I admit I haven’t seen an episode of “My Unorthodox Life,” the Netflix reality series about fashion mogul Julia Haart. So I won’t weigh in on the debate over how it depicts the Orthodox community from which Haart fled, and whether it promotes unfair stereotypes about observant Jews.
I was struck by the close readings of the show by people familiar with the Orthodox community – and especially the fine distinctions being noted among “haredi” Orthodoxy (what the secular media tend to call “ultra-Orthodoxy”), Modern Orthodoxy and “yeshivish” (we’ll get to that).
The show’s official site refers to Haart as “a former member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.” For those in the know, that implies the strictly insular Hasidic and haredi worlds where secular culture is kept at bay, adult men devote themselves to full-time Torah study and women are expected to marry young, have many children and work close to home. Yiddish is often the first language and, as a big political battle in New York has revealed, children are largely if not exclusively taught religious subjects in school. (Haredi Jews are usually indifferent to or antagonistic to Zionism, which is a different story altogether.)
My colleague Shira Hanau points out that before leaving Orthodoxy, Haart and her first husband were part of an Orthodox community better described as “yeshivish” – somewhat “less insular” than the Hasidic or haredi communities depicted in previous Netflix shows like “Unorthodox” and the documentary “One of Us.” “Yeshivish” people speak English as a first language and some attend college and graduate school. Haart’s husband attended the Wharton School.
That is not to suggest that Haart is being deceptive about the limitations she felt as a woman expected to marry young and devote herself first and foremost to her children and husband. Or that she isn’t entitled to criticize a community she and others see as blinkered or misogynistic.
So to whom do these distinctions matter? Some Modern Orthodox Jews – combining observance and engagement with secular culture — have written critically about the show, saying it tars all Orthodox Jews as insular and backward. And curious nudniks like me have a professional and sociological stake in reminding people that even subsets of a group as tiny as the Jews are very diverse.
There’s a huge Modern Orthodox community where I live, and even there it would take an ornithologist to keep track of the markers distinguishing my neighbors. There are the worldly families who send their kids to the elite Ramaz School in New York or the Frisch School in New Jersey, and from there on to the best secular colleges. Others prefer a more “yeshivish” track, at schools where boys and girls are separated in the classroom and Yeshiva University and Stern College are the schools of choice. Women, who are as likely as their husbands to have careers outside the home, take a variety of approaches to rules about dressing modestly and, for married women, covering their hair.
The differences can be seen in the same family: a dad who wears the knitted kippah associated with Modern Orthodox (or “Religious Zionist”) Jews, and a son in the black velvet yarmulke he wears at the “right-wing” yeshiva he attends in Israel.
(There’s a distinct vocabulary to describe those who fall far from the tree. Religious kids who stray are OTD, or “off the derekh,” or path. Kids who become more strictly religious than their parents are said to be “flipping out.”)
These distinctions might not matter to you if you are not an Orthodox Jew, and you might even find them silly or worse. Sigmund Freud coined the term “the narcissism of the small difference” to explain how “minor differences in people who are otherwise alike … form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”
But don’t kid yourself – it’s the rare person who isn’t part of a community that doesn’t impose its own values, expectations and dress codes. Even freethinkers look for approval from other freethinkers and make choices accordingly – how they dress, how they celebrate, the schools they attend and the work they do. Orthodoxy may represent an extreme of communal conformity, although I’m pretty sure liberal Jews on the Upper West Side have an unspoken social code nearly as strict. Here’s a test: Who do you think would feel more put out – Orthodox parents whose children leave the fold, or secular parents whose children become Orthodox?
It’s the rare person who isn’t part of a community that doesn’t impose its own values, expectations and dress codes.
The Jewish media often get criticized for exacerbating tensions between Jews by focusing on their differences. Years ago a Chabad rabbi asked me why we even make distinctions between Jewish denominations; aren’t we all “just Jews”? But the Jewish world doesn’t function that way, and we shouldn’t pretend that it does. (Don’t get me started on how Chabad is distinct both from other Hasidic Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews.)
And besides – I find these distinctions endlessly interesting. I love how a people can share the same origin story and interpret it in so many different ways. The small differences – what novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe referred to as the “status details” – are, to me, anyway, as interesting and revealing as the big ones.
Paying attention to these distinctions is also a sign of respect, no less than honoring diversity in any other community or setting. It is not Julia Haart’s responsibility to protect a community she feels is dysfunctional. But it’s on all of us to remember that there is no one way to be Orthodox, any more than there is one way to be Jewish.