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Orthodox High School Musical

For observant students in all-girls schools, exuberant theatrical productions are part of a long-standing, if often overlooked, tradition

Hannah Rubin
March 20, 2023
Courtesy the author
Beth Rivkah students at rehearsals for a recent musical production, BrooklynCourtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Beth Rivkah students at rehearsals for a recent musical production, BrooklynCourtesy the author

A cart wrapped in wood contact paper trundles on stage, pushed by a figure in an overcoat and downy beard. Emblazoned on its side in curlicued script: “Yankel’s Yarmulkes.”

“Here it is,” the seller booms, approaching a forlorn, pantaloon-clad youth. “My magical yarmulke, my special kippah—which I present to you, Chananya Yom Tov Lipa!”

We are at opening night of The Magic Yarmulke in early January. The cast: teenage students at the all-girls school Bais Yaakov Miami. The audience: a sold-out crowd of more than 900, all female, predominantly religious. The plot: A schlimazel sees his life turn around after donning a kippah he believes is enchanted, only to learn that transformation comes from within. The moral: Believe in your God-given strengths.

Each year, spiritually instructive tales like this one are performed by students in Orthodox girls schools across the U.S., at institutions associated with the Bais Yaakov educational movement and otherwise. Whatever their specific connection to Orthodoxy, these student-led productions reflect much the same amateur enthusiasm and earnest effort of their secular cousins: collaborative feats of line-perfecting, harmony-composing, dance-devising, scenery-painting, costume-sewing, and sleep-sacrificing.

But Bais Yaakov plays constitute an eccentric canon, with particular tropes and settings. One classic example: An immigrant family wrestles with religion and modernity in early-20th-century New York. Or, more relatably: A modern-day teenager reckons with the spiritual dangers of her iPhone.

Whatever the tension or milieu, all Bais Yaakov plays carry a message, resonant and unambiguous: Cleave to tradition; observe the commandments; trust in God.

High School Musical this ain’t.

But two days earlier, Julius Littman Performing Arts Theater—owned and operated by the municipality of North Miami Beach—looked rather different. Its seats were vacant, save scattered clusters of ponytailed girls. Onstage, a semicircle of thespians rehearsed rhyming couplets. Another student kneeled stage right, perfecting a homemade prop. Which is to say, it looked very much like run-through day at any American high school before the premiere of a major student production.

“So we’ll have blackout, and you’ll walk off,” the director called to her cast.

Music prompted arm-waving. Successes warranted hugs. Committee huddles were preceded by cheers (“Tech-ni-cal! Whoo!”). Jitters, amity, exhilaration—the room fairly crackled with almost stereotypical theater kids’ energy.

Many people, not least many Jews, might have been surprised at the scenes I observed from seat B103 at the Littman. School-sanctioned creative expression like this hardly aligns with recent controversies around the failure of certain Orthodox schools to meet basic education standards. Then again, Orthodoxy’s scholastic landscape is far more nuanced and varied than is generally understood.

The Magic Yarmulke and hundreds of productions like it spring from a vibrant and oft-overlooked educational ecosystem with a remarkable history.

The Bais Yaakov origin story begins with Sarah Schenirer (1883-1935), a Krakow dressmaker who in 1917 started a girls school in her studio to restore religious commitment among disenchanted young women. In certain streams of Orthodoxy, the tale bears the halo of legend.

As well it might: In Schenirer’s day, Orthodox Krakow faced a crisis of female defection. Educated in Polish schools, Jewish girls assumed the worldviews and demeanor of their non-Jewish classmates. Many balked at the yeshiva bochrim presented as mates, running away from home or converting.

Schenirer believed formalized religious instruction could foil the deleterious effects of exposure to secular ideas. To her mind, Jewish girls needed to learn the profundity of their tradition. Religious schooling for girls was neither without precedent nor challenge—not least, rabbinic injunctions against teaching girls Torah—but uniquely, Bais Yaakov’s mission included the notion that every Jewish girl should receive religious schooling.

Her passion was infectious. From Krakow flowered a network of similar schools, founded and led by Schenirer’s students. By her 1935 death, more than 200 Bais Yaakovs existed in Poland and beyond—mostly supplementary schools attended outside public school hours, but also full-day schools and teachers seminaries. Their cumulative curriculums spanned Judaic, secular, and vocational instruction.

