldates, but appreciate the vote of confidence. Thanks.

Anonymous 9:30 PM,

My antipathy toward certain Bais Yaakov teachers in no way is intended to extend to the entire movement. There are some (the very few knowledgeable ones) who subscribe to the Chareidi ideology, and whose brilliance and genuine care has always been transformative. The rest ought not to be teaching when they don't understand their religion themselves; they do so much damage that way. And of course, no one says that in condemning the Bais Yaakov teachers, I mean to praise the Modern Orthodox ones. There is no such dichotomy in my mind...

FTI 10:43,

I don't know the particulars of your situation, but agree with the concept that in general, if you are betrayed by the people who are meant to nurture and help you, it's not going to be easy going forward. And that applies to everyone, anywhere- whether it be one's parents, teachers, lovers...anyone who betrays hurts past the bonds that restrain time.

Anonymous said...

If we are talking about correct values, then we can't pick and choose - we take Torah as a package. This said, while these anecdotes do illustrate values that are antithetical to Torah on the part of the teachers, it is imperative to keep in mind standards of lashon hara and the dangers of condemning an entire segment of the Jewish population because of bad experiences with only a part of it. More specific and nuanced posts that do not serve to degrade a huge and valuable force in our community would be not only appreciated but also more intelligent and accurate.

Anonymous said...

On a more positive note-Chana,I can't wait to see you become a celebrated educator,principal of a high school and etc! =========================

amen - on many levels, it will be interesting to watch.
Joel Rich

Chai18 said...

It's the classic Slabodka vs Novardok conflict. Do you try to break down a person or build them up to reach the greatest heights?

Been there said...

Chana and Chai 18,
it's much better to build people up to reach the greatest heights. It's simply a win-win situation all around and I'm speaking from a personal experience here.
Great post!

Anonymous said...

how did she she does her hw if it was the first day of school?

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:30 here:

But Chana, don't you see what you're doing? You write that these women don't understand their religion themselves- how can you say that? How can you judge people like that? Just becuase they don't understand religion the same way you do? You can never know what is going on in another's neshama, how they understand Torah or G-d or anything. And what I meant earlier was that by writing "the stupidity of Bais Yaakov teachers the world over," you are simplifying everything to an absurd degree. Like I said, everyone- even people in regular old public schools- can be scarred by bad teachers in hundreds of ways. But you write about it as though it is only a problem in BY schools, which it is not.

Been there said...

Anon 9:30 said:

"But Chana, don't you see what you're doing? You write that these women don't understand their religion themselves- how can you say that? How can you judge people like that? Just becuase they don't understand religion the same way you do? You can never know what is going on in another's neshama, how they understand Torah or G-d or anything."

Anon,what kind of an argument is this? These teachers @BY schools are hired to teach,are they not? Instead,many of them preach and shame children instead of building them up. And it's not Chana's job to know what's going on in these teachers' neshamas and etc. These teachers were hired to do a job and do it well,not to hurt or abuse. You are telling Chana not to judge and yet you are judging her yourself. Please think before you act.

Anonymous said...

Been there,

I am not judging Chana, I am trying to understand what she is saying. You're right, it isn't Chana's job to know what is going on in their neshamas- so why does she presume that it is? Saying that they don't understand the religion they follow is doing just that.
I am in no way condoning teachers who humiliate and hurt their students. Everyone should feel safe and loved in school, especially in a religious institution. I just think we would do well to avoid generalizations.

Been there said...

Anon 9:30 said:
" You're right, it isn't Chana's job to know what is going on in their neshamas- so why does she presume that it is?"

Anon,kindly refrain from using what I said to support your cause. What I meant is that it doesn't matter what these teachers have going on in their neshamas(they should not be bringing their lack of understanding God,religion and etc to work and/or extending their erronious understanding of religious concepts to the students). The key point here is that they are hired to teach the right way,based on sources and not personal beliefs and nurture the students and not hurt them.

Anonymous said...

I think you misunderstood the original content of my post. Chana remarked that the teachers did not understand Judaism. So I simply said that statements like that are unfair, as who are we to say how another person understands religion? Perhaps you think I said it to harshly, and I apologize if I did. I still think it's a valid point, but honestly, we're arguing over nothing.

And I don't know if its necessarily true that these teachers are hired to teach their sources, not their personal beliefs. In a BY school (and really, all religious schools I believe), a Judaic studies teacher is expected by the administration to teach religion from outside the sources, as well as from inside of them. Obviously the school must be careful that they hire teachers whose beliefs are in sync with those of the administration and the student body, but they hire religious teachers for a reason.
I agree, that they are there to nurture and not to hurt.

Been there said...

Anon 9:30,
thanks for the clarification.
Here is what I'd like to add-if the Judaic studies teachers are expected to teach from
outside the sources,then the teaching should be based on halakha and not one's personal beliefs or chumras. And this does support your point as well.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic, when I read the book I thought to myself, Chana wasn't the only victim of screwed-up teachers. Rather than whining her whole life, Tzipi, unlike Chana, managed to stay emotionally healthy, and happy. I begin to wonder if it wasn't Chana's own fault the teachers got to her.

