08 December 2008

Tznius: The "Big Idea" in Bais Yaakov Curricula

A question many teachers ask themselves when they are creating lesson plans or units of study concerns the "big idea" that they want their students to walk away when it's all over and take with them. Of course, there are objectives and standards that need to met as well. During my "first career" years as a Judaics teachers, we were urged to create units of study that encouraged the "big ideas" and the "big questions" which would cause our students to seek out answers. It was important for them to understand that there may not be one "right" answer to these types of questions.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening when I started working in a charedi school! For the first month, per the mother's request, I was at the school from 8:30am-3:30pm, working with the same child. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, some disruption ensued from by being there and I was relegated to General studies only (in the afternoon). [It's a topic for a very long complicated post but suffice to say, there may have been issue with my being "modern". You can fill in the gaps if you wish.]

Concepts are presented in a very black and white/right and wrong/this way or the highway attitude. I had read about this in accounts of people who fell "off the derekh" when they described their school experiences and even saw evidence of this when I lived in the charedi neighborhood, but still found it hard to believe. This particular school recently changed its dress code for the girls, limiting them to long-sleeve powder blue polo shirts or blouses, navy skirts, and navy socks (which allowed for compromise if they wanted to have "decoration" on them). My student happened to be wearing white tights (which the mother had been assured was okay for her age level) and the school interventionist (and self-appointed "uniform police") did a spot check one morning to see my student in these "illegal" white tights. [Keep in mind that my student is classified as "special needs" with high anxiety and emotional problems while the adult in this situation is supposed to be an "expert" in dealing with special needs children.] In front of the other girls, she caused my student to feel bad about the tights, explaining that they HAVE to be the same color as the skirt.]

This ties into a recent rant on Frum Satire and here about the "charedi goth" look we have been seeing recently. I'm sorry, but by definition, tzniut does NOT mean following a fad. As it appears to me, does it make a difference what color her socks were as long as they do the job of covering her legs? [It's easy to file it under "dress code" but I wonder if it has more to do with some "chumrah" that dark stockings are more "tznius" than white ones. I'm honestly not joking about this one.] 

My friends in real life has heard me rant about this before. I'm convinced it's revisionist history, at best. Somewhere, there's a picture of Beis Yaakov girls in Poland from the 1920s-1930s wearing dark stockings. [There are several practical reasons for this: 1) It's essentially winter in Poland ten months of the year; 2) Dark stockings are lower maintainance than white ones. If they rip, the mending will not be as obvious. 3) Along the same point, they don't show the dirt as badly. Remember that people did not wash their clothes after one wearing, nor have ready access to hot water and washing machines.] I understand there are chassidishe sects who require the women and girls to wear dark stockings. This seems to me to be yet another example of charedim borrowing the strictest thing they can find and turning it into halakhah. 

The "big idea" that charedi schools want their children to take with them is that there's only one "right" way. Anything that does not quite measure up is just not frum, no matter what you may think. This could lead to thinking that talking to a boy is just a step away from sex. (I was young once but I can't recall any occasions when that was all it took.) There is even a comprehensive curriculum for Beis Yaakov schools to use for their 1-12 girls on the evolving theme of tzniut. It even includes a study of collarlines, sleeves, hemlines, and slits to determine what would be kosher. I have a basic question to ask. Why can't the morot and the mothers simply model tznua dress with their children like I do with my girls? Cool yiddishe maidel is almost seven years old and we have already started looking at clothes and she analyzes whether it's tznua. I gave her some simple guidelines (about covering the belly even with arms up, for example) and she has been somewhat successful on her own. How about giving the children the tools to understand and moving on from there?


  1. Anonymous9/12/08 14:59

    "The "big idea" that charedi schools want their children to take with them is that there's only one "right" way."

    "Finally let me mention my experience with writing and publishing my sefer Daas Torah. When I first started working on it I consulted a famous rabbi connected with Artscroll. He told me point blank - 'you are a danger to klall Yisroel. You are going to cause confusion and doubt by telling people that there are multiple ways of understanding fundamental hashkofa issues.'"


  2. Is this a pearl of wisdom you are passing on to me?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This is just depressing. Not only is it taken way out of context, but it depicts a negative connotation on the frum community. Yes, I fully believe in tznius from both sexes, and yes, individual groups are allowed to maintain their own hashkafas of dress codes, but one must always explore the source behind the halacha when analyzing it. Is Tzinus to show modesty, or is Tzinus to turn human beings into robots? We were once a Tower of Bavel...there's a pretty darn good reason why ha'Kodosh Boruch-Hu confused us.

  5. i just stumbled upon your blog and could not agree more with the sentiment of this post. i find cookie-cutter tznuit and hard lines about colors to be difficult and departed from reality. what does it teach young women if we merely state "you may wear x you may not wear y" and not engage them in dialgoue and help them learn what is and is not appropriate so that when they go out into the real world they have a solid grasp of how to not only dress, but live a tznuit life...
    thank you for this...


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