(JTA) — The day “My Unorthodox Life” premiered on Netflix, its subject Julia Haart was frustrated by the negative reviews — especially those from Jews who live the way she once did.
“Before you judge the show, maybe you might want to watch the show?” Haart told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Wednesday, responding to those who say the reality TV series is only the latest in a series of pop culture cheap shots against Orthodoxy.
“Because they had the word ‘unorthodox’ in it, people have made a thousand assumptions without actually taking the time to listen to what I actually have to say,” said Haart, the CEO of the global modeling agency Elite World Group. “If someone watches the show … it’s going to be really hard for someone to say I don’t mention anything positive.”
What Haart has to say, though, might be hard to hear for those who defended Orthodoxy against Netflix’s previous forays into stories about people who have left Orthodox communities.
The title “My Unorthodox Life” pays homage to the company’s 2020 Emmy-winning hit “Unorthodox,” a series loosely based on the 2012 bestselling memoir by Deborah Feldman, who left the Hasidic community after marrying at 17 and having a son. That show was preceded by “One of Us,” a 2017 documentary following the lives of three formerly Hasidic Jews, one of whom grapples with the aftermath of sexual abuse, as they struggle to acclimate to the challenges of their new lives.
But while critics of those shows could make the case — and sometimes did — that the abuse and trauma prompting the subjects to leave stemmed from simply a few bad Orthodox apples, Haart says the problem is endemic to the haredi Orthodox world, where women typically marry young, have many children and rarely pursue higher education or high-power careers.
“What I would love to see is that women have an opportunity to have a real education, can go to college, do not get married off at 19 on a shidduch,” or arranged match, Haart told JTA. “I want women to be able to sing in public if they want or dance in public if they want. I want them to create. I want them to be doctors or lawyers or whatever they want to be. I want them to know that they matter, in and of themselves, not just as wives and mothers.”
A flurry of press surrounding the show’s premiere has already made the contours of Haart’s life familiar to many. She was born Talia Leibov in what was then the Soviet Union. Her parents were observant Jews — so much so that despite there being no mikvahs, or Jewish ritual baths, in the country at that time, Haart’s mother would still immerse in the Black Sea, even in the dead of winter.
The family came to the United States in the 1970s and moved to Austin, Texas, where Haart was the only Jew enrolled at her private school. When she was in the fourth grade, the family, having grown 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 a religious girls’ school there and, for the first time, did not regularly encounter anyone in her daily life who was not an observant Jew.
She said the change induced a deep culture shock.
“I’d always been very proud of being Jewish, I loved my Jewish identity,” Haart said. “I just didn’t know that that meant I had to cut myself off from the rest of the world.”
Haart graduated from high school in Monsey and went on to attend a religious girls’ seminary in Israel for a year before returning to begin “shidduchim,” or matchmaker-arranged dating. At 19, she married Yosef Hendler and they moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where Hendler studied at a local yeshiva.
The couple later returned to Monsey and were part of an Orthodox community called “yeshivish” because of the centrality of yeshivas where men study Torah, sometimes full-time. In some ways the yeshivish community is less insular than the Hasidic communities that Feldman and the “One of Us” subjects left, with most people speaking English as a first language and some attending college and graduate school.
Haart’s husband was among them, graduating from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and settling into a career in energy. When he was offered a job in Atlanta in the 1990s, Haart jumped at the opportunity to move. “Out-of-town” communities, or Orthodox communities outside the metropolitan New York area, are considered more open-minded and often allow for a greater variety of religious practice than communities in New York and New Jersey.
“I was so ecstatic honestly, it didn’t occur to me to leave the world. But at least I thought, you know, out of town is a little more relaxed,” Haart said. “Atlanta was the beginning of everything.”
Haart became a leader in the local Orthodox community there, delivering widely attended lectures on Jewish topics and gaining a reputation as an engaging teacher. She often hosted large Shabbat meals, feeding on average 40 people a week. Among them were local college students and others in need of a Shabbat meal or wanting to learn more about Shabbat.
Those encounters introduced her to secular Jews and exposed her to their ways of life. She started visiting the local Barnes and Noble and picking up secular literature, then bought a television and started going to drive-in movies with her husband. (She said they preferred drive-ins because there they weren’t “mixing with non-Jews.”)
But when Haart tried to import some of what she was learning about the secular world into her own life, she said she ran into brick walls.
“I just was tired of being told … Julia, you’re too noticeable, Julia, your clothes are too tight, Julia, your clothes are too colorful, Julia, stop attracting attention,” she recalled. “I was so tired of being told to make myself invisible.”
She tried speaking with teachers and rabbis about her struggles in her religious community. Rabbis told her to recite Psalms.
“My favorite one was someone who told me, Julia, where does it say you need to be happy? There’s nowhere in the Torah that it says that,” Haart said.
By the time her oldest daughter, Batsheva, was married at 19 in 2012, Haart had learned enough about the “outside world” to want to jump in. The week after the wedding, Haart left behind the Orthodox community, taking her younger daughter, Miriam. (An older son, Shlomo, later moved to New York City and continued to observe Shabbat, though 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 of the children appear on the show.)
Within a year of leaving, Haart launched an eponymous shoe company. Within a short time she had been tapped to become the creative director at the luxury lingerie brand La Perla, where she was influential in getting Kim Kardashian, whose family’s reality show paved the way for “My Unorthodox Life,” to don a bra as outerwear. In 2019, Haart assumed the top role at the talent management company Elite World Group, whose chairman is her Italian husband.
