The Orthodox community seems to have made headlines a lot in the past few years, particularly in Netflix shows like “Unorthodox” (2020) and “My Unorthodox Life” (2021). Their portrayal, particularly when it comes to women, is rarely positive. But these depictions can be misleading. They paint a partial picture of a varied and vibrant community.
In search of the missing narrative, I sat down this month with Sarah Haskell to discuss her experiences as a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Long Island, NY, and her work spreading positive images of modern Orthodox life on social media.
Haskell, better known to her 63k+ TikTok followers as @thatrelatablejew, is a fourth-year student at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) who has devoted much of her free time to sharing information about Judaism set to fun music with brightly-colored captions.
Growing up in Long Island, Haskell attended Jewish day schools from nursery through grade 12, followed by an extra year in seminary in Israel, before enrolling at FIT. Haskell explains that starting university gave her a new appreciation for the world she grew up in and the unique lifestyle of the Orthodox Jewish community. She has this to say about how social media helped her explore her changing relationship with Judaism:
“First, it was an outlet for me to express myself about issues that I saw in Orthodox communities, or problems that upset me growing up going to a Jewish school, and what I was going through in my head. Slowly, as time went on, I began to take those experiences and switch them to the positive.”
The more she contemplated her experience, the more determined she became not to allow negative experiences to define her or her Judaism. “Why should I let them take Orthodoxy away from me, when I do enjoy religion, and I do enjoy being observant? I think that once I had that switch in my mind, I started to explode with content and say that ‘no, you need to take religion for yourself.’”
The momentum of Haskell’s @thatrelatablejew accounts on TikTok and Instagram indicates a desire to see a side of the Orthodox community that’s missing from its representation on television — namely, the full and positive lives of Orthodox Jews. Haskell has been contacted by non-Jewish classmates saying that they love learning about Judaism from her videos, and by Jews looking to further explore their Judaism.
“When I see these [TV] shows, my heart goes out to [the characters] because I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences in the Orthodox community. But I kind of see it as though we went down two paths,” Haskell says. “They chose the path of negatively portraying Judaism on social media, and I’m not judging them for that, but that’s what they chose. I was starting at the same point, but then I chose to say that we’ve all had bad experiences in life, but are we going to let those bad experiences define who we are? [I decided to] take Judaism for what it is to me and spread that to the world in a positive way, and teach people that it’s not the all-or-nothing that Netflix portrays through all these crazy shows.”
Haskell cautioned that while the experiences portrayed in the popular Netflix series are valid, they can also be harmful to those learning about Judaism through these depictions.
“I think that it’s very detrimental that right now there are only negative portrayals of what [Orthodox] Judaism truly is, and that there’s nothing positive in the media, which is why I’m so glad that, even just through social media, I can share my story and try to show people that Netflix isn’t like real-life Orthodoxy,” says Haskell.
Real-life Orthodoxy, as Haskell views it, can be much more positive than the repressive world described by Julia Hart in “My Unorthodox Life.”
“If you walk into any store in an Orthodox Jewish community, you will see a tzedakah (charity) box where anyone can place money — for clothes, for the homeless, for many [causes]. That just shows you that even when we’re eating our food, what do we think about? Helping others in need.” Haskell cites this as one of many positive aspects of living in the Orthodox community. “Judaism highly stresses this value of community and that we all take care of each other. I wish that was portrayed in the media, and it wasn’t just skirt length, but also normal things that are just nice.”
This missing narrative also extends to the experience of women in the Orthodox community.
“I believe that we have made big steps in the Orthodox community,” says Haskell. “[In] these Netflix shows, it is portrayed that women shouldn’t be in the working world, but I have met so many Orthodox women who are more observant than I am, who have made their own companies and start-ups and are involved in high-up positions — powerful women. This is not what is portrayed. Everyone sees them cooking in the kitchen. But I truly do believe that there is lots of progress. Many women are in full-time jobs; many women can go after what they want to go after.”
For Haskell, pursuing her personal goals has meant pursuing a career in design, and she is not alone. Almost all of the girls in her graduating class from high school also went on to attend a secular or Jewish university.
While Haskell has received negative comments about her clothing choices on social media, she feels that this is more of a casualty of being online than of resentment from the Orthodox community. As part of discovering one’s relationship with Judaism, she feels it is important not to give in to pressure to dress a certain way: “If you let everyone push you around or make you feel bad for not observing certain things, it can be more detrimental if you are listening to what they say. You have to do what is best for you, and any level of observance is honestly amazing.” Overall, she feels that most people on the internet are respectful.
As Haskell prepares to graduate from university, she has been thinking a lot about what comes next. She plans to continue creating content, telling her story and helping others find a voice to tell theirs as well. She is considering expanding to a YouTube channel or podcast to provide longer versions of stories and explanations that can be hard to fit into a one-minute TikTok.
“What I would say to people who see all these crazy stories about Orthodox Jews is just that people are selectively telling a story of the message they want to get across,” Haskell says, “You’re not seeing the whole story. You’re not seeing what the community looks like day to day and all the amazing things that everyone does for one another.”