Imagine a reality series where the drink of choice is Manischewitz wine and you will have some idea of the vibe of the new show, My Unorthodox Life, which starts streaming on Netflix on July 14.
Although, truth be told, the chic Haart family favors trendy cocktails. This is a series for people who enjoyed the fleeing-from-the-ultra-
To say Julia Haart, the centerpiece of the series, has an unusual background would be an understatement. She grew up ultra-Orthodox in Monsey, New York, studied at Bais Yaakov schools, married within the community and had four children. But in her 40s, finding the lifestyle stifling, she fled and became a shoe designer, eventually becoming CEO and co-owner of the modeling agency Elite World Group and the creative director of the company’s first fashion collection, e1972.
Another part of the story is her marriage to a rather quiet Italian hi-tech entrepreneur, Silvio Scaglia. She favors cleavage-baring blouses, skintight leggings and stiletto heels and wears them well.
The series is a by-the-book reality show, with the ultra-Orthodox background providing novelty. Every moment feels choreographed for the cameras, every word and intonation mimics the speech patterns of the Kardashians and other TV stars. It also features the de rigueur shots of the Manhattan skyline and other locations (Paris, the Hamptons, even Monsey), with clouds flying by fast, pulsing music on the soundtrack and the sit-downs where the participants rehash whatever we have just seen them do.
Some of the series is about Haart’s fashion-industry career, but much of it is about her children. Her two older offspring, Batsheva and Shlomo, were young adults when she left home and are still somewhat observant. Batsheva, married to Ben Weinstein, is a “lifestyle blogger” who works at helping models perfect their Instagram accounts. Her husband is a real-estate agent who is frustrated with his job and wishes he had gotten a better secular education in yeshiva, one of the show’s more effective criticisms of the ultra-Orthodox world. While you or I might advise him to go back to school, his mother-in-law gives him a job developing fashion brands.
Shlomo, a lawyer, still keeps the rules of Shabbat and is just starting to date. Miriam, Haart’s younger daughter, is an app designer and is outspoken about being bisexual, which her free-spirited mother encourages.
Haart shares custody of her youngest son, Aron, with her ex-husband, Yosef Hendler, who still lives in Monsey. The two exes are almost eerily amicable. Viewers unfamiliar with ultra-Orthodox life will have no clue that Haart’s ex-husband’s tolerant attitude to their bisexual daughter – and his decision to allow their teen son to participate in the series – is extremely unusual.
Haart and her brood traipse around Tribeca, the Hamptons and Paris (where they rent a chateau), switching outfits every few moments. Feuds flare up and are resolved at regular intervals, as per reality conventions. Haart and her assistant dabble in cosmetic surgery, both getting a procedure on their rear ends.
Throughout the series, Haart makes some serious criticisms of the world in which she grew up, among them her feeling she did not have a choice but to marry and have children. Taking Robert, her assistant, to visit the family home in Monsey, she and Miriam point out all the religious books and mention that women were not allowed to study them. At Haart’s insistence, her son Aron is studying in a co-ed school, and she is concerned that he has been “brainwashed” when he says he does not want to talk to girls.
As she talks to Aron, she becomes passionate, saying, “You don’t sound like a religious Jew, you sound like a fundamentalist. I lived in that world, and it’s a very small and sad world and a place where women have one purpose in life, and that is to have babies and get married. And that’s one thing that I am very worried about because... I don’t want my son to think that that is the only world that exists.”
But any profound critique of the haredi world is buried in layers of reality-TV dross. When Batsheva starts to wear jeans, which makes her husband uncomfortable, Haart says, “A man should learn to grow up and control himself, and a woman should wear whatever she wants.” Her son-in-law replies, “Me asking her to just give me time is not me being restrictive of her. All I’m saying is, ‘Just let me catch up to you.’” Haart’s response: “That is literally the most f**king stupid thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Perhaps the most Jewish part of this series is how engaged Haart remains with the community she left. She is eager to discuss Orthodox Judaism at every opportunity, and much of her attention-seeking behavior seems designed to shock those she left behind, including her parents, who no longer speak to her. She seems delighted when Miriam tells her assistant about a group of teen girls who get together on Saturdays in Monsey for lesbian sex. When a young woman seeking to flee the haredi community contacts her, Haart gives the woman a vibrator and advice about orgasms rather than help her write a resume or find a job.
One of the episodes details her children’s response to a copy of the manuscript of her upcoming memoir, Brazen: My Unorthodox Journey from Long Sleeves to Lingerie, which will be published next year. Miriam and Shlomo leaf through it and are understandably queasy about reading explicit details of their parents’ sex lives, but for Batsheva, it’s especially upsetting to read what her mother has revealed about how she confided in her about her sex life. This anecdote is emblematic of the abrupt shifts in tone in the series. It is affecting to hear Haart talk about how Miriam became rebellious. It pushed her to leave the community so she could offer her daughter a more open life, but frustrating to see her marketing her family’s life in a way that often seems to verge on exploitation.
Much of the series brings to mind a quote spoken by Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock: “If reality TV has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t keep people with no shame down.”
To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.