Marianne Novak
Marianne Novak

‘My Unorthodox Life’ hard truth

Rabbi Marianne Novak leading Hadran Women of Chicago in a Siyyum on Masechet Yoma.

A long time ago, I was asked by a well-meaning Jewish woman if, as an Orthodox woman, was oppressed. My husband was standing next to me and jokingly I asked him, ‘Honey, did you remember to oppress me today?’ I then had to spend the next five minutes explaining my joke to this woman and tell her that most Orthodox women are not oppressed but live very normal and accomplished lives in and out of the Jewish community. That many women have found that balance of finding their place within modernity without compromising their religious beliefs and practices. Recently, modern technology, especially social media, has increased these possibilities 100 fold. Educational opportunities such as my yeshiva, Maharat, have trained close to 50 women to become Orthodox rabbis and are serving communities. And I can happily list so many other examples and institutions that have advanced Orthodox Jewish women in Jewish communities and in the world at large.

And yet…we — like all religious groups — have pockets, sometimes large, of extremism that pervert our faith for misogyny, racism, fascism, oppressive patriarchy and all other evils that grind women, men and children down.

So with the recent brouhaha about Netflix’s new ‘My Unorthodox Life’ , it is interesting to see so many of my friends and colleagues publicly sharing their accomplishments and not so extremist life on social media. I live my entire life as that counterexample although there as those who would find me extreme because I am an Orthodox female Rabbi. ( see pic below of me leading a Talmud Siyyum for a bunch of incredible women) It’s a great opportunity to highlight reality and separate it from reality television.

And yet…
There is a missed opportunity here to deal with the real bogeymen here and it’s not Julia Haart. We indeed do have many women within not only ultra-Orthodox circles but within more modern communities who have been abused by the system that they love and hoped would protect them. The Agunah crisis is sadly a perfect example of abuse of the system that has oppressed and continues to oppress women from all parts of the Jewish community, not just its most extreme.

So before you have a campaign to boycott Netflix and shout your accomplishments to the rooftops ( as you should) and say essentially, ‘I’m not that ridiculous brand of extremist Judaism’, realize that this will do absolutely NOTHING to help our sisters and families who are being crushed by those Jewish leaders who see that they have carte Blanche to pervert our tradition for nefarious purposes.

If you are offended by Julia Haart’s expose, then she has indeed hit a nerve, — that realization that your Orthodox life maybe only a few steps away from oppression and extremism. That’s a scary truth that no amount of good facts on the ground or constant need to make distinctions is going to help. It’s not enough to simply say my life doesn’t resemble an extremist one. The hard work is saying my life could easily become one. The hard work is strengthening the non-extremists so that when those oppressed want to leave they don’t have to dump Judaism entirely.

So as much as I love shoes ( this is no secret see my IG @the_rabbi_wears_prada), I don’t think I will be watching My Unorthodox Life Netflix. I will continue to live my Jewish life unapologetically fully knowing that I am privileged to live without fear of oppression from an abuse of Torah.

There are wonderful organizations that help those who want to leave extremism and still be part of the Jewish community, Footsteps and others.

As you are live your best orthodox life, consider helping others to do the same.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group.
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