This well-roundedness aligned with a key influence on Bais Yaakov: German neo-Orthodoxy, a brand of traditional Judaism molded by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) to counter Reform Judaism. As professor Naomi Seidman of the University of Toronto demonstrates in Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, Bais Yaakov drew heavily on the Hirschian credo of “Torah im derech eretzthe principled fusion of Torah with boundaried modernity, which offered Polish Jewry a model for confronting the wider world.

Beis Yaakov students in Buczacz, Poland, perform in a play called ‘Joseph and His Brothers,’ circa 1934
Beis Yaakov students in Buczacz, Poland, perform in a play called ‘Joseph and His Brothers,’ circa 1934United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Esther Wagner

Bais Yaakov also had publishing operations, special rituals, and summer camps, making it as much a movement as a web of institutions. Seidman notes how Bais Yaakov co-opted features of multiple “isms”—socialism, Zionism, feminism, Yiddishism—it was ostensibly fighting, adapting hallmarks of those movements to forge its own unique character.

It’s a dynamic best understood in the context of interwar Jewish Poland, which was characterized by ideological fluidity and overlapping identities. So while Bais Yaakov sought to defend against the cacophony of clashing doctrines, writes Seidman, students inhabited an environment in which “multiple affiliations and blurred boundaries” were possible.

In its not-quite-hermetic state, Bais Yaakov engaged avidly in a pastime absorbed from the surrounding culture: theater. As Seidman has described, staging plays was a major part of the Bais Yaakov experience from its early days, not to mention a potent marketing tool. Performances electrified small towns, promoting interest in Bais Yaakov even among irreligious girls. Intrigued Yiddish papers reported on these spectacles.

That the phenomenon arose among female youth and not their male counterparts was not coincidental. Traditional Judaism places greater observance demands on boys—in particular, around time spent studying Torah—leaving them less time for recreational activities. They not only didn’t perform in their own theatrical productions, they weren’t part of the audience for the girls’ shows, either; doors at these performances were open to women only. Aside from the prohibition of “kol isha,” which forbids men from hearing women sing for reasons of modesty, it was considered inappropriate for boys to watch girls perform at all.

Scripts were issued from Bais Yaakov’s central office (Schenirer wrote several herself), often depicting narratives of religious heroes. Others came from students, who lightly satirized teachers. And there was, of course, the drama before the drama: monthslong rehearsals, preparation of costumes and posters.

How did the rabbinic establishment respond to these amateur dramatics? Not as negatively as one might expect.

Despite isolated opposition—according to the research of professor Rachel Manekin of the University of Maryland, the Belzer Rebbe told Schenirer not to stage plays because it was “chukat ha’goy” (a gentile practice)—performances were broadly seen as benign. “When discussing plays in Bais Yaakov schools in Poland, one must take into account the broader context. School plays were part of Polish school culture and were performed at schools of all kinds,” explained Manekin.

To Schenirer and Agudath Israel, the Orthodox organization that subsumed Bais Yaakov in 1923, producing plays was simply part of running schools. Moreover, says Manekin, theater attendance was an acceptable form of recreation for Krakow’s Orthodox women before WWI. Schenirer herself would attend such plays—in many ways a choice that parallels those made by Orthodox individuals and institutions today as they negotiate a secular world. Conceding, maneuvering, evolving, resolving: It’s the dance of a life spent betwixt and between.

But for Bais Yaakov students in America, where the movement was reborn post-Holocaust, that dance is far less choreographed than it might appear.

Bais Yaakov today, it’s worth noting, has no central office or cohesive ideology. No authority governs the opening of new schools. Instead, North American Bais Yaakovs function under loose affiliations with Torah Umesorah, an organization supporting Orthodox education.

Nor is Bais Yaakov associated with a particular Orthodox sect: “It transcends the typical classifications,” Seidman told me, noting that there are women from Hasidic, yeshivish, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi backgrounds who identify as Bais Yaakov students and alumnae. “The phenomenon of Bais Yaakov floats above those ethnic and ideological distinctions.”

This fuzziness compels Leslie Ginsparg Klein, a scholar of Orthodox girls’ education in America, to call Bais Yaakov a category. “It’s a category of school attracting a certain demographic: girls from right-wing Orthodoxy,” she said. “And that makes Bais Yaakov as diverse as that population.”

