The Theatrics of Bais Yaakov

The “revolution in the name of tradition” that was the Bais Yaakov movement incorporated even as it combatted many aspects of the cosmopolitan life of interwar Kraków, including youth culture, feminism, public education, and socialism. In this paper, I would like to focus on one of the less obvious channels of cultural exchange—the theater. The founder of Bais Yaakov, Sarah Schenirer, mentions attending avant-garde plays in a number of Polish diary entries (these mentions were censored in Yiddish and Hebrew translation). Her work for Bais Yaakov included writing plays, and her “textbooks,” mocked as unprofessional, might be read as scripts. Plays were important avenues for publicity and recruitment, and represented among the more visible and controversial aspects of Bais Yaakov culture. By focusing on the role of amateur theater in Bais Yaakov, I will argue that her founding of a girls’ school system meant not the abandonment of her interest in the theater but rather its transposition to a different stage. On this stage, the performative aspects of Bais Yaakov as a whole, particularly in its reshaping of girls’ gender roles, are brought into view.

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