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The World in a Room: School Days of the Past

Libi Astaire

Fall is in the air, so don’t forget to scrape some bark off the birch tree, sharpen a quill pen or two, and dust off the hornbook. And don’t worry if your spillin isn’t purrfekt — your teacher probably can’t “spill” too well, either. In other words, it’s back to school, back in the past!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Although the “first day of school” seems like a ritual from time immemorial, the idea that every child should learn the “3 R’s” didn’t become widespread in Western societies until the 1800s. Yet that didn’t mean that girls spent their days playing jump rope and chatting with their friends. A girl’s main education revolved around learning how to be a good wife and mother; the home was her classroom, and her mother and other female relatives were her teachers.

But even though learning how to cook and bake, launder and repair clothes, clean the house, and prepare homemade remedies for cuts and colds was the “core curriculum,” many Jewish girls did learn how to read Yiddish. Tzene Urena, Techines (prayers for women written in Yiddish), and works of mussar written especially for women and girls were therefore found in many a Jewish home.

Hebrew was less commonly taught, but girls would learn how to say essential prayers by listening to their mothers and grandmothers or by repeating the words after the firzogerins, the specially appointed women prayer leaders who could be found in the women’s sections of some European shuls.  

Girls from wealthier homes might also learn how to play a musical instrument, draw and paint, and do fancy embroidery. In fact, making an embroidered sampler was often the way that a girl first learned to “write” the alphabet.


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