Klein divides Bais Yaakov schools into three groups: right-wing, moderate, and community schools. Large Orthodox communities can accommodate multiple schools of different persuasions, from the very conservative to the less so. The larger the community, the more microgradations are born, so that in large centers there are tens of schools, each serving a specific slice of the frum population. Smaller “out-of-town” communities often have a single Orthodox girls school with a diverse student body and policies open enough to reflect its broad constituency.

Bais Yaakov schools across these groups share beliefs fundamental to Orthodox Judaism, but diverge in their approaches to aspects of lived life, from school dress codes to internet use. In a talk for Harvard Law School, Klein explained: “All Bais Yaakovs provide secular education. But some provide the minimum for state approval, while others offer robust programs and rigorous college prep.”

Beis Yaakov students in Kolbuszowa perform in a Purim play, 1938
Beis Yaakov students in Kolbuszowa perform in a Purim play, 1938United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Norman Salsitz

Accordingly, it’s a genre of school that evades definition—and census-taking. Many Bais Yaakovs do not maintain websites, and some do not have Bais Yaakov in their name. By Seidman’s estimate, there are today roughly 300 Bais Yaakovs in Israel, 105 in North America, and 30 across Europe, South America, and elsewhere.

But across North American Bais Yaakovs, Klein explains, a very particular student-generated, girl culture spans geography, ethnicity, and ideology. “There are markers that signify belonging to the Bais Yaakov world,” she said in her Harvard talk. Songs, styles, cheers, dances, and vocabulary constitute a transcendent repertoire bridging locational and philosophical divides. Cross-school pollination occurs at summer camps and conventions, where new forms of cultural expression are learned and brought home. Filtered through the sieve of faculty approval, they may be canonized into Bais Yaakov tradition. What results are shibboleths of Bais Yaakov culture linking students in Lakewood, New Jersey, to their compatriots in Montreal and Los Angeles.

“In a sense, this Bais Yaakov-esque culture replaces secular culture,” Klein told me. “But the Bais Yaakov world is far from impervious, selectively absorbing elements from the outside.”

At the institutional level, Bais Yaakovs mimic secular schools. Days are divided into periods, and uniforms—long, pleated skirts and Oxford blouses—imitate classic preppy styles. Likewise in the extracurricular sphere, where student papers, yearbooks, holiday events, and student council are standard.

And, of course, school plays.

For the record, Bais Yaakov performances are never called “theater.” Rather, plays are colloquially known as “productions,” or less commonly, “concerts.”

But by any name, production is the jewel of the Bais Yaakov experience. Here’s what I was told by some of the cast and crew of The Magic Yarmulke:

Shira: “Singing in front of a million people is scary, but you feel so accomplished after.”

Esther: “We laugh even when it’s stressful; we know it’ll work out.”

Railey: “We hang out with friends during after-school practice, singing, dancing, doing what we love … It’s just fun!”

Deborah Loebenberg, a veteran producer of East Coast Bais Yaakov performances, said: “It’s so fulfilling for girls to cultivate their talents. They have fantastic ideas.”

You can also hear it from me: I am a Bais Yaakov alum, and while I carry many lessons with me, what I remember most fondly are my production memories. This hardly makes me unusual for a reformed high-school performer—but if the power of Bais Yaakov theater is familiar, the phenomenon is ever-morphing.

“In the early days, Bais Yaakovs in America performed Broadway plays,” Klein said in her Harvard lecture. With judicious rewriting, those scripts were made appropriate for Orthodox audiences. “But Bais Yaakovs moved increasingly rightward, and by the late 1980s, teachers were writing original plays suited to their community.”

Klein also described varying attitudes toward incorporation of secular music. “Some schools forbid use of non-Jewish songs,” she said. “Others allow older melodies, or take a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.” (Some Bais Yaakovs care less about the source than the sound. Per Klein, one school wouldn’t allow Hasidic rock music by Mordechai Ben David but approved the more sedate “Love Changes Everything” by Andrew Lloyd Webber—reborn as “Torah Changes Everything.”)

