(JTA) — The day “My Unorthodox Life” premiered on Netflix, its subject Julia Haart was frustrated by thebad reviews- especially those of the Jews who live as she did.
"Before judging the show, maybe you'd like to watch it?" Haart told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Wednesday, responding to those who say the reality show is just the latest in a series of cheap pop culture jabs at orthodoxy.
"Because they had the word 'unorthodox,' people made thousands of assumptions without wasting time to hear what I really had to say," said Haart, chief executive of global modeling agency Elite World Group. "If anyone watches the show... it's going to be really hard for anyone to say I didn't mention anything positive."
However, what Haart has to say may be hard to hear for those who have defended orthodoxy against Netflix's previous forays into stories about people leaving orthodox communities.
The title "My Unorthodox Life" pays homage to the company's 2020 Emmy-winning hit."Unorthodox," a series loosely based on Deborah Feldman's bestselling 2012 memoir,who left the Hasidic community after getting married at 17 and having a child. This show was preceded by“One of Us,” a 2017 documentary that follows the lives of three former Hasidic Jews,one of which deals with the aftermath of sexual abuse, as they struggle to acclimate to the challenges of their new lives.
But while critics of these programs could, and sometimes did, argue that the abuse and trauma that drove participants to leave simply resulted from a few bad Orthodox apples, Haart says the problem is endemic in the Orthodox, haredi world, where women usually get married. young, have many children, and rarely pursue higher education or high-level careers.
“What I would love to see is for women to have a chance to get a real education, be able to go to college, not get married at 19 in a shiduch,” or an arranged couple, Haart told the JTA. “I want women to be able to sing in public if they want to or dance in public if they want to. I want you to believe. I want them to be doctors or lawyers or whatever they want. I want them to know that they matter to themselves, not just as wives and mothers."
A flurry of news surrounding the show's debut has already made the outlines of Haart's life familiar to many. She was born Julia Leibov in what was then the Soviet Union. (She later changed her name to Talia when she started dating to get married.) Her parents were observant Jews, although that was difficult at the time, although there was no mikveh, or Jewish ritual bathing, in the country at the time, Haart would still dive into the Black Sea even in the dead of winter.
Haart and his 11-year-old son, Aron, who is still religious. (Courtesy of Netflix)
The family came to the United States in the 1970s and moved to Austin, Texas, where Haart was the only Jew enrolled in her private school. When he was in fourth grade, the family, which had become more religious, moved to Monsey, a town outside of New York City that is home to a large population of Orthodox Jews. Haart was enrolled in an all-girls religious school there, and for the first time, she did not regularly encounter anyone in her daily life who was not an observant Jew.
She said the change induced a profound culture shock.
“I was always very proud to be Jewish, I loved my Jewish identity,” said Haart. "I just didn't know it meant I had to isolate myself from the rest of the world."
Haart graduated from high school in Monsey and then attended a girls' religious seminar in Israel for a year before returning to start "shidduchim", or meetings arranged by a matchmaker. At age 19, she married Yosef Hendler and they moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where Hendler attended a local yeshiva.
The couple then moved back to Monsey and became part of an orthodox community called "yeshivish" because of the centrality of the yeshivot where men study Torah, sometimes full-time. In some ways, the yeshivish community is less insular than the Hasidic communities left behind by Feldman and the subjects of "One of Us," with most people speaking English as their first language and some attending college and graduate school.
Haart's husband was among them, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School before becoming more observant and settling on a career in energy. When offered a job in Atlanta in the 1990s, Haart jumped at the chance to move. “Out-of-town” communities, or Orthodox communities outside of the New York metropolitan area, are considered more open and generally allow for a greater variety of religious practices than communities in New York and New Jersey.
“I was so ecstatic honestly that it didn't occur to me to leave the world. But at least I thought, you know, outside the city it's a little more relaxed," Haart said. "Atlanta was the beginning of everything."
Haart became a leader in the local Orthodox community, lecturing on Jewish affairs and gaining a reputation as an engaging teacher. He often hosted large Shabbat meals, feeding an average of 40 people a week. They included local college students and others who needed a Shabbat meal or wanted to learn more about Shabbat.
These encounters introduced her to secular Jews and exposed her to their ways of life. She started by visiting the local Barnes and Noble and buying secular literature, then she bought a television and started going to drive-ins with her husband. (He said they preferred the drive-ins because they weren't "mingling with non-Jews" there.)
But when Haart tried to import some of what he was learning about the secular world into his own life, he said he ran up against brick walls.
“I was tired of hearing… Julia, you are too flashy, Julia, your clothes are too tight, Julia, your clothes are too colorful, Julia, stop drawing attention,” she recalled. "I was so tired of being told to make myself invisible."
He tried talking to teachers and rabbis about his struggles in his religious community. The rabbis told him to recite Psalms.
“My favorite was someone who said to me, Julia, where does it say you need to be happy? There's nowhere in the Torah that says that," Haart said.
By the time his eldest daughter, Batsheva, married at age 19 in 2012, Haart had learned enough about the "outside world" to want to get involved. The week after the wedding, Haart left the Orthodox community behind, taking her youngest daughter, Miriam, with her. (An older son, Shlomo, later moved to New York City and continued to observe Shabbat, although he said he recently stopped wearing a kippah. Haart and her ex-husband share custody of their youngest son. , Aron, who is 14 and attends an Orthodox school. All the children appear on the show.)
