Every day in the fourth and fifth grade, I dressed in either the large-pocketed American Apparel skirt that was trendy in 2011 or jeggings covered with a long skirt. Those were my first two years in public school, after four years of facing what I could tell, even at a young age, was a subpar secular education in ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools. In public school, I learned from my fashionable, LA-style, agnostic-Protestant classmates that I was committing a fashion sin every time I wore a frumpy, ankle-length skirt with a long-sleeve shirt.
So I started committing a real sin: wearing pants and above-the-knee skirts. I hid this from my dad every morning, shimmying my tznius (modest) skirt off in the bathroom before school began. Sometimes I sat in class wracked with anxiety about my father potentially arriving at school to pick me up due to a family emergency. Just imagine, his mother has died, and on top of that, his daughter is wearing pants in mixed company! I would clutch my long skirt inside my backpack and imagine ways to quickly slide it on if he were to burst into my classroom.
These memories fluttered back to me with a laugh while binge-watching the new Netflix reality series “My Unorthodox Life” with my sister. The show, which released its first eight-episode season on July 14, follows the ex-Orthodox Julia Haart, who is the mother to Bat Sheva, a 27-year-old social media influencer and consultant; Shlomo, a lawyer; Miriam, a Stanford undergrad and app developer; and Aron, a high school student. Hailing from the ultra, ultra-Orthodox town of Monsey in upstate New York, Julia talks about being raised as a “second-class citizen” in her own community, unable to sing, ride a bike or wear pants around men or in public. That latter restriction becomes central to the show, which focuses on Julia’s successful fashion career, wherein every miniskirt and low-cut top feels like an “emblem of freedom.”
I never thought I would feel so seen in a reality television show about a woman with a penthouse and position as CEO of the talent media company Elite World Group, but I did. It was incredible to watch a Netflix original with a story arc that follows Bat Sheva’s own battle with her husband Ben over wearing pants. When she walks into their kitchen wearing tight jeans, he says he needs to talk to his family first about it, “it” being his wife wearing pants. She finally bellows, “We’re in New York City, nobody gives a fuck,” as he mumbles into their countertop.
However, the show is not about religious family members pitted against anti-religious ones. Bat Sheva occupies a moderate position, which lands her in tense moments with her younger sister Miriam, too, who Bat Sheva says is interested in women’s liberation “on steroids.” When Bat Sheva complains about Ben restricting her dress choices, Miriam says that he is holding her back. Bat Sheva explains, with some passive-aggressive condescension, that relationships are about compromise.
Later, Bat Sheva and Ben confront Miriam as they all get ready for a fashion show. When Julia hears that Miriam said Ben is holding Bat Sheva back, Julia checks them: “That’s all she said?” When Ben begins trying to justify his control over his wife’s clothing choices, Shlomo interrupts to say he has never cared what his female family members wear. Julia adds to Ben’s protests, “That is literally the most stupid fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
This scene made my heart sore in a way I never thought a show could. In my Modern Orthodox high school, I heard from rabbis that the purpose of modesty has to do with a certain “mindfulness” and “consciousness” about dress, similar statements to Ben’s. But ancient Jewish law texts like the Talmud say nothing about this New Age-y focus on conscientiousness. What’s more important is that the women in communities like Monsey cannot even study Talmud, so they are taught chumras (an extra prohibition which goes beyond the basic statute) about how women cannot show skin because it will excite men, causing them to have sinful thoughts and waste seed. I was taught this at a young age, as was my friend who went to an ultra-Orthodox seminary in Israel. She eats lobster now.
Julia tells Ben just that; there is no reason to impose female modesty aside from the sexist, “ludicrous” notion that men cannot control themselves. A few shots later, Ben goes shirtless in front of the camera. This same hypocrisy is seen when he pressures Bat Sheva to start thinking about having children, but nearly faints when he has to draw blood from her finger for an at-home fertility test. My sister and I laughed. This guy can’t handle some blood but wants his wife to give birth?!
It’s easy to snicker, but it’s harder and much more important to have sympathy and empathy. Haart fled her community two days after Bat Sheva and Ben married, with absolutely no warning. Over the course of the season, Bat Sheva faces her abandonment issues and sense of betrayal over the fact that her mother taught her to be ultra-Orthodox her whole life and then did the opposite. Throughout, Bat Sheva struggles, occupying a middle ground between the more secular Shlomo, Miriam, and Julia and her husband and little brother, Aron, who cling to their Orthodox roots.
Though Bat Sheva fights ardently to wear pants and to wait until 30 to have kids, she remains critical of Miriam, who comes out as bisexual in the first episode. During a conversation about it, Bat Sheva writes it off as “experimenting,” to which Ben asks, “If she didn’t leave Monsey, would she still be experimenting?” He says it as if the “experimentation” is a bad or unnecessary thing, when in fact that ability to explore one’s sexuality freely is the express purpose of leaving such hermetically sealed, fundamentalist communities. Bat Sheva rejoins, “I think she’ll still end up with a guy.”
It was hard for my sister and I not to shout at the screen. How could she criticize her sister for feminist exploration when it’s that very feminism that is allowing her to push off children until 30? To wear pants? To have a career? In the Hasidic community, Bat Sheva would have already had at least three children at her age of 27, having gotten married at 19.
I tolerated the biphobia only because it reveals a central theme of the show: the differences in how each family member leaves (or does not leave) Orthodoxy, which rings true to my own experience, and likely other similar families. I still do not eat shellfish or pork, but I will have an unkosher hamburger. My dad, who still studies Talmud every day, goes to unkosher restaurants but only gets fish or dairy. Each person draws the lines of observance in slightly different places, and for different reasons. I’ve found that reading Jewish literature, teaching at a Reform Hebrew school and celebrating holidays is a much better way to connect to Judaism than covering my collarbone. To each her own.
Many Orthodox people have criticized the show for making it look like “all Jews” subscribe to these fundamentalist beliefs, even though Julia makes it clear that is not the case. More importantly, if Jewish people are truly concerned with these misinterpretations of Jewish values appearing on television, it could be worth empowering ultra-Orthodox communities to allow women to study the Talmud, which offers a myriad of meaningful ways to be modest outside of dress, and to stop sexualizing their bodies from youth.
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Julia is asked about some of the stronger criticisms of the show, namely that she only focuses on the negative aspects of her life before leaving Orthodoxy. “There’s so much giving and generosity and gratitude and appreciation,” she says of Judaism in general. “I talk about it in this show, I talk about it in every interview. I love being a Jew, I love the people in my community.” She clarifies, “I hate fundamentalism, and there are aspects in our world that are fundamentalist, and they need to go, and they can go.”
Julia may not be Orthodox anymore, but she is still heimishe, a Yiddish word which describes someone or something which is warm, kind and homey. Though she may be bearing inches of cleavage and even more inches of leg, she remains true to the most important teaching of Judaism: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.” Even as Haart rejects her Jewish-fundamentalist heritage, she and her family show us how to be Jewish in our own ways. In fact, Julia’s show offers viewers one of the most important Jewish traditions, that of debate over how to be Jewish, and how to thrive as a Jewish community when not everybody makes the same choices as you.