I’m obsessed with the lives of ultra Orthodox Jews. Not in like a creepy weird sex fetish way. In a very normal healthy “I wonder why they choose to live like this” sort of way. I’m curious about religious people of any faith, but as a Jew, this is personal.
I definitely embrace my Jewishness (haven’t even had a nose job) but I lack the imagination to believe in God and am definitely not equipped with the kind of work ethic, commitment and blind faith it takes to be religious. Those folks do too much, but at the same time do nothing at all since all thoughts and decisions are already laid out for them. (Which must actually be nice sometimes, like you know every Friday night is mitzvah sex night because the Torah says so.)
There’s been a lot of great shows about the ultra orthodox community and I’ve binged them all, I think: Shtisel, One of Us and Unorthodox. I’d been waiting for my next fix, when lo and behold Netflix released the first season of My Unorthodox Life. This is a reality series about the CEO of Elite World Group, Julia Haart, formerly known as baby making machine extraordinaire from the orthodox Jewish community Yeshivishe Heimeshe in Monsey, New York and her very tight-knit family.
Compared to the other shows mentioned above, this is garbage. (Like how fast food is garbage, in that I love it so much but regret it immediately.) But what it has going for it is how completely different it is from the usual tragic narrative. Julia’s life is actually exceptional.
She is the very tiny matriarch with a very giant personality, hanging out in her giant shoes on a red velvet throne she calls an office chair. She’s got her entourage of four kids I don’t really care for, a son-in-law I care for even less, a ridiculously devoted mensch of a husband (Silvio) and of course her bff and COO of Elite, Rob, who I stan. They’re all very close and all up in each other’s business. Mainly all up in Julia’s actual business.
I really didn’t know what to expect.
On one hand, it’s a typical reality show about a bunch of beautiful rich people, so there’s the usual histrionic family drama, outrageous designer outfits, ear-splitting vocal fry, gay best friend, staged confrontations at the Hamptons, and of course excessive time and money wasting. It’s basically a kosher Kardashians.
On the other hand though, it’s a really interesting glimpse into the life of this badass woman who managed to escape an oppressive life – in her early 40s no less – with little to no education to not only end up a very successful (like renting-a-13th-century-castle-in-France successful) CEO of a major talent company, but also maintain a very close relationship with her 4 kids, and her still Orthodox ex-husband. In Julia’s world, this is unheard of. That alone is worth noting.
In case you have no idea what world I’m talking about, the ultra Orthodox Jewish community (there are many of them with slightly different practices) control everything, from what you can wear to what you’re allowed to do, say or study. Women, especially, are treated like second class citizens. (Some will get defensive and fight me on this but it’s true. If you’re not allowed to divorce your husband for beating you, but he can divorce you for burning his food, you’re a second class citizen. And that’s an overstatement. You’re actually like fourth class.) Your body, literally from head to toe, is governed by religious law, not unlike extreme sects of Islam or Christianity.
It’s a world I was briefly a part of when we moved to America and I attended a Jewish school from 3rd grade until 8th grade because my parents really overestimated how much religion has to do with how good of a person you are.
Realizing I was becoming an even worse person, my parents enrolled us (my brother and I) in public school.
I’d like to emphasize that my parents preferred a Los Angeles public school district school over a private Jewish one because they thought the religious one was the bad influence and not the one where a student broke someone’s nose with an axe.
I didn’t grow up the way Julia and her family did and I can’t imagine a life where I’d be banished to another room during my period and then required to take a special rain bath to “cleanse” myself. (Although being left alone during my period doesn’t sound like a bad idea.)
But just in general, this version of God really sounds like someone who needs constant validation. Remember when he pranked Abraham into almost sacrificing his son Isaac and just as Abraham was about to slay the kid with a knife, God was like wait LOL JK just checking to see if you’re ride or die? Hard pass.
Needless to say I did not do well in Hebrew school. Which was fine because my parents didn’t understand American report cards anyway. (I told my dad “C” meant “congratulations” and he said “mashallah” and signed the paper. In hindsight he probably knew but didn’t care. The man had just left his whole life behind in Iran. A middle school report card was the least of his worries.)
Despite everything I knew intellectually, the religious conditioning runs deep, so in a way I see how Julia’s two oldest who are “out in the world” now still keep some of the strict laws or at least pretend to because of what I assume is a guilty conscience. Batsheva is struggling to wear pants (which is forbidden) and Shlomo is struggling to stop thinking of women as evil. It took me a minute to eat bacon without expecting lightning to strike me dead while standing over the hotel breakfast buffet in Palm Springs. But you rationalize yourself out of it because you desperately need to gain back control of your mind (even after all these years) and get a taste of that delicious devil bacon.
Julia’s kids are going through some sort of identity crisis they can’t really address fully because they need to pack for fashion week in Paris. But it’s there.
Batsheva and her husband Ben are the Ivanka and Jared Kushner of the fashion industry, Orthodox Jews who don’t realize their self-obsession defeats the purpose of Judaism’s teachings against excessive vanity.