Whatever the bass or plot line, Bais Yaakov productions today can be quite impressive. Fancy auditoriums are rented and elaborate sets built. Flyers and playbills—with de rigueur ads for local businesses—are distributed. Several months, usually in winter, are substantially dedicated to rehearsals. And talent abounds.

Although faculty or outside hires provide top-level direction, students assume much of the responsibility for these ex-nihilo productions. So on a recent Wednesday evening, the lights were blazing in the lunchroom at Beth Rivkah in Brooklyn. (Beth Rivkah is a Lubavitch-associated school system that maintains connections with Bais Yaakov.) Uniformed students sprawled on benches among supper containers and textbooks, watching their friends rehearse.

Two girls—playing the roles of Anshel and Zev, male tailors from a shtetl—ran through their lines. Next, a dance troupe twirled on, headed by 11th graders, followed by a giggly choir. There was cheering (“12-A, yeah!”) and a director’s instructions (“Zip your lips!”).

It all evoked aching nostalgia for this alum: for time spent cross-legged, memorizing harmonies spilling from a boombox; for unforeseen friendships; for midnight pizza amid bolts of fabric and perched guitars. Across the sweep of geographic and religious terrain, Orthodox girls are experiencing versions of the same things: shy smiles, smothered disappointments, inchoate pride. Warm glows and cold feet. Spats and solutions. The rush of creative generation, the thrill of autonomy at an age when authority chafes. The whole messy, magical mélange.

In the final crunch, schools allow practices during class hours. By faculty admission, these disruptions are worthwhile. “Production offers tremendous value,” said Zlata Press, high school principal at Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva in Brooklyn. “There’s this influx of creativity and intergrade bonding.”

Another oft-cited benefit: Students whose pens falter in the classroom come alive when handed a paintbrush or microphone.

But to Rochie Berkowitz, principal of Chaviva High School in Cleveland, production supplies something even more essential. “Production gives girls an opportunity to step up and lead. So it’s not just ‘I practiced it,’ but ‘I created it and worked through the social dynamics.’”

But if the primary goal of production is to give students a wholesome outlet, there’s a secondary purpose that touches audience members, too: the provision of moral instruction. The most interesting demand made by Bais Yaakov plays is that observers leave with renewed religious commitment: to improve their prayers, focus less on materialism, etc. Each aims to move its audience to greater piety.

Purposeful narrative arcs lead inexorably to tidy lessons, which students often find meaningful. “They know they’re conveying powerful ideas,” said Malka Aisenbach, who co-directs Beth Rivkah’s productions.

In this intention to instruct, Bais Yaakov theater in a sense redefines the relationship between performer and audience: Students become teachers, community members their students. A traditional theater critic might well recoil at these plays, not least because good theater generally does not tell you what to think. Bais Yaakov plays unabashedly do just that.

The superstructure of Bais Yaakov performances also nods to these didactic aims: Productions are often prefaced by short speeches outlining the topic explored, and close with theme songs hammering the message home. Songs and dances—performed between scenes—also reinforce lessons. Any good Bais Yaakov girl knows the Conflict Dance: a group of girls half in black and half in white, swirling in mirrored choreography, the collective incarnation of moral dilemma.

Other things expected from Bais Yaakov plays:

  • Melodrama
  • Deus ex machina
  • Actresses collapsed in sobbing heaps
  • Reunions of long-lost siblings
  • Piano transpositions (for dramatic flair)
  • Picardy thirds (for an uplifting musical finish)

Many plots feature antisemitic villains (Romans, Cossacks, Nazis). Others revolve around spiritual peril and secularizing influences. These tropes illuminate Bais Yaakov’s understanding of itself vis-a-vis the outside world, often presented as a place of moral danger. And plays foregrounding historical enemies reflect an insular community’s focus on its millennia-old exilic state.

Indeed, their contents arise from the Orthodox experience to such a degree that outsiders would find them inscrutable. A viewer without knowledge of Jewish history and practice would be mystified by the settings (Inquisition-era Iberia?), conflicts (cantonist decrees?), and diction (erev yontif?) of Bais Yaakov performances. They demand of their audiences significant cultural capital. (That said, they are also empathetic to audience needs: The Miami school moved from somber plays to upbeat ones recently, reckoning that life can be heavy enough.)

