You already know how the story goes: Girl grows up in an oppressive fundamentalist society. Girl has an awakening and realizes the world has a lot more to offer (sex! Rock n’ roll! Bacon!). Girl leaves religion. Girl is liberated and goes on to enjoy a fabulous life.
It’s the plotline of Netflix’s hit miniseries “Unorthodox” (based on Deborah Feldman’s bestselling memoir of the same name), and of countless movies and books about Orthodox Jews and other religious communities (“Breaking Amish,” I’m looking at you). It’s also the premise of Netflix’s new reality show “My Unorthodox Life,” the story of fashion CEO Julia Haart and her previous life as Mrs. Talia Hendler, a member of an ultra-Orthodox sect, complete with fluffy wigs and long, dowdy skirts. But it’s not the story we need to hear.
Too often, when Orthodox Jews are portrayed in fiction (or, in this case, reality TV), they are pitted in a conflict between staying and going, weighing the pulls of family and tradition against the lure of the wider secular world. Rarely do we see narratives that feature Orthodox Jews being, well, regular people. The Israeli television show “Shtisel” is a unique exception with its relative lack of religious existential crisis. The characters of “Shtisel” are Orthodox Jews living their lives with all the challenges, foibles and flaws that everyone struggles with. It makes them human, but it’s far too rare in depictions of religious Judaism in mainstream media, especially American pop culture.
The problem with these “stay or go” narratives is that they oversimplify Orthodox people and communities, painting wide swaths of a complex culture with the same shallow brush. Julia Haart’s comments — like “the women in our community are second class citizens” and “in our community, a woman basically has one purpose — to follow her husband and to be a baby-making machine” — imply that all Orthodox Jews are “fundamentalist,” all religious women are oppressed and disempowered, and the “rules” governing observant Jewish life are at worst dangerous, and at best pretty dumb. Yet the reality of Orthodoxy is much more complex.
If you looked at me, you’d see a typical religious Jewish woman, much like the “before” photo flashing across the screen in “My Unorthodox Life.” I married young, am a wife and mother of four, I wear long sleeves (in July) and wigs to cover my hair (well, it’s a bandanna right now, but you get the idea). I bake huge batches of challah once a month and serve chicken soup every Friday night.
But I am also an attorney and nonprofit CEO, a writer, activist and speaker. I listen to podcasts like they’re going out of style (I hope not) and read everything I can get my hands on. Oh, and that chicken soup we eat each week? My husband is the one who cooks it. And I’m not unusual — my friends and colleagues are passionate and creative, professionals and leaders in their fields and partners in their marriages. If you search the hashtags #MyOrthodoxLife and #ThisIsOrthodox on social media right now, which popped up as a response to the Netflix show, you will read many similar stories. Because that’s the problem with overly simplistic portrayals: Stereotypes are one-dimensional, but people are not.
This certainly doesn’t negate the fact that there are very real issues facing women in the Orthodox world and other faith-based communities. As a professional addressing abuse in the Jewish community, I have a front-row seat to these communal problems. However, the way gender and power operate in the Orthodox world is far more complicated than the black-and-white analysis displayed on Netflix. In fact, the narrative that “all Orthodox women are oppressed” is counterproductive to addressing the very issues Julia Haart ostensibly seeks to amplify.
When Orthodox Judaism is vilified as purely misogynistic, Orthodox women who value their religious identity may feel more hesitance and shame in seeking help for abuse and other issues, lest they reinforce a harmful stereotype. In addition, when we write off an entire community as a patriarchal environment with no hope of redemption, we lose the opportunity to address actual injustices and create change within the community’s culture. We also become blinded to the reality that gender-based issues are present in every community, religious and secular.
Most significantly, continually boiling down Orthodoxy to a “stay or go” decision with a clear correct answer ultimately dehumanizes Orthodox Jews. After all, most of us don’t spend all day debating our religious identity — we love, we fight, we struggle to raise our children, we go grocery shopping. The beauty of “Shtisel” is that its characters just are — and that very mundanity is what makes us fall in love with them.
The danger of black-and-white characterizations is that losing sight of a group’s humanity inevitably leads to discrimination or worse — and in this case heightened antisemitism. It may sound extreme, but the othering of Orthodox Jews in shows such as “My Unorthodox Life” can come at a steep cost. We all want the nail-biting stories of dramatic departures, but it’s the ordinary tales that remind us that we’re all in this together. I’m currently at work on a novel featuring Orthodox Jews living, working and falling in love — because these are the kinds of stories we need to heal our increasingly fractured society.
Eighteen years ago, I made the opposite choice of Julia Haart and joined the Orthodox community. It wasn’t easy; my collection of jeans was hard to give up (they really do go with everything!), beaten out only by ceasing to eat in non-kosher restaurants (I’m a foodie). I am no longer the starry-eyed ba’alas teshuva (newly religious woman) who thinks everything in this community is perfect, because I have learned enough to realize that it’s not. Yet my love for Orthodox Judaism has deepened, not dimmed. I also understand that no community, anywhere, is perfect, not even the high-fashion secular world Julia Haart inhabits.
Would I make the same choice again? In a heartbeat. But what I know now is that my life cannot be reduced to whether I stayed or went. It’s all the days in between, all the ordinary moments and the painful realizations and the times I felt so happy my body could barely contain it, that matter more. Because at the end of the day, I’m a person making my way in this crazy world, just like you.