With the hot summer weather, layers of clothing are shed, and the world is reopening, as the pandemic loses its grip on society. It’s perhaps a fitting time for Netflix to release My Unorthodox Life, the latest example in a genre of books, documentaries, and now a reality show, about formerly Orthodox Jews. “It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago I was living in an extreme ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and then I packed up and left,” Julia Haart said. “You can say that we have a very interesting life.”
In the trailer for the show, the protagonist’s first comments about Orthodoxy poke fun at the custom of tying the right shoe first, which appears in the Shulchan Aruch. In another memorable one-liner, Haart quips, “It takes time to deprogram yourself,” using a term usually associated with leaving a cult.
Taking its cue from Haart, a New York Times review of this show writes about how she left a “repressive ultra-Orthodox community.” If this reference brings to mind an exclusively chasidic village, or a Jerusalem neighborhood where large signs demand modest clothing, one would need to keep scrolling to learn that Haart’s former community is Monsey, a sizable town that is more mainstream than extreme as an Orthodox community. Anyone who has been to Monsey knows that its residents range in hashkafah from modern to chareidi, chasidic to yeshivish, Ashkenazi and Sefardi.
“I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to leave the Orthodox Jewish community,” tweeted Joel Petlin, a Monsey resident who serves as the superintendent of schools in Kiryas Joel. “I don’t accept that their ‘healing process’ requires that they ridicule everything Jewish just for a book deal or a Netflix special.”
Kylie Ora Lobell, a convert who lives in Los Angeles, also noted the show’s inaccurate depiction of Orthodoxy. “These salacious stories are actively making people hate Jews. 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,” she wrote in the Jewish Journal (The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles), a newspaper based in her city. “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.”
One source of positivity in Orthodox media is Jew in the City, a nonprofit founded by Allison Josephs that highlights observant Jews in all walks of life, such as fashion, sports, acting, and other public professions. In the same week when publicists were promoting My Unorthodox Life in secular news outlets, Jew In The City shared the story of Sarah Mintz, a Colombian telenovela star who converted to Judaism, married, and made aliyah. “For more than 25 years, I had a career as a TV host, actress, model, in the theater on the red carpets – what didn’t I do,” Mintz told the Israeli Channel 13 in a recent interview. “But none of it compares to what I have today.”
Once known as Maritza Rodriguez, she still has more than 1.6 million followers on Instagram, where she posts tips on modest fashion and Jewish life. With so many stories on formerly Orthodox individuals already circulating in mainstream media, wouldn’t it make better sense for Netflix to focus on someone who chose Orthodoxy? Perhaps this week’s story of Woodmere resident Jason Steinmetz being picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks is worthy of a reality show, as he balances the rigors of major league baseball within the constraints of an observant lifestyle.
Haart’s youngest son Aron lives in Monsey, in a custody sharing agreement with his father. “You don’t sound like a religious Jew, you sound like a fundamentalist,” Haart said to him in one episode. “I lived in that world, and it’s a very small and sad world and a place where women have one purpose in life, and that is to have babies and get married.”
In her interviews, Haart speaks of having left her “fundamentalist” community at age 43, and then pursuing a career in fashion, designing shoes, managing models, and fashion shows. In her new life, she takes pride in exposing her children to life outside of Orthodoxy, leaving them to decide how much they wish to observe, if at all.
An individual’s decision to leave a way of life in favor of personal fulfillment should not trouble the Orthodox community that has its own examples of successful individuals in nearly every profession. What is troubling is when the media devotes most of its Orthodox-related programming on formerly Orthodox Jews, specifically on the formerly chareidi, resulting in a limited awareness of the diversity within Orthodoxy, as it concerns hashkafic views, personal backgrounds, careers, family size, and much more.
“Of course, there are people who have legitimate grievances with their Orthodox community, and they feel the need to be true to themselves and leave,” Lobell wrote. “I am not talking about those people. As a community we are, like every other community, far from perfect; we are comprised of flawed human beings. Still, I can’t help but notice what seems to be a distressing media obsession with us.”
By Sergey Kadinsky