AK said...

Anon February 05, 2009 3:56 PM,

keep on wondering. You are a jerk!

Just A Thought said...

Chana: Been reading a while without comment but I must ask you- aren't you really troubled by those that "defend you" by insulting others or trying to get them to stop commenting. Can't you deal with a bit of criticism of your thoughts and ideas. I know this is your blog but your defenders are a bit over the top. Can you not appreciate and understand differing opinions and don't you want to engage them in debte? The jerk line above is a bit much and it belittles this site.

Been there said...

To Anon Feb 5,3:56pm and Just a thought:

"It's ironic, when I read the book I thought to myself, Chana wasn't the only victim of screwed-up teachers. Rather than whining her whole life, Tzipi, unlike Chana, managed to stay emotionally healthy, and happy. I begin to wonder if it wasn't Chana's own fault the teachers got to her."
You are stating that it's Chana's fault that the teachers got to her. I want you to know that I'm a product of the same school Chana attended and will tell you without a doubt that these teachers were and continue to be on this crazy path of making everyone who is not like them as "frum" as they are. These teachers want to "save" the students from their unfortunate fate. You don't wish for the readers of this blog to defend Chana and yet you are insulting her by placing the blame in her lap.How appropriate is that?

Anonymous said...

Both sides could choose their words a little more carefully.

I think one point trying to be made was that most of us have had experiences in life that were not positive, the question is what do we do with them (R'YBS on how Y"K can turn aveirot into mitzvot - I always understood it as meaning that we use those prior experiences to power us in our "tikkun" - e.g. the memory of a bad teacher helps us teach others even as we'd rather be sleeping)

Joel Rich

AK said...

Joel Rich,
That's exactly what Chana is doing via this blog,her leadership as an Editor In Chief by writing well-researched,thought-provoking articles in The Observer,by helping the numerous students to concentrate on the positive and helping those who are in need.Those of us who have been @ the receiving end of her kindness are fully aware of the difference she makes in people's lives.

Anonymous said...

The only question is,

Did Chana walk away better, or bitter, and I think the answer is the latter.

FTI said...

There are always different ways to take things, and sometimes you don't know what you learned until you're in a similar situation later. But some (way too many) of Chana's ex-school's teachers and students act 1) against halacha (in certain situations, see below) and 2) without common courtesy and basic manners. The details are irrelevant here, but enough people have gone through enough experiences to verify this.

I'm not saying they're minim or apikorsim, or that the problem is limited to that school, but they live a very, very narrow life and when something a little out of the ordinary happens they do what they want, even if the right course of action is clearly presented to them (like an Igros Moshe). These people who say you have to listen to the gedolim ignore RMF's psak because they don't feel like it, or it's inconvenient to them.

Just A Thought said...

I am not speaking about only this particuar post. On most posts those who criticize Chana are belittled, not because of their ideas but because they chose to criticize Chana. Not all that mature.

Been there said...

To Just a thought:

Once again you are trying to guilt Chana regarding her "defenders". I bet you Chana doesn't even know most of these people. For example,she doesn't know me personally even though we attended the same high school. What do you expect Chana to do ? Tell her readership not to defend her? People are entitled to their opinions whether you like it or not.

Just A Thought said...

We are saying the exact same thing! It seems to me that the defense of Chana borders on trying to shut others up. I do not find those who disagree being intolerant- just trying to state their case. We are not criticizing Chana and even if we were that is ok- at least I think so.

Anonymous said...

not saying this is the case here, but one grows from discussion with a loyal opposition and withers when surrounded by yes-persons (see Bava Metziah 84a - תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף פד עמוד א
נח נפשיה דרבי שמעון בן לקיש, והוה קא מצטער רבי יוחנן בתריה טובא. אמרו רבנן: מאן ליזיל ליתביה לדעתיה - ניזיל רבי אלעזר בן פדת, דמחדדין שמעתתיה. אזל יתיב קמיה, כל מילתא דהוה אמר רבי יוחנן אמר ליה: תניא דמסייעא לך. אמר: את כבר לקישא? בר לקישא, כי הוה אמינא מילתא - הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא, ומפרקינא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי, וממילא רווחא שמעתא. ואת אמרת תניא דמסייע לך, אטו לא ידענא דשפיר קאמינא? הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה, וקא בכי ואמר: היכא את בר לקישא, היכא את בר לקישא, והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה [מיניה]. בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה. )
Joel Rich

TheManWithTheBlackHat said...

This book was not published by Artscroll, but rather by Shaar Press. Shaar Press is somewhat of a subsidiary of Artscroll - it is where they publish material that is somewhat controversial - i.e. Rabbi Berel Wein's history series.