If the lessons of Bais Yaakov plays seem simplistic or moralizing, they nonetheless affirm the audience’s core beliefs. Few of the cultural signals trotted out on stage are more insiderey than this: the willing receipt of moral instruction, at any age. Done well, it should be said, the dramas can be spine-tinglingly moving.

Other ways Bais Yaakov productions differ from ordinary high school theater stem from a communal emphasis on modesty. For starters, of course, there’s the all-female cast. And in an inversion of Elizabethan theater, male roles are played by girls. Because of modesty concerns and prohibitions around cross-dressing, sewing committees churn out baggy pantaloons—pants that are not quite pants—for those roles.

An even bigger differentiator: the lack of romance. In the traditional world Bais Yaakov inhabits, romantic love is considered sacred and deeply private, so productions eschew it wholesale. Most don’t contain so much as a shidduch date.

Notably, Bais Yaakov plays are equal-opportunity performances: All students are encouraged to get involved, mostly by appearing on stage, but also by working on costumes, scenery, props, lighting, or sound. Some schools require each girl to go on stage. The archetype of theater kids as stage-obsessed divas or misfits seeking safe spaces hardly applies at Bais Yaakov, where production is a schoolwide affair.

Thanks to this trifecta—inclusivity, modesty, an absence of dalliances—physical appearance is less important on Bais Yaakov stages than on others: Lead roles are given to girls of various physiques. Dance is not solely the province of the thin and lithe. Students feel little pressure to look a certain way, limiting body image anxieties.

The model of girlhood provided by Bais Yaakov is enmeshed in the single-sex youth experience it entails. Without the pressures of coed environments, girls feel no need to squelch their personalities or meet a feminine ideal to garner male attention.

In Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls, Stephanie Wellen Levine analyzes the confidence and “surprising disinhibition” she observed among female Lubavitch students: “Here’s the irony: Lubavitch girls, ensconced in their patriarchal system, validate their own existence and define their own standing in the world,” she writes. “Spirited personality, not the ability to inspire male desire, is the key to popularity in their circles.”

And ultimately, she notes, the absence of males gives these girls more “leeway to hold on to their childhoods a bit longer, to work on their friendships, their spiritual growth, and their intellectual development.”

This was a strength harnessed by Bais Yaakov since its founding. Seidman has described its single-genderedness as “the most powerful tool in the movement,” noting how deep connections were forged between girls in the early days through celebrations, literature, and ceremonies.

The same force fuels the production experience, energizing Bais Yaakov girls to sing, act, and dance their hearts out.

It’s 30 minutes to showtime at the Julius Littman Performing Arts Theater.

Bewigged bubbies and moms in tichels schmooze in the lobby, holding balloons and bouquets. Among them flit costumed girls, buoyant and shining in demure stage makeup.

And when the lights dim, and the curtains part, and the house stills, there they are: earnest, solemn, beaming; not quite children, not quite grown-ups; braces flashing, glasses glinting; the vulnerabilities of teenagehood—the pimples and pounds—softened by spotlights and forgiving costumes.

They’re having the time of their lives: the schoolgirl ensemble in plaid jumpers and French braids, wheeling around in stockinged feet; the actress striding onstage; the giddy dancers in ballet buns and kaleidoscopic jumpsuits.

Some are soulful: Choir girls—ethereal in long skirts and shimmering neck cuffs—sway, prayerlike. A soloist stands like a supplicant in a circle of light, luminous face furrowed.

But most charming, at least to this viewer, was the humanness poking through: The finger-fiddling actress. The dancer mouthing, “I messed up!” The props committee scuttling across the stage during blackout. The director facing her performers with a sign reading “SMILE.”

Because while they strive to impress, Bais Yaakov schools never purport to be Broadway. Their goals supersede the productions themselves, which shows when the entire Bais Yaakov Miami crowds on stage for finale. Flush with victory, they sing the show’s theme song, waving their arms and whooping.

Perhaps The Magic Yarmulke was not entirely devoid of magic, after all.

Note: On March 20 and 21, the University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies will be hosting the first-ever conference devoted to Bais Yaakov. The offerings on March 20 are in-person only. On the 21st, the conference is accessible via Zoom. You can register for it here.

Hannah Rubin is a writer and content producer at the editorial consultancy Elland Road Partners.