If you are a Jew and you have the internet, chances are you’ve heard of “My Unorthodox Life,” a Netflix docu-soap about Julia Haart, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jew who lived with her family in Monsey, New York, who is now the CEO of Elite World Group, a modeling/fashion/media conglomerate. The show features Julia and her four children (Batsheva, Shlomo, Miriam and Aron) as they navigate Jewish observance, their zillionaire lifestyle, and life between Monsey and Manhattan.
The show has stirred up quite the controversy, especially among some Orthodox Jews who claim that Julia’s categorization of Orthodox Judaism as fundamentalism is misrepresentative, and that the show is fodder for antisemitism. (It’s worth mentioning that Orthodox Judaism is comprised of myriad different communities, traditions and stripes of observance – the Haart family’s community was Yeshivish, and some of its customs are described in the interview below.) The series is groundbreaking in that it actually showcases a family of varied Jewish observance, which hasn’t been seen before on American television. Good luck finding a Jewish character in another mainstream series who isn’t on the extremes of the Jewish spectrum: either totally secular or Reform (“Broad City,” “Transparent,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), or Haredi/ultra-Orthodox (like the series “Unorthodox,” which takes place in a Satmar community in Williamsburg, a Hasidic community that is different from and more strict than the Haart family’s former lifestyle – phew, it’s complicated).
The storyline of going “off the derech” (“off the path,” or leaving Orthodox Judaism) has been well-mined – some would say overly so – by Netflix, which financed and distributed the aforementioned “Unorthodox” and the documentary “One of Us.” Bringing this storyline into reality TV is entering new territory (there’s a memorable scene where Shlomo sings Hebrew prayer as he davens while dissonant reality TV music plays underneath). The series has already amassed vocal fans and critics alike. The responses I’ve heard have ranged from “incredible” and “hilarious,” to “too sensationalist to have nuance” and “so fucking weird.” But as they say: two Jews, five opinions. Love it or hate it, this Kosher Kardashians series is a conversation-starter.
Julia Haart has responded to some of the show’s criticisms, but she isn’t the only one suddenly in the limelight. I spoke to Batsheva Haart, Julia’s eldest child, who is a content creator and identifies as Modern Orthodox (and who has amassed over 1 million followers on TikTok). In our conversation, she shared details of her upbringing, what the show’s critics are missing, and how she thinks about her Jewishness now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
What kinds of responses have you been getting to the show?
I would say it’s been getting majority positive responses from people all over the world. A lot of people from different religions relate to it; there are people who either felt like they had a similar experience or are just fascinated by the journey. So it’s been really amazing to share.
What elements of the show do you think people are connecting to?
I think it’s the fact that, regardless of religion, anybody who comes from an ultra-religious background can relate to the way that they feel in their community and their society in how they’re raised as women. So I think a lot of people connect to that. And specifically with me, a lot of people have said, “You know, in Hollywood or in TV shows, you either see ultra-Orthodox people or you see unaffiliated people. There’s never been anything in between represented.” So a lot of people feel good to see themselves represented on the screen. If you look at my family, we’re all at different levels of observance so you kind of get a full picture.
You left the community after your mom did – she officially left when you were 19, just after you had gotten married. Before that time, did you ever feel limited or unhappy in your community?
I always thought that when I got married, I would want to live a more modern lifestyle. Obviously I didn’t imagine the lifestyle I’m living now, just because I didn’t know it existed. But I think I always felt like I wanted something a little less intense than my community and the schools I went to. I wanted something that didn’t take that same approach.
Was that something that you and your husband Ben talked about beforehand? Were you on the same page about your observance?
Yeah, and he also came from a less strict background. He still went to yeshiva [Orthodox school] but it wasn’t as strict. I went to an ultra-religious school and he went to a more open-minded school, so he was already kind of on that page before me.
Did you watch TV growing up? Had you ever seen reality TV or a docu-soap before joining this show?
I did not watch reality TV until maybe two years after I was married – I think I started watching the Bachelor series. Reality TV was new to me. But once I knew that my mom was thinking of doing the show, I started researching and watching and now I’m a big Bravo fan! So yeah, I love reality TV.
Can you tell me about how this show came to be? How did it happen?
It was really my mom’s baby. I think she wanted to share her story and her journey to hopefully inspire other people who are going through something similar. Regardless of your background, one way isn’t the highway. If you’re living in a place where one way of life is pushed, and if you don’t obey those rules, then you’re a bad person; I think she wanted to share that you can still be a very accomplished person and live a very successful lifestyle even if you don’t obey that set of rules. So it was really something she wanted to put out there. Of course, we were all very happy to join and share our journey with everyone. And I was already doing social media so I was very down.