Shlomo is way too relaxed. He’s studying for the LSATs but was willing to throw it all away if his mom told him business school would be better. (As a Jewish mother myself, I dream of this kind of obedience and devotion from my son.) I don’t know what to make of him. He seems like he either has no personality at all or all the personalities at once.
Miriam is the one who had the least issues leaving the community. She’s bisexual and lets you know it every chance she gets. She’s invented an app for which I don’t know the purpose, but at least she’s doing something?
Watching Julia struggle with her youngest son Aron’s close call to what she thinks is fundamentalism is familiar too. Our parents wanted us to be religious enough to show up for Shabbat dinners but not religious enough to actually observe the Sabbath and simp for the Messiah.
That’s the beautiful thing about Judaism; you can absolutely deny every commandment, take the lord’s name in vain, covet thy neighbor’s Tesla and still identify as a Jew. Your mom isn’t going to care whether you believe in God or not as long as you show up for Passover Seder and pretend to fast on Yom Kippur. It’s more of a traditional or cultural practice that has little to do with God but a lot to do with food and family.
“I love being Jewish,” Haart says even after all she’s been through, “but I do believe whether it’s Jewish fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, it is so dangerous.”
This is what she’s desperately trying to get her youngest son, Aron who still lives in Monsey with his dad, to understand so he’ll eventually come to the dark side with the rest of his moocher siblings. I really felt for this kid. It actually takes a lot of matzo balls to not follow your older siblings’ Gucci footsteps and live the life of luxury when it’s so readily available. He’s 14 though, so who knows. There’s still time for him to come to his senses.
Maybe “moocher” is a bit strong. The kids are all trying super hard to convince themselves (and us) that they’re earning whatever their role is in this business and Julia is definitely humoring them. She made a whole production out of “interviewing” each of them, giving them a good talking to and then at the end was like PSYCH! You’re all in the business and here’s a bunch of hook ups.
If I sound bitter and angry about their endless, unearned opportunities, it’s because I am.
Julia went through what – I assume – are a lot of hard times to get to where she is and here are her freeloading kids coming along for the ride.
I’m not saying I’m better than them. I hate it, but in reality I would do and expect the exact same unconditional love and nepotism. I don’t know if this counts, but my sister used to give me odd jobs at her practice where actual qualified people worked. I’m sure her employees walked around telling each other Dr. Minazad’s not-doctor sister is trolling the office again stealing all our Post-it notes. I didn’t last long. The office life is not for me, and also in order to eat the free food the pharmacy reps brought, I had to talk to them about their drugs. I have zero medical background and if it’s not Advil for my period, I’m not interested. Just let me eat this overcooked chicken piccata in peace.
I know people running successful businesses want to keep it in the family and I don’t really don’t care or blame them. All parents hope to leave something to their children for security. I have no issues with that and wish my parents had more than Persian rugs for us (which they blessed with “may your children pee on this”). Also I don’t find anything wrong with kids using their parents’ success and connections as an opportunity to grow, or help others. But Julia’s kids are straight up vapid barnacles.
As entertaining and blissfully mind-numbing an escape as this all was, I really wanted more. Or something different. This whole “watch me be rich and melodramatic” with some feigned shock factors thrown in has been done to death. And done better.
Call me boring, but I could have watched a documentary all day with Julia and Rob drinking Manischewitz out of these salad bowls with stems they call wine glasses. I want to know everything from her childhood, to what was the last straw that made her leave, to what life was like after she left and all the small, non-glamorous details that she alluded to but are missing about her transition from Monsey to a Tribeca penthouse with an adoring Italian husband who just wants to spend quality time with her.
And I need more of Rob, his brother “Texas Ross,” and their life as two completely different people adopted by the same parents. He has a very touching reunion – if you can call it that – with his birth mom Stacy that warmed my cold, black, heathen heart. It was one of the few moments in the season that seemed real, which is mainly due to Stacy. My heart broke for her. I wish they’d just turn off the cameras and let them have a moment. (I don’t mean that. Don’t ever do that.)
I love that this is a positive narrative at least. I’ve read, and watched so many stories about Orthodox Jewish women and even men leaving their very strict communities and they’ve been pretty bleak, endless struggles, especially for those from LGBTQ communities. They’ve fought for their kids and for their safety, sometimes to tragic ends. At least she made it out and kept her family intact. This show did not do her story justice.
But it was still worth telling. I got an email from Footsteps this week, a program that helps ex-ultra Orthodox members by offering career coaching, fellowships, college guidance, legal and clinical support. “And while Julia’s story may not be typical of the stories of our members — many of whom struggle greatly as they seek to find a solid footing in the secular world — we appreciate the diversity of voices and experiences that are shared publicly, especially those that bring attention to people who may not have the same opportunities or widely publicized platforms from which to speak.”
They said it much nicer than I did; not the best show but we’ll take it.
“I just feel really grateful,” Julia says. “People in my community, women who leave, most of them lose their children.” I mean this with all my heart, Julia; it’s still not too late to lose them.
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