Despite being raised Jewish, I didn’t really know what a Reform Jew was until I got to college. I had always heard they were less religious, but the nuances were lost on me — I thought Reform Jews were basically just slacking off, like lapsed Catholics. My family must have been Reform, I had figured, because we went to a Orthodox temple but were clearly the least religious there. After going to NYU meeting kids from Westchester who’d grown up eating bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, I started to notice the differences. My family and I were Conservative Jews. We were just very bad ones.
A more frum peer who knew my family used electricity on Shabbos (not to mention drove halfway to temple and walked the rest of the way, so as to keep up appearances) considered it her duty to educate me. Jews aren’t known for evangelizing — we like being part of a small group — but we will proselytize to other Jews, and Aviva did. She gave me lectures about aveirot, explained why we didn’t eat meat and milk together, and gave me books.
What Happened to Heather Hopkowitz? was her first attempt, about a half-Jewish teenage girl deciding to become more observant after spending a vacation with a Modern Orthodox friend (and meeting a cute boy named Hershel “Heshy” Rabinowitz in the process.) It did make being Orthodox seem a lot more warm and friendly, but when I made it clear I wasn’t going to give up ripping toilet paper and paper towels on Shabbos, Aviva took it a step further and loaned me The B.Y. Times.
The B.Y. Times was a series set in a New York state Bais Yaakov, a private Orthodox Jewish all-girls’ school. The late eighties and early nineties had brought an influx of long-running youth series, and someone at Targum Press decided the Chosen People’s children deserved their own books, too. A woman named Leah Klein, or at least a group of ghostwriters writing under the name Leah Klein, had written them in the early 1990s. They were written in English, but italicized Hebrew and Yiddish phrases popped up on every page, in the characters’ dialogue and in their inner monologues. All the main characters were teen and preteen girls.
“They’re like a Jewish Baby-Sitters Club,” I’d tell my gentile friends. I did not know how correct I was. The characters were even reintroduced in the second chapter of every new installment, just as they were in every other goyish series. Shani Baum was the Kristy, an enterprising eighth-grader who had started a school newspaper. Batya Ben-Levi was the Mary Anne, a shy, sensitive only child. Ilana Silver was the Dawn Schafer, a blonde California girl moved to the tiny shtetl of Bloomfield, New York. Even the health food obsession was the same: Ilana’s parents ran a kosher health food store.
There couldn’t be a middle grades series without a set of twins, so Leah gave us Chaya-Rochel and Penina Chinn, otherwise known as Chinky and Pinky. Chinky — who I hope to G-d pronounced her nickname with a Hebrew chet — was straight-laced and pragmatic, always wearing her hair in a “no-nonsense ponytail.” Pinky was a visual artist who dressed in the coolest, but still tznius, outfits and loved junk food. Sound familiar?
There were others. Raizy Segal was a talented writer often said to have a “near-genius” IQ. Chani was a petite brunette who took over as editor-in-chief after Shani graduated — very confusing to those of us starting in the middle of the series — and then came her successor, the eager, newly religious Jen Farber. The best character by far, though, was “spunky,” fiery redhead Nechama Orenstein. With her bad puns, curly hair, and kickass machanayim ball skills, she was the BSC’s Abby before Abby. Nechama was the boldest of the Bais Yaakov girls. She would tell you why you sucked to your face, and then kick your ass, in a shin-length jean skirt. At least, that’s what I liked to imagine she did on days off from the paper.
Plots and conflicts were usually pretty simple — Chinky is overcommitted, Chani is worried about her Bat Mitzvah, Nechama is pissed off about something — and they tried to keep it current. An influx of Russian Jews from the crumbling Soviet Union tested some friendships, and a computer virus launched by a disgruntled goy college student nicknamed “Superhacker” (it was mentioned that he hadn’t gotten into the fraternity he’d wanted to join, which showed that Leah Klein knew even less about hackers than she did about Gentiles) shut down Dusty, the newspaper’s trusted word processor. Most memorably, Batya was in Israel for a wedding when the Gulf War broke out, and spent her days decorating gas masks to make them more friendly and playing with her cousin in the bomb shelter. And this wasn’t even one of the “Super Specials.”
It was one reason among many these books appealed to me, the same reason Addy’s books were the best of all the American Girl doll books: They had stakes. They had drama. (You might not win the speech contest, Samantha? Addy was force-fed worms by a slavemaster after her brother and father were fucking sold. Kind of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it, Sammy?) Batya’s cousin Yaffa nearly getting killed by a broken overhead light after a scud missile was intercepted near their block was way more interesting than Stacey McGill or Elizabeth Wakefield moping over some guy. One Chanukah present I asked for but never got was Operation Firestorm, a mystery companion book about the aftermath of an arson attack at Bais Yaakov Bloomfield. No one was hurt, but the girls got to hunt down the terrorists who set it, which was about the most badass thing I could think of. This was before September 11th, which may make it seem absurd: An exciting children’s book about a hate crime? Well, yes, because in the author’s eyes, it was realistic. Observant Jews are taught that they have been, and could be, under attack at any time. Those visiting or moving to Israel have to be especially prepared — a friend who grew up in Israel says fighting terrorists is a common trope in Israeli children’s literature. Even though she was publishing in the U.S., Leah Klein had to tackle serious issues, because this was what Orthodox girls were thinking about. Of course Chinky worried the lost wallet in the Jerusalem hotel might be a bomb, she was the practical one.