OK, here’s the tough question: There’s been controversy in the reception of the show, that I would summarize as criticism that the series paints Orthodox Judaism in a way that is overly simplistic and paints leaving the Orthodox community in a way that is overly simplistic. What would your response to that be?
My response would be that a lot of the comments are from people who haven’t actually watched the full season. If you don’t just watch the trailer or the first few episodes, if you watch the full season, you can see that we’re all represented. I mean we literally celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, and in the sukkah we talk about why we’re there. You see my brother celebrating Shabbat. I think religion is not painted in a bad way at all – I myself am Modern Orthodox, my brother is Orthodox. So I disagree with that.
I understand feeling the need to protect your way of life – my mom obviously had a bad experience. She’s there sharing her experience. There are other people who have lived the same way, but she’s not saying that everyone has a bad experience. But she wants to let people know that there are other ways. The way we were brought up was like, This is the only good way to live. I think Judaism is a beautiful religion. We preach to everyone that you shouldn’t judge people. I think she made it very clear that this isn’t a blanket statement about everyone. This is for the people who are struggling, to show them that there are other things out there. My brother and I are still religious and she’s not trying to convince us not to live the way we want to live our lives.
How would you describe your Jewishness and your observance now?
I would classify myself as Modern Orthodox. I keep Shabbat. I would say I live a very Jewish lifestyle. But I also feel that I am able to dress the way that I want, have a career, and not have to have babies right away. So I feel like I have a religious lifestyle with more freedom.
You’re one of the more observant members of your family on the show, and a lot of your storylines are about different kinds of boundaries — like who can weigh in on whether or not you wear pants. Also, the Jewish boundaries of tznius (modesty) and what you’re comfortable revealing. Your mom has her own comfort level that’s like off the charts open about everything! There’s a really interesting plotline, about how you didn’t want your mom to include a personal anecdote about your sex life in her upcoming memoir. And I thought it was so interesting because then that anecdote itself was in the show, right?
No, the anecdote that we weren’t comfortable with wasn’t in the show. We thought about it and we thought, yes, some of this may be uncomfortable for us to share, but we will share because this conversation or this event can help other people, and hopefully they can learn from our experience. But the things we were uncomfortable with that were just our personal details were not in the show. That was something we very much discussed: What do we want to share and what is the purpose? What are people going to gain from hearing this information?
There are so many different kinds of Orthodox Jewish communities. I know you have had many different phases of observance and your experience was different from the experience of other members of your family. If you’re up for it, would you mind doing a few rapid-fire questions about what your community was like when you were growing up?
We can try!
OK, let’s see how this goes! Did married women cover their hair and with what?
Yes, mostly with wigs. But where I grew up some people said that wearing a wig wasn’t modest enough because it was like fake hair, so I even knew people who wore either something synthetic on their head or just a hat.
Did you wear thick stockings under your skirt? Open-toed shoes?
Yeah, I always wore stockings or knee socks even under my long skirts. Your legs were never showing. For open-toed shoes, I think I would almost always stay away from them because you had to wear stockings too and it always looked really funny.
Fashion-forward from the beginning! Did women drive?
Yeah, where I grew up women drove. In the neighboring Hasidic communities most women do not drive. I even remember when I was engaged, I was changing my shoes in the back of the car and this woman came over to Ben, who was sitting in the front, and she’s like, “Wow it’s so beautiful. You know, most women don’t drive but it’s nice she’s even sitting in the backseat.”
Like it was extra-modest for you to be in the back?
Did people in your community have TVs? Did you?
You were not supposed to have TVs. In your school documents you had to sign that you didn’t have a TV and you could be kicked out if people found out you did. Later in my life when I was a teenager we had a TV, but nobody knew about it. It was hidden.
Your family obviously has a lot of criticism of the community that you were raised in, so I’m interested in what it’s like being in the secular world? Do you have any criticisms of the secular world as kind of an outsider in it? Do you miss anything?
I’m still very much involved in the Jewish community, so I feel like my lifestyle isn’t fully immersed in the secular world. But I feel like I have openness. I can learn more and I feel like I’m living now in a place where there’s just a lot less judgment on how I choose to observe or live my life. I think that is the biggest difference. And I think any of the positive things that I grew up with I still practice today, so I wouldn’t say there’s anything that I miss.
What’s your favorite thing about being Jewish?
Oh, so many things! I guess the most broad thing would be the tradition and all the family values.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I encourage people to watch the full series, and hopefully get inspiration there that women are powerful and that they can have something for themselves as well.