Ultra-Orthodox girls lean out of a classroom window / Getty Images
“What do you mean he abused her?” The question was shrill and innocuous.
The teacher, Mrs. Stern, looked incredibly uncomfortable. But hey, she had brought it up. “He got into the bed with her, and he abused her.” Mrs. Stern shrugged her shoulders at the ambiguity of it all, as if it was impossible to know what the passage was really saying. “Now let’s move on.”
I rolled my eyes from the back of the room. Seventh-grade Prophets class at Bais Yaakov, my school for Orthodox Jewish girls. We were studying Samuel II, wherein King David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, who is then violently avenged by her brother Absalom. But Mrs. Stern didn’t use the word “rape,” because sex itself was never acknowledged, much less discussed. I don’t know that many of my classmates would have even known what “rape” meant at the tender age of 12. These girls would eventually learn the facts of life from their mothers or rabbis’ wives in the weeks before they got married, soon after which they would be mothers themselves.
This is a weird account with which to begin this essay, I know, but it gives you a sense of the curricular world in which I experienced puberty — one in which sex and sexuality did not exist.
When I was about five years old, my parents got religion. We stopped driving on Friday nights and Saturdays and started keeping kosher. When I was six, we moved to another state and I started second grade at the local Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, which turned out to be a pit of evil little children who bullied me for my buck teeth and awkwardness. It got pretty bad and the administration refused to do anything about it, so my parents took me out of that hellhole and put me in Bais Yaakov.
I should pause and define some terms. Modern Orthodox: keep kosher and the Sabbath, but generally more religiously, if not politically, liberal. Engaged with the mainstream culture, for better or worse. Bais Yaakov was ultra-Orthodox, or “yeshivish,” which meant a lot of things. Outwardly, it meant absolutely no pants, skirts strictly below the knees, shirts to the clavicle and sleeves to the elbow. This wasn’t a school dress code, this was the way Jewish girls were supposed to dress at all times. Other things: no TVs at home. No going to see movies. No secular music, limited selection of secular books. All women covered their hair, most with wigs. All men wore a uniform of white shirts and black pants. Bais Yaakov girls did not go to college, rather they studied for a year in a women’s seminary in Israel and then started dating for marriage. These external strictures marked, in theory, an inward placing of God and Torah at the center of one’s being.
Maybe it’s weird, but Bais Yaakov was a great social environment for me. I flourished with girls who were just as awkward and smart and into playing long and intricately detailed pretend games as I was. These girls were confident, unique and incredibly creative. Boys — and the entire world of coed socializing, in fact — were completely absent from our lives.
Anyway, back to seventh grade. It was a strange year for me. I was Modern Orthodox at home and yeshivish at school, and trying to figure out what I believed in. One thing I knew for sure was that I was a feminist. I think I identified as a feminist ever since I saw a Punky Brewster episode where she got a remote-control race car in the mail instead of a tea set, and proceeded to kick some serious ass at the track. Despite the heavy gender-role proscription of the yeshivish world, in my all-girls’ environment I knew that girls could do and be anything.
Seventh grade was also a year of rebellion. My non-observant aunt had given me a Discman (remember those?) and TLC’s “CrazySexyCool” for my bat mitzvah, and I brazenly brought the CD into school and sung the often-profane lyrics at recess. I experimented with colorful four-letter words and snuck The Mists of Avalon behind my Hebrew Bible. I think I was trying to get a rise out of the more sheltered girls in my class. One of whom, Devorah, was the daughter of one of my teachers, Rabbi Goldstein.
It wasn’t long before my father (not my mother) got a call at work from Rabbi Goldstein. As our teacher of Jewish Law, the rabbi considered himself a guardian of sorts of our impressionable young female souls. A Meeting About DeDe was arranged for that very evening. My father, a feminist in his own right, had no idea what to expect.
“Mr. Jacobs,” said Rabbi Goldstein. “We’re very concerned about DeDe.”
“What’s the matter?” my father asked. I, meanwhile, was at that moment competing at the annual Battle of the Books, an uber-nerdy affair in which teams of middle-schoolers read assigned books and answered questions about them. My book was The Giver, and my team beat out 29 others to win that night. In short, I was definitely a Teen at Risk.
“Mr. Jacobs,” Rabbi Goldstein continued. “We hear that DeDe uses disgusting language. Like the s-word.”
“You mean…s**t?” My dad asked. “Okay, I’ll tell her to stop cursing.”
“It’s more than that, Mr. Jacobs.” Rabbi Goldstein leaned forward. “We want DeDe to succeed at Bais Yaakov, but she has to be less close-minded.”
“DeDe has told some of the other girls that she can’t believe they don’t plan on going to college. She is very focused on one particular way of life that does not necessarily fit our model of what a young woman should be. You see, when girls reach this age, they go in one of two directions. They can become,” he paused, “Worldly. Girls who struggle to find their place in the Torah world, and end up…. lost.”
Rabbi Goldstein let that word sink in. “Lost,” a catch-all euphemism for irreligious, promiscuous, substance abusing, whatever other evils one could possibly imagine. Unable to fit into place in the Orthodox community, drifting through life and winding up unmarried, childless, alone.
“The other way is to be a giggly girl.”
“We prefer that, at this age, our students are giggly girls. They live in a tunnel and aren’t concerned about what’s outside. They have friends, their families and the Torah. They don’t need any distractions or worries. They are innocent and happy.”
“Giggly girls.” My father, poor guy, was too stunned to say anything else.
I should point out that Devorah was the giggliest of girls. She’s the one who wanted to know exactly how Amnon had abused Tamar. Of course Mrs. Stern couldn’t tell her.
“Yes, Mr. Jacobs. I trust you’ll talk with DeDe about what we’ve discussed.”
Oh yes, he did. We had a long and frank discussion. We agreed that it was stupid to bring the TLC CD to school and that I should watch my language, especially around certain people. But there was no giggling prescribed.
The next day, on the blackboard, in my scrawl but attributed to feminist activist Kathleen Hanna:
“I BELIEVE WITH MY WHOLEHEARTMINDBODY THAT GIRLS CONSTITUTE A REVOLUTIONARY SOUL FORCE THAT CAN AND WILL CHANGE THE WORLD FOR REAL.”
My campaign had begun.
This post originally appeared on The Toast. Names have been changed to protect the giggly.