In Defense of My Unorthodox Life

By | Jul 19, 2021
Arts & Culture, Jewish World, Latest
What To Watch: My Unorthodox Life

Love her or hate her, one thing is clear: Julia Haart, the 50-year-old self-described ultra-Orthodox Jew turned fashion mogul and star of Netflix’s newest reality show My Unorthodox Life, has a whole lot of chutzpah

At 42, Haart left an Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, NY for a largely secular life in Manhattan. So frustrated with Orthodoxy’s restrictive rules that she became suicidal, she secretly started selling insurance, saved up and took off to start a new life. Haart launched a shoe company and quickly rose in the fashion industry, becoming CEO of the modeling and talent agency Elite World Group. She had four children with her ex-husband, three of whom have left Monsey and live elsewhere in New York. She shares custody of her fourth child, Aron, who splits his time between her ex-husband’s house in Monsey and Haart’s Manhattan penthouse. 

My Unorthodox Life is receiving intense backlash. Several Jewish newspapers have run negative reviews critiquing the show as vapid and unrepresentative of Orthodox Jews. A social media campaign aims to combat Haart’s narrative by encouraging “proud frum men and women” to post about their “satisfying, healthy and fulfilling Orthodox lives,” along with the hashtag #MyOrthodoxLife. The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council has tweeted out several critiques, including calling a scene in which Haart cries in front of Aron because he no longer wants to talk to girls or watch TV borderline “mental abuse.”

But for all of this kvetching, the show is more nuanced than most have given it credit for. The show doesn’t just follow the shellfish-eating Haart, but instead tracks her whole family: There’s Batsheva, her influencer daughter, who has a loving marriage with a man she wed in Monsey; Shlomo, her son, who observes Shabbat and says he always will; and Aron, a self-described “black hatter,” who chooses to be “in the middle” between “modern and Yeshivish.” While Julia pushes her children to become exposed to different types of thinking, members of the Haart family each choose to practice their own level of observance—and all are accepted for what they ultimately decide. This emphasis on personal choice comes through on screen in Haart’s interactions with her sister Hannah, an observant Orthodox Jew. “I’m happy, if anyone was wondering,” Hannah says. “No, I see it,” Haart replies, and the two embrace. 

Even with the variety of cast members, it is of course true that My Unorthodox Life is not wholly representative of Orthodox Jews. But it doesn’t claim to be. Upset that Aron has stopped talking to girls for fear of sinning, Julia tells her son that there are “millions of modern Orthodox Jews who keep shabbos and kosher who don’t feel this way.” Julia’s ex-husband tells Aron that one of the great things about Judaism is that “there’s no one-size-fits-all.”

It is unfortunate that the first shows and movies about historically underrepresented groups tend to be seen as representatives of the whole. Just like Love, Simon cannot possibly be representative of all gay people and Fresh Off the Boat cannot possibly be representative of all immigrants, My Unorthodox Life cannot possibly be representative of all Orthodox Jews. Julia’s story is one that some Jews will resonate with, and some won’t. Audiences who watch expecting their experiences to be mirrored perfectly will inevitably leave disappointed. 

Like any reality TV show, My Unorthodox Life often feels scripted and overdramatic. For every insightful comment about the struggles that come with straddling two worlds, there is equal screen time devoted to indulging in superficial luxuries: designer clothes, a walk-in closet that could fit the whole Haart family and a castle rented in Paris. The shifts in tone feel awkward, a problem ultimately more broadly emblematic of reality TV. 

In the first episode of the series, Julia says that her qualms about her childhood have “nothing to do with Judaism or religion.” At its core, My Unorthodox Life is less about Judaism than it is about self-expression. Those who take away the message that a secular way of life is preferable to a religious one are missing the broader point of the show. My Unorthodox Life embraces individual choice over conformity, no matter where that choice may lead.

5 thoughts on “In Defense of My Unorthodox Life

  1. This is an interesting take on what I saw as a rather cringe-worthy show (at least the first 2 episodes so far). Although she wasn’t disparaging Judaism, Julia did throw out a lot of exaggerated one-liners that sounds as black and white as the community she wanted to escape, particularly about women. She is an entertaining and larger-than-life character to be sure. Makes for sensational TV. I wish it were not so obviously manufactured. I’m wondering if she will talk about some of the good parts of her previous life. Was it all so terrible? This kind of reflection is sorely missing. As an adult, it’s her priority to pursue self-expression and identity. However, pushing her agenda on her son is unfair, no matter how much she disagrees. He should be allowed to have his own journey. Asking reflective questions as an opening to an on-going dialogue would be more effective and less-psychologically damaging. Julia obviously still has some hot buttons to address.

  2. HAG says:

    gee does any one care ?

  3. Miryam says:

    I am not offended by this reality show. Julia is a business genius as well as a very kind and caring family woman. I think it’s great that she overcame her suicidal thoughts and improved her life. Remaining in the Orthodox community she would have totally shriveled and died.
    The fashions are amazing, she and the family have great outfits, but she really doesn’t need to wear such revealing tops. They aren’t even attractive on her.

    1. abe says:

      Lol, marrying a Co Owner from a business makes her a successful business woman? or her ugly behavior and zero manners mentality…

  4. sadie 57 says:

    It’s been well documented that there are many serious constraints on women in several sects of conservative Judaism. Is this true for every family or community, of course not and any thinking person watching this show realizes this. Julia’s episodes on women and divorce in these communities however are truly horrifying though and there are several documentaries that support what these women are saying. If that is the only single truth that is aired and helps change these laws, then the show has done a tremendous amount of good.

    As far as the show itself, it’s actually very entertaining and I find the family very loving at its core. All the criticism against Julia for her refusal to allow her teen son to attend yeshiva versus a combo secular school is ridiculous. A good parent does just what her and her ex are doing, preparing their son for the world at large in order to allow him choices when he reaches adulthood. To give in to his whim at 15, especially in light of his obvious and natural waffling in his decisions over the last few years would be totally irresponsible.

    I hope there is a season 3 as I’d like to see what happens to all of them, especially Robert who I hope gets rid of the grifter fiancee and finds himself a good man who loves only him and can keep his schmeckel in his pants for others. This “open” arrangement never works in the long run and certainly isn’t anything Robert needs or deserves.

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