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How To Answer The Jewish Issues Raised In Netflix’s “My Unorthodox Life”

Now that the public has seen some (or all) of Netflix’s new series, My Unorthodox Life, the people who know Julia Haart (Talia Hendler) are forward to clarify that this show is almost more fiction than it is true. This family, while in the blackhat world, was on the left wing side of it. Many of the claims of lack of freedoms simply were not true in the slice of Orthodoxy they existed in.

However, even if the issues mentioned in the show were not their issues, these issues do exist in some communities and some of the Torah sources raised in the show do need to be unpacked with nuance and depth. The show didn’t afford this at all, but rather laid out every challenging source and law out there in the first 5 minutes of episode one. So we have compiled a list of the major Jewish topics raised in the first few episodes which you can use as your own guide or send it to your neighbor, co-worker, relative or teenager.

  1. Sex is taboo: In Judaism sex is considered private but it is also the holiest thing a husband and wife can do. A man is required to give his wife pleasure according to the kesubah (the Jewish marriage document). This is called “onah”  and this is considered a mitzvah in the Torah. That being said, some communities have taken the privacy that sex is meant to have and turned it into taboo and that is truly a problem. In some places, brides and groom don’t learn about pleasure or the fact that Jewish law requires consent. When sex is taught badly it destroys marriages and entire families. This is one of the issues we are working on in our Tikun branch.
  2. Yeshivish/heimishe community is all fundamentalists. This is a low blow. There are of course fundamentalists in the community. The moderates need to make sure they don’t have power. When fundamentalists aren’t stood up to and pushed out of the way, they hurt people. This is another issue we are taking on at Tikun.
  3. Women are second class citizens: When Orthodoxy is practiced in a healthy way, it can save women from the unhealthy dynamic found in the secular world of objectification and hyper-sexualization. When Orthodoxy is practiced in unhealthy ways, misogynists will find a way to take control and do damage.
  4. Girls can’t ride bikes or play sports: In the most rightwing and insular circles, boys and girls might not be allowed to ride bikes or play sports after a certain age, which is not a healthy approach at all. However, Miriam making this claim is an utter lie as she can be seen here as a sports hero in 2015. Riding bikes not only is normal and accepted in large parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, numerous charities, like this one, have hundreds and hundreds of people ride bikes to raise money each year.
  5. Women can’t sing in front of men: The mitzvah of Kol Isha is one of the most difficult to understand. At the same time, there are more avenues these days and women are discovering ways to use their talents within these laws.
  6. Women’s role is to be covered from head to toe and not attract attention: In some communities, modesty is elevated to be THE most important mitzvah for a woman. Julia Haart apparently always dressed to the nines, was an emblem of fashion in her community, and gave public Torah classes to large crowds. In places where women are reduced to simply disappearing, this is an incorrect approach and needs to change. Self-actualized modesty, however, actually brings about equality.
  7. Girls who don’t dress modestly will spend eternity in hell having their clothes dipped in acid: I heard boiling water, not acid, but both versions are sick. This is not actual Judaism, but sick, controlling and fear based education is still happening in some places and lives are being broken as long as it persists. This is an issue we’re taking on at Tikun.
  8. Thank you god for not making me a woman: Read this important response to this challenging prayer.
  9. Women’s role is to follow her husband: Read this important response about an often misunderstood text.
  10. Women must be baby-making machines: Birth control has a place in Jewish law, including for when there are emotional needs. But not every couple has access to this information nor is every rabbi trained or compassionate enough to know when to hear someone needs it. When these issues are ignored, you end up with dysfunctional families and unwanted children. This is an issue we’re dealing with at Tikun.
  11. A husband can divorce his wife for burning his food, but she can’t divorce him if she’s being beaten: Read this important response.
  12. They received no education, learned no history or grammar: This is also an utter lie. Even most blackhat girls schools have decent secular education. In terms of higher education, Israel is more extreme than the US and even there, college is getting more and more accepted. In more right wing schools boys’ schools, there is more of a chance the secular education will be subpar, which is problem. But the ex-husband went to Wharton and the children were at left wing yeshivish and modern Orthodox schools, so this does not seem to be the case with this family.
  13. There are no gay people in the ultra-orthodox world: This is obviously not true, and while the desires are not a problem, according to Torah law, the acts (especially for men) are. However – we are not supposed to micromanage each other’s Judaism. The great Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explained that, “we all ought to be worried about our own souls and other people’s bellies.” We are supposed to “love our neighbor as we love ourself.” This is probably the biggest modern challenge in Orthodoxy. The modern and centrist Orthodox worlds are making more headway in creating non-judgmental and inclusive spaces for all Jews. The rest of the community will have to follow.
  14. My way or the highway: Some people (including Orthodox Jews) have this approach to life. As I mentioned in my other article, lack of secure attachment is the main underlying theme we see at Makom – our branch for ex-charedi Jews – for why they leave. If Julia grew up believing that she was only loved conditionally, this could be a big factor in her being adrift.
  15. Can’t be part of outside world: There are certainly insular families out there and people who want more access to the world than their life/family allows. The ex-husband graduated from Wharton (the business school of U Penn), the daughter Miriam went to modern Orthodox high school and while she was there she built homes for non-Jewish families who were hurt in Hurricane Katrina. These are people who were very much integrated into the larger world.
  16. Wearing pants is shunned: Many Orthodox women don’t wear pants. Here are some reasons. Some Orthodox Jews are judgmental of people dressing differently than them. This is wrong. Here’s a piece of Torah explaining how to avoid this.
  17. Dressing immodestly is an emblem individuality: Being forced to do anything is awful. No adult should ever be forced to do anything outside of follow the law. Modesty allows plenty of room for self-expression.
  18. Girls cause men to sin, men can’t control themselves: Modesty is meant to be a partnership where men are careful with their eyes and women are careful in how they dress. People in some communities reduce men to helpless sinners who expect women to carry all of the burden. This issue wrong. It is meant to be a partnership.
  19. Pressure to get married: According to Jewish law, the couple has to consent to the marriage. Of course this is not the case in the most unhealthy families.
  20. Masturbation: An explanation on the Jewish perspective on males not masturbating.
  21. Shomer negiah/not touching before marriage: A reason for this mitzvah.
  22. Women can’t learn Torah/read Jewish books: In previous generations, there were less literate Jews (men and women) and then in the 1800’s a woman named Sarah Schnirer started the Beis Yakov movement to create Jewish schools for Jewish women using Jewish texts. She was a powerhouse and started a revolution. Nowadays, all Jewish women learn Jewish texts but the more modern communities like where I’m from (and mind you, I wear a wig) the girls and women learn everything including Talmud). More to the right, they learn Torah and less Talmud and all the way to the right, and most insular circles, they learn the least but still learn Torah. Julia herself was quite an accomplished Torah teacher.
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  • R M says on July 15, 2021

