Friday, July 16, 2021

The Truth of Orthodoxy - Revealed

Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein (Torah in Motion)
This might be overkill. But a featured Times of Israel post about Netflix’s My Unorthodox Life by Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