Leah Klein also couldn’t rely on one of the easiest and most ubiquitous plot points in girls’ fiction: The Rumor. One of the major sins of Orthodox Judaism is lashon hara, or malicious gossip, and in some circles, it’s considered as grave a sin as murder. Every time a character (usually Nechama) was about to badmouth another, someone (usually Raizy or Chinky) would step in and say “Isn’t that lashon hara?” It made it seem so easy. There was no talmudic reasoning, not even anything like the fight Aviva and I had over whether my refusing to say “It’s OK” immediately after she apologized meant I was “breaking the Jewish Law.” Everyone in Bloomfield just learned to obey the Torah, and everyone was almost uncannily happy by the end of the book.
The world of the books was conservative and antiquated, and proudly so. For all the similarities to the BSC, the girls never babysat for money, just cared for their siblings because it was what a daughter did. None of them ever talked about what they wanted to be when they grow up, other than mothers. All women were happy to have children and keep Shabbos. No one questioned authority. No child ever knew better than their elders. If a parent or teacher relented, it was because they had seen the error of their ways on their own, not because one of the girls had shown them the way. There were a few “olive-skinned” Mizrahi girls, but no Ethiopian Jews, at all. Gentiles were written broadly, as if they were simpler people, and it was embarrassing to be newly frum. Zionism was a given: The girls went to Jerusalem more often than they went to New York City. Israel was a land of miracles, cheerier than Disneyland, and always welcoming. Eretz Yisrael was theirs for the taking. It seemed extreme and insular even when I was nine.
Still, I loved The B.Y. Times. Aviva and I would play pretend and jump from character to character, fighting over who got to be Nechama and who had to be Batya. These girls felt real. They didn’t celebrate Halloween and didn’t give each other presents for Chanukah like we did, and they dressed and talked differently, but they were me. Maybe it was the same as identifying with whichever Disney princess had your color hair: They were Jewish, so they were like me. They were in the tribe. They understood.
The books are now out of print, and near impossible to find. A used copy of Summer Daze — the one where they go to camp, of course — is on sale on Barnes and Noble for $1,044.22, about $1,039.22 more than I paid for mine in 1997. (There are some in my parents’ house, buried in the garage somewhere, if anyone wants to give me a few hundred dollars.) The last one was likely written about 1996. Leah Klein and her compatriots at Targum Press put out a few more series for kids before that division folded. Baker’s Dozen was about a family named Baker with twelve children — and you thought you had problems, Mallory Pike — and Batya and Nechama made a guest appearance in the first book. There was also a B.Y. Times Kid Sisters series about Rivky Segal, Naomi Kaufman, and Sarah Chinn, three younger sisters ostensibly less annoying than Karen Brewer. None of them lasted very long, and they’re even rarer than The B.Y. Times.
On a Jewish site, I found and bought a used copy of Batya’s Search, one of the few I never finished. I read it again, for the first time in seventeen years, to see what it was like. I wasn’t expecting it to be a great work of fiction, and it wasn’t, but it wasn’t terrible. Reading it as an grown-up secular feminist did mean picking up on even more unfortunate implications and themes than I had eighteen years ago. Nechama’s hair is described as “an Afro?” Batya is horrified at the possibility of her friend’s brother going to public school? Anya’s mother was a concert pianist in the Soviet Union, but now is happy just to be a wife and an Ima?
Despite my discomfort, I was left with a feeling of longing. Not a longing to be more religious, like the first time, but for the feeling of sisterhood. The world of the B.Y. Times was a girls’ world. When Pinky obsessed about being eight pounds overweight, the other girls told her she could lose weight if she wanted to, but they loved her just the way she was. There were sleepovers and pacts of sisterhood. The only boys they talked about were their brothers or their Abbas or some famous wise rabbis. If they had questions, they could ask the wise Rebbetzin. They had an inner sanctum, a safe space within a strict patriarchy.
I had thought these books were written exclusively for Orthodox Jewish girls, but maybe the net was cast a little wider than that. Maybe Targum Press wanted to show those of us who weren’t so religious that we could still have fun while frum. That despite the more advantages and opportunities given to secular women, it felt good to be chosen and belong. As Ayala Fader wrote in the book Mitzvah Girls, about raising Hasidic daughters, in contrast to the Babysitter’s Club’s message of DIY and independence, The B.Y. Times’ characters “learn to be satisfied with what they have.” They had done that for me, instilled a desire to be more Jewish. Aviva and I talked about how I’d be frum “when I grew up,” though that never happened. (Not too long after I could no longer find copies of The B.Y. Times in stores, someone gave me The Golden Compass, and started me down another path.)
There isn’t much documentation on what happened to The B.Y. Times. No record of how they sold, no write-ups in The Jewish Press. It’s as if the books never existed. This, I think, is a shame, and I don’t think it’s because I’m nostalgic. While they aren’t excellent books, they are revelatory. There’s still so much I don’t know about Judaism, but so much of what I do know I learned from these books. Nothing reveals more about a society than its minutiae, the little things everyone in it takes for granted. For all their simplicity, The B.Y. Times books were a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of girls in a sheltered, misunderstood, patriarchal world.
Mara Wilson's debut book Where Am I Now? will be available through Viking/Penguin Books in Fall 2016. She writes at MaraWilsonWritesStuff.com, hosts her show What Are You Afraid Of? in New York City, and ruins childhoods all over the internet.