Marianne Novak

On Acceptances and Futures–No big deal

This Friday two important pieces of mail arrived in my mailbox. My son received his formal High School acceptance letter and I received my formal acceptance to Yeshivat Maharat. It was somewhat fitting that both pieces of mail arrive together as my Jewish educational journey and my son’s are very much linked.

My influence on my son Jewishly is both formal and informal. Informally, I, along with his father, were and are his primary teachers regarding Jewish ritual and belief and how a Modern Orthodox home and family should look and feel. In just living our lives, my husband, his older sisters and I model how one can be a bat/ben Torah in this world. Things that my son would consider to be normal include high achievement in academics, the arts and sports (something very important to my son) and career regardless of gender. So too is a normative devotion to God, serious Torah study and self-improvement through the lens of mitzvot, commandments and ma’asim tovim good deeds, again regardless of gender.

As for parental roles, my son sees a father who is not only a Neurosurgeon but a recognized Torah scholar, hands- on parent and a very good cook (but just don’t call him a foodie). He sees his mom teach boys and girls for Bar/Bat Mitzvah and fortunately, or possibly unfortunately is his opinion, he also see her speak her mind freely and without restraint. All this he sees as everyday behavior in our household. All these acts are done, most importantly, without fanfare. The only time our family arrangement strikes him as different is when he recognizes differences in other families. It’s just no big deal.

Formally, I had the privilege last year to prepare my son for his Bar Mitzvah. I taught him his laining and studied his Torah portion to prepare for his d’var torah. My husband helped my son with his davening and additionally, learned an entire section of the Talmud for his siyyum. My husband and I used the similar division of labor when preparing our girls for their respective Bat Mitzvah celebrations with our Women’s Tefillah Group. The only complaint my son had about the arrangement was that his sisters were allowed to lead everything, including p’sukei d’zimra and he had to start at shacharit. I have written about the different experience I had during my son’s actual Bar Mitzvah but in his overall preparation, he had both parents and his sisters involved. And it was no big deal. When he prepares to read Torah in school this year and I presume next year, he will ask me to check him and review. If he has a Tanakh question, I am usually the first one he asks. Again, no big deal.

When I was toying with the idea of applying to Yeshivat Maharat, it was initially the men in my life who were the most encouraging and adamant that I apply. My husband, who for the past couple of years, had asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, was not only supportive but at times, although somewhat irritating, kept after me to finally send in my application. My father, a world famous theologian, Halakhic scholar and former pulpit Rabbi, was overjoyed by my decision telling me it was,”…the best thing he had heard all year.”

To be sure, many important women spurred me along as well. Out of the blue during this process, a former colleague and a Conservative congregational rabbi sent me a Facebook message which simply said, “I think you should be a Maharat.” My daughters, who have not only survived my parenting but also the rigorous ‘Marianne Novak Bat Mitzvah Boot Camp,’ are indeed my inspiration and kept me honest. My eldest would text frequently-‘Did you apply Mommy? Did you send it in? When are you coming to interview?’ When I did finally send in my application and come to New York for an interview, she was the best cheerleader. While I wasn’t worried about the actual interview process and I was having some anxiety of the accompanying skills test that I would be taking. Her simple charge of ‘You got this Mom’ gave me the chizuk that I really needed.

The question, some might be thinking at this moment is, ‘Why bother to go to the trouble of a difficult four year program of study when you already have a public and private Jewish role? Why is this necessary? You already are a Gabbait for a Women’s Tefillah Group, you teach Adult Jewish education and you have a prominent Jewish role in your household. At your age, why bother?’

My answer is two-fold. First, while I am in a sense already ‘doing it’, to be truly taken seriously, you need the right credentials. This program will equip me with the proper bona fides I need to continue. Second, in light of continuous discussion of important Jewish issues, it is always striking to me, even when the issue discussed directly relates to women, that the scholars involved in the discussion are not women. To be sure, I am thankful for the advocacy of learned men but very often, despite the best intentions, the true nature of a women’s experience is lacking. (see the recent Facebook discussion between Rabbis Ozer Glickman and Yissoscher Katz, for example). In my own experience, I see this gap very often at a Bat Mitzvah at my Women’s Tefillah Group. As per our posek, during a Bat Mitzvah service at Shabbat morning tefillah, only nine men are allowed in the place of prayer. We usually set up some sort of modified mechitzah for the men to sit behind. I can’t tell you how many fathers of Bnot Mitzvah will approach me after the service and remark how truly dreadful it is to sit behind a mechitzah. I usually smile politely and say, ‘Gives you a different perspective-doesn’t it?’ Mind you, these men have supported their daughters to have a meaningful and participatory Bat Mitzvah. They are on my team but still, while as a woman the unpleasantness of sitting behind of a mechitzah is a ‘duh’ moment, for many men- educated, loving, feminist men- it is still an ‘aha’ moment. Until more women become not only the subject but the active speakers in this discussion, the dichotomy between the ‘duh’ and ‘aha’ moments will remain. Only with this work of devoted women, will it become no big deal.

So what does my son think about his mother becoming a Maharat? He is very proud of me and I secretly think he will get a big kick out of me doing a lot of homework. He does not find it weird, unusual or bizarre. In the course of his life thus far, it is par for the course.

It’s just no big deal.

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. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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