The show is thin on details about Haart’s meteoric rise from ex-Orthodox mother to globetrotting fashion CEO. For that, Haart said, you’ll have to wait for her memoir, which is scheduled for release next spring. (The book figures heavily into the show’s first episodes, as Haart disagrees with some of her children about whether she should be able to disclose personal details about them.)
The show is thin on details about Haart’s meteoric rise from ex-Orthodox mother to globetrotting fashion CEO.
But Haart said her religious journey was more gradual. She said she learned about the world beyond her Orthodox community for eight years before she left, slowly experimenting with some of the more stringent parts of her religious life along the way.
“People just assume that I walked out one day. That’s not what happened,” she said. “It took over eight years for me to leave, and in those eight years I became less and less fundamentalist. So people who know me from the last few years before I left know a very different woman than the woman [I was] until 35.”
That doesn’t mean she embraced the outside world in the way she is seen doing on the show, where she wears revealing clothing, freely dispensing advice about vibrators and eating nonkosher food. During her years in Atlanta before she left, Haart taught in a religious school and gave classes to women in her community. Recordings of some of her religious lectures can still be found online.
“When I say that we became more and more secular, it’s still your nose pressed against the glass at the bakery door, but we’re not going into the bakery, and we’re certainly not buying the croissant,” Haart said. “For those eight years I was looking.”
Yael Reisman, director of field and movement building at Footsteps, an organization that helps those who wish to leave Orthodox communities to adjust to life in the secular world, said the story of Haart’s journey could be inspiring. But she said it could also be dangerously misleading.
“Our members really struggle,” Reisman said. “Leaving comes at such a tremendous cost, there’s so much on the line. I worry that the show doesn’t deal with the complexities of leaving everything you know behind.”
Haart and her family members do allude to the challenges of leaving Orthodox communities. Her son-in-law Binyamin Weinstein said he entered real estate because only a high school diploma is required, and Haart frequently bemoans the poor education she and her children received in Monsey. Elsewhere, Shlomo has discussed having to make up lost ground at a local community college before being able to transfer to Columbia University.
But Haart and her children disagree about how to assist someone who might want to leave the Orthodox community. In one episode of the show, Haart invites a woman who wishes to leave her community to discuss the process of starting a new life. Instead of offering her career advice, as Batsheva and Ben think she should, Haart gives the woman a makeover complete with a new haircut, makeup and jeans. To her children’s chagrin, she gives the woman a vibrator.
“If you were coming from Monsey and you had never been in a big beautiful office and met a CEO, what would your next step be the next day?” Batsheva asks. “Mine would be, wow, that’s really amazing, I want to be out in the workforce and the world. But I would still feel lost as to how can I get there.”
Ben, speaking to Miriam, adds: “I think what Batsheva is saying is it would have been more practical if your mother sat down with her and looked for jobs and showed her a game plan as opposed to the hair and makeup and vibrator.”
Batsheva confronts her mother, who defends her approach.
“I’m trying to promote self-knowledge, and knowing how to pleasure yourself as a woman is part of self-knowledge,” Haart said.
It’s clear that Haart would prefer her children to be in her world than in the Orthodox community.
It’s clear that Haart would prefer her children to be in her world than in the Orthodox community and that she is uncomfortable with them embracing aspects of the life she left behind. The series shows Haart sometimes pushing her children to be less religiously observant, for example urging her youngest son to reconsider his decision not to talk to girls and chastising her son-in-law for his discomfort when Batsheva wears pants. But there are also scenes where she notes the presence of kosher food and celebrates the holiday of Sukkot with her children and one of her sisters who is still observant.
“If you watch it, you see that we all love each other and even though my mom isn’t religious … she’s extremely respectful, you know, does all the holidays with us, makes sure that there’s kosher food options, respects our travel restrictions on Shabbat,” Batsheva Weinstein, who now identifies as Modern Orthodox, told JTA.
Some Orthodox critics see the show as a malicious smear on the entire Orthodox community, and Haart’s support for those seeking to leave as proof that she has an agenda beyond telling her own story. The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Committee has been critiquing the show on Twitter, and Orthodox women have even taken to social media to counter the portrayal of Orthodoxy offered by the show, posting smiling photos of themselves with their hair covered and wearing modest dress with the hashtag #MyOrthodoxLife.
“These salacious stories are actively making people hate Jews,” Kylie Ora Lobell writes in the Jewish Journal. “And Orthodox Jews usually don’t speak up because they are too busy living their lives and not paying attention to what the media has to say. If they do take a stance, mainstream publications typically won’t publish their responses. The media doesn’t want to hear it. And so we just get pummeled over and over again.”
Writing in Glamour, Jenny Singer took issue with the idea that watching “My Unorthodox Life” would constitute a form of feminist activism. Instead, she said, the show could make Orthodox Jews even more vulnerable to antisemitism.
“It’s not acceptable to castigate an entire minority group, no matter how much you disagree with them or how harmful some of their practices are. It doesn’t help Orthodox women; it just puts all Orthodox people in danger,” Singer wrote.
Reisman said the idea that stories like Haart’s cause antisemitism are baseless.
“I can’t say how problematic that is. These stories don’t cause antisemitism, it’s just another tactic to get people to be quiet,” she said. “I think what needs to be addressed is these behaviors that make people leave.”
Haart, too, rejects the criticism that the show is antisemitic or anti-Orthodox. She still believes in God, she said, and she cherishes the values of kindness and charity she said she takes from Judaism.
She just doesn’t want any other women to feel the despair she experienced as a young bride and mother whose role in her community felt sharply circumscribed.
“Shabbos is beautiful. You think I want people to stop keeping Shabbos? Of course not,” Haart said. “I do want them to stop telling women what to do.”