A year after leaving, Haart launched a shoe company of the same name. Before long, she was tapped to become the creative director of luxury lingerie brand La Perla, where she was influential in winningKim Kardashian, whose family-friendly reality show paved the way for "My Unorthodox Life," wears a bra as an outer garment.. In 2019, Haart took the top job at talent management company Elite World Group, which is chaired by her Italian husband.
The show lacks details about Haart's meteoric rise from former orthodox mother to CEO of traveling fashion. For that, Haart said, he'll have to wait for his memoir, due for release next spring. (The book features heavily in the show's early episodes, as Haart disagrees with some of his children over whether he should be allowed to reveal personal details about them.)
But Haart said his religious journey was more gradual. She said she learned about the world beyond her Orthodox community for eight years before leaving, slowly experiencing some of the more rigid parts of her religious life along the way.
“People just assume I left one day. That's not what happened," he said. "It took me more than eight years to come out, and in those eight years I became less and less fundamentalist. woman I was until I was 35.
That doesn't mean she's embraced the outside world the way she's seen on the show, where she wears revealing clothes, freely gives advice about vibrators, and eats non-kosher food. During her years in Atlanta before leaving, Haart taught at a religious school and taught classes for women in her community. Recordings of some of her religious lectures can still be found online.
"When I say we've become more and more secular, it's still your nose pressed against the bakery's glass door, but we're not going into the bakery and we're certainly not going to buy the croissant," Haart said. “During those eight years I was looking.”
Yael Reisman, director of field and movement development for Footsteps, an organization that helps those who want to leave Orthodox communities adjust to life in the secular world, said the story of Haart's journey can be inspiring. But he said it could also be dangerously misleading.
“Our members really struggle,” said Reisman. “Leaving comes at such a tremendous cost, the stakes are so high. I worry that the show doesn't address the complexities of leaving everything you know behind."
Haart and his family allude to the challenges of leaving Orthodox communities. Her son-in-law, Binyamin Weinstein, said she got into real estate because only a high school diploma is required, and Haart often bemoans the poor education she and her children received at Monsey. Elsewhere, Shlomo spoke about having to make up lost ground at a local community college before he could transfer to Columbia University.
But Haart and his sons disagree on how to help someone who wants to leave the Orthodox community. In one episode of the show, Haart invites a woman who wants to leave her community to talk about the process of starting a new life. Instead of offering advice on her career, as Batsheva and Ben think she should, Haart gives the woman a complete makeover with a new haircut, makeup, and jeans. Much to his children's chagrin, he gives the woman a vibrator.
“If you came from Monsey and you had never been in a big, beautiful office and you met a CEO, what would your next step be the next day?” Batsheva asks. “Mine would be, wow, this is really amazing, I want to be in the workforce and the world. But I would still feel lost on how to get there."
Ben, speaking to Miriam, adds, “I think what Batsheva is saying is that it would have been more practical if her mother had sat down with her and looked for a job and shown her a game plan instead of the hair and makeup. up and the vibrator." .
Batsheva confronts her mother, who defends her approach.
“I'm trying to promote self-awareness, and knowing how to pleasure yourself as a woman is part of self-awareness,” Haart said.
It is clear that Haart prefers her children to be in her world rather than the Orthodox community and that she is uncomfortable with them accepting aspects of the life she has left behind. The series shows Haart at times pressuring his sons to be less religious, for example urging his youngest son to reconsider his decision not to talk to girls and scolding his son-in-law for his discomfort when Batsheva wears pants. But there are also scenes where he notices the presence of kosher food and celebrates the feast of Sukkot with his children and one of his sisters who he still attends.
“If you look, you see that we all love each other and even though my mother is not religious…our travel restrictions. . on Shabbat,” Batsheva Weinstein, who now identifies as Modern Orthodox, told the JTA.
Some Orthodox critics see the show as a malicious smear against the entire Orthodox community, and Haart's support for those looking to leave is proof that he has an agenda beyond telling his own story. The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Committee wascriticizing the show on Twitter, and Orthodox women took to social media to object to the show's portrayal of Orthodoxy, sharing stories of satisfaction in their own lives as Orthodox women, alongside smiling photos of themselves with their hair covered and modestly dressed with the hashtag # My Orthodox life.
“These lewd stories are making people actively hate Jews,” Kylie Ora Lobellwrites in the Jewish Journal. “And Orthodox Jews generally don't speak up because they are too busy living their lives and don't pay attention to what the media has to say. If they take a stand, top posts will typically not post their responses. The media doesn't want to hear it. And then they hit us again and again.
writing with glamor, Jenny Singer disagreed with the idea that watching “My Unorthodox Life” constituted a form of feminist activism. Instead, he said, the program could make Orthodox Jews even more vulnerable to antisemitism.
“It is not acceptable to punish an entire minority group, no matter how much you disagree with them or how harmful some of their practices are. It does not help Orthodox women; it simply endangers all orthodox people,” Singer wrote.
Reisman said the idea that stories like Haart's cause anti-Semitism is unfounded.
“I can't tell you how troublesome this is. These stories don't cause anti-Semitism, they're just another tactic to shut people up ", he said. ′′ I think what needs to be addressed are these behaviors that make people leave."
Haart also rejects criticism that the show is anti-Semitic or anti-Orthodox. He still believes in God, he said, and appreciates the values of kindness and charity he said he inherited from Judaism.
She simply doesn't want any other women to feel the despair she experienced as a young bride and mother whose role in her community seemed very limited.
“Shabbat is beautiful. Do you think I want people to stop keeping Shabbat? Of course not," said Haart. "I want them to stop telling women what to do."