    Allison,

    Thank you so much for posting this crucial response to the horrific new series.
    Having grown up around the corner from Julia/Talia and her children, I know quite a bit about her, her parents, siblings and her lifestyle.
    I also know that she attended the same high school that I did, and everyone who knows me knows that me and my friends are normal, middle of the road Orthodox Jewish women. In high school we studied Judaic studies for half the day and secular studies for the other half, learning a full New York State Regents curriculum as well as add-on subjects such as Accounting, Computer Science and Political Science. So several of her claims are debunked right here.
    While every community in the world has its problem people, extremists and the like, the fact that Julia boxes every Orthodox Jewish person and law into one generalized group is not only inaccurate but quite frankly horrendous. I am Orthodox and live in a fully Orthodox community and I’ve never, ever heard that my clothing will be burned in hell. Not being allowes to be part of the outside world simply makes no sense – we are taught to have respect for all humans, no matter their backgrounds.
    And women must be baby making machines?? Come on, who are they kidding? The Jewish home revolves around the women, we are the ones entrusted with the sacred duties of keeping kosher kitchens, raising the children and being supportive to our husbands. Hence the reason men thank G-d for not creating them as women: it would simply be too difficult for men to take these obligations on. But to say we are only baby makers is so ridiculous. Most women I know do not have one child each year, and even have prestigious careers. They wait a few years for their bodies and families to recuperate from birth before having more children, and every single Rabbi I know in my yeshivish community (in the tri-state area) will condone birth control for as long as a woman needs it emotionally and physically.
    I can keep going on but I don’t have the need to defend our unbelievable religion and our people of Torah, charity and kindness. I, thank G-d, am part of this beautiful life where religion and belief in G-d keeps us sane during our turbulent times. Julia, on the other hand, seems so insecure with her new life that she feels the need to validate her choices with a public TV series.
    May all Jewish people merit to see the beauty of religion, because it only makes our lives happier and more fulfilled.

    All the best,
    RM

    Reply
    • leah.rubin@compass.com says on July 21, 2021

      Well said. I second that. Thank you

      Reply
    • JohnGold says on July 29, 2021

      What a biased blinkered response.

      I really dont know where to start.

      I was brought up as an Orthodox jew and saw the rigidy first hand particularly with my ultra orthodox neighbours children.

      As a simple example my two female cousins got better A-levels than me but were prevented from going to university. They were forced to go to secretarial college and there was constant pressure to find a man to marry.

      As a man I was expected to go to uni and make a career.

      The biggest blow was that as I was very inqusitive I asked questions about everything.

      I wanted fact based answers and at every turn I was told I had to believe
      even when faced with contradictory facts.

      I still 60 years later still feel the pain of being brainwashed with beliefs from birth.

      Reply
      • Allison Josephs says on July 29, 2021

        Thanks for your comment, John. I’m sorry to hear what you went through. A healthy family allows their children to have space to be themselves. The kids’ needs come before the community standards. If that’s missing, it’s a lack of parenting, not a lack of a community or Judaism.

        Reply
  • KS says on July 15, 2021

    Thank you for sharing your response to this show. I

    Reply
    • D says on July 18, 2021

      I think many people who go off the path (OTD) have suffered some kind of childhood trauma.
      Julia H. Has mentioned on many posts that she had to help raise her 7 siblings. The closest in age sibling she had was 10 years her junior. Perhaps, she was burdened with alot if responsibilities at a young age.
      Perhaps, she was emotionally starved for attention.
      Whatever the case, every person has the right to choices (bechira). The issue here is that instead of getting counseling and therapy for her challenges she is airing “her issues” w a frum lifestyle to a public audience. What a shame. She sounds like she has some personality disorder by schlepping her children off the path w her.
      Very sad

      Reply
  • Bette says on July 15, 2021

    Please think of your posts as ad copy before you put them out there. Looking at the “Jewish themes” (a problematic phrase, they’re stereotypes and misconceptions, “theme” is too neutral a word), written as negative statements in bold, invites people who skim and glance at them quickly — that is, most people who read online, especially those unfamiliar or unsympathetic to you — to think you’re endorsing them. Putting affirming statements in boldface is the opposite of what you want to do. They’ll stand out, where your explanations won’t — in the minds of those who aren’t already in agreement. I used to write and edit copy in the ad industry in NYC. Think graphically, and avoid subliminally affirming what you’re arguing against. I strongly urge you to edit this piece. It invites misinterpretation and misquoting.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on July 15, 2021

      Thanks for your comment. We changed “themes” to issues. But these are not all stereotypes. Some are challenging Torah laws or practices. Others are extremist practices, others are unhealthy methods of teaching. They all deserve more context, but there is truth to basically everything she said.

      Reply
    • Adeena says on July 16, 2021

      I grew up living directly behind the handler house. We grew up playing with batsheva and shlomo, and little Aaron would play with my brothers. We ate by each other on yon tov and shared a really nice time. It kind of baffles me that she can create a whole story about our community that does not exist. I went to the same schools shes bashing, yet I graduated with 30 collage credits, went to RCC and became an RN and am now about to complete my NP. How can she spew such hate ? Yes I do agree the school was not the greatest socially, which is why I switched to an equally religious high-school, yet the concept of no education baffles me. I score in the high 90s on all of my regents, as did most of my friends. The regents compare scores from all public schools and our school was ranked one of the highest. I am frustrated by the lack of honesty. The last episode of the show, were the family was sitting at a table talking together, why couldn’t the whole show have that same vibe. This show was a lost potential to show what orthodox jews look like, and not pretend we are restricted from enjoying life.

      Reply
  • Jon Lewis says on July 15, 2021

    Very well-written. Keep up your good work

    Reply
  • Rishona says on July 15, 2021

    Thank you for putting this together. I shared it, because it is important for people to know that the show leaves out a LOT of explanations and is ultimately the biased viewpoint of just one woman (I say ‘one woman’ because she bulldozes her opinion and morals all over her children). I hope it is read far & wide!

    Reply
  • Marcy Davidovics says on July 16, 2021

    Dear “Jew in the City’
    Thanks for this wonderful article. You make such a difference. I wrote this editorial as a psychotherapist on being part of the solution and wanted to share.

    As a psychotherapist, I am weeping sad,
    As a frum woman, I am ‘bleeping’ mad

    Comments on ‘My Orthodox Life” on Netflix

    As a psychotherapist…..my first instinct is to develop compassion for people who are struggling. Regardless of the level of suffering and/or ‘acting out’ behaviors, I am non-judgmentally attuned to that person and their circumstances and I see them from an attachment lens (looking at where a person is from and the experiences they have had that have brought them to this place in their lives). This gives me (and other therapists and caring people) a place to ‘be there’ for others and allows them a place to feel heard, loved, seen, healed. It doesn’t matter how narcissistic the person is, how depressed that person is, who they have hurt, what they believe, what they have done. They are all worthy humans. When that person is a frum person, my depth of care is even more profound.

    This level of sharing, seeing, psychological holding, is usually done in private (or semi-privacy) and in a way that creates emotional safety for all. That is where it belongs.

    As a frum woman….seeing the Netflix series has me enraged and hurt. The cringe-worthy episodes show one person’s story. We all have stories. I have a story as a baala t’shuvah, as a daughter, as a mother, as a therapist, as a career person, as a wife, as someone who is helping others, as a human. My story doesn’t look like your story and your story doesn’t look like mine. My story is not an Orthodox Jewish story. It is a ‘human’ story.
    Julie Haart’s story is not an Orthodox story and I resent that it is being presented as such.
    I don’t blame Netflix for airing it. I mean how exciting for them to make money on this exploitive docuseries, replete with exploitive, unrealistic, and ‘out there’ interactions in a family that happens to have been/is frum. This has nothing to do with Judaism and the community bears no blame.

    All of those wonderful women (of all stripes and levels of observance) who have posted their unique stories of being observant and balanced and who are pursuing that which makes them whole, I say ‘kol hakavod’. It can ALL be done within the context of frumkeit (which is NOT limited as presented in the show).

    I like to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. That is why it is hard for me to see this presented as authentic Judaism to the public.

    Julia/Talia, I am here, if you want to process this in the therapeutic room, instead of in the room of public opinion to the masses. I promise, bli neder, to remain neutral and compassionate.

    Marcy Davidovics, LCSW,EFT
    davidovicstherapygroup.com

    Reply
  • Rosalie Lieberman says on July 16, 2021

    Please complain directly to Netflix. reed.hastings@netflix.com, the CEO. He needs to hear directly from us. I emailed him yesterday, and told him to expect a lot of pushback. How could a supposedly savvy entertainment company fail to understand this woman is grossly stereotyping, blaming her old community for everything she did wrong (like, failure to work on her marriage), and is holding some shameful secrets of her own (as in, Silvio began filing for divorce from his first wife after placing Julia into the role of creative director at La Perla). And, allegedly her shoe company launched successfully after just a few months, on her own? Who really was behind her mega success, and why is she not forthright about the help with crucial contacts, not just money. That part is most interesting, and is not included. As talented and smart that she is, nobody becomes a business superstar, alone, in such a short time.

    Reply
    • Valerie says on July 23, 2021

      Rosalie – thank you for raising these questions about her path to corporate success. As I was watching the show, I kept wondering about the truth of her rise. It sounds more like a Hollywood movie, than real life. She claims to have had no contacts or support. I don’t care how amazing her shoes looked, it takes vast financing and network to get to the level that she portraits. I just searched online and she is not what she professes to be.

      Reply

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