“WOW”! The single most popular word, the expression that says it all. If someone had counted how many times it appeared on emails and Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages on Wednesday and Thursday, June 14 and 15, that number would have made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most animated word used to demonstrate stunning admiration.
History was made those two days by Nechama Novak Spiegel, my granddaughter and the first female mitzvah-observant El Al pilot, who flew Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government entourage to a summit meeting with Greek and Cypriot heads of state in Greece and a groundbreaking ceremony for a new museum commemorating Thessaloniki’s pre-war Jewish population.
The news should have been about the summit, about the ceremony in Thessaloniki, about the prime minister and his wife participating in these events. Instead, the headlines were about Nechama, mother of four and a Bais Yaakov graduate who reached a position that no contemporary Jewish woman with her background had achieved before her. The scoop made the headlines of newspapers and online news sites early Wednesday morning. Some articles were appropriately titled, “B’siyata d’Shmaya.”
As the prime minister made his way to the plane, he announced to the press that he looked forward to meeting “Nechama, the first chareidi woman pilot – the first, not the last.” He is optimistic.
So why did that headline wow so many people – children and adults, women and men – worldwide?
The last four weeks in Israel saw four women attain sensational headlines.
Melania Trump, the First Lady of the United States, was welcomed to Israel alongside her husband, the president. Elegant as always, Melania gracefully offered her arm to Mrs. Rivlin, wife of our president – a gesture of kindness – as they walked slowly, at Mrs. Rivlin’s pace (Mrs. Rivlin is on oxygen), into the presidential residence together.
Then came the president’s daughter, Ivanka Kushner, a small hat perched atop her beautiful locks, dressed in a long sleeve designer outfit – an awesome moment captured at the Western Wall.
Gal Gadot hit the news as the Israeli Wonder Woman, second only to Batman in opening night and lifetime box office sales!
And then the world learned about Nechama Novak Spiegel. The woman who rose above all, standing on the steps at the top of the El Al plane before take-off, introduced to PM Netanyahu and his wife Sara, passengers on her flight, dependent on her expertise.
“Her dark hose, her uniform skirt covering her knees, her braided shaitel underneath her pilot’s cap, her hands pressed down at her side. “I kvelled,” was what my friend Aviva posted on her Facebook page.
“She was mekadesh shem Shamayim,” Aliza wrote.
“Lo bashamayim he,” Rachel wrote. “She’s got her two feet on the ground proving to all of us that it can be done.”
And don’t think our Satmar friends weren’t going “ga-ga” from the reports circulating. They too chose to phone us to express, “Wow!”
Our son-in-law Shlomo, a seventh-generation Yerushalmi, told us a story about his great-grandmother, the “Baba Yeedis.” In 1920, Sir Herbert Samuel was appointed the first British High Commissioner for Palestine. In preparation for his arrival, a welcoming committee was organized to greet him. They chose Baba Yeedis to represent the women of the Old Yishuv. Baba Yeedis, a very pious woman, had no intention of shaking hands with Sir Herbert, a breach of protocol unheard of in those days. Committee members tried to persuade her otherwise, advising that perhaps if she wore gloves it would be okay to shake his hand. But Baba Yeedis would not acquiesce.
Sir Herbert arrived in Jerusalem, the committee came to greet him, and Baba Yeedis would not accept his hand. It was mortifying, but Baba Yeedis stuck to her Orthodox principles.
Achieving a top post, reaching for the sky and getting there – without compromise, without riches, without designer clothes or make-up artists, without Hollywood glitz, without connections – reminds us that Nechama’s achievement derives from G-d-given brains, faith, and sheer will power, an inspirational message she has provided to millions of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish girls and women (and non-chauvinistic boys and men).
From her earliest years, Nechama’s childhood dream to become a pilot was not shoved aside. It took tremendous determination, years of hard work, supportive parents, siblings, and in-law-family, handling disappointments when she insisted on adhering to halacha and refusing to compromise.
When the PM on the steps of the plane asked her, “Who takes care of your children when you are away?” she answered, “Yesh lahem Aba nifla – They have a wonderful father.” (The word “wonderful” was drowned out by the noise of the plane.)
Modesty is what we witnessed on Wednesday: modesty in achievement, modesty in handling celebrity status. Nechama will not grant interviews. She learned modesty at home, from her parents, Rena and David Novak; she learned modesty as part of her Bais Yaakov education. No, Bais Yaakov does not encourage its students to become airline pilots – that’s not their goal. But when one attains her individual goal without compromise, it is a great day for followers of Sara Schenirer, the first woman to succeed in organizing a Jewish education for girls in Eastern Europe on a large scale, founder of the Bais Yaakov movement.
And when her husband Uri, my grandson, sings “Eshet Chayil,” Woman of Valor, on Friday nights, he surely raises his voice in song emphasizing that significant line in Mishlei, “Rabos banos asu chayil, v’at alis al kulana! Many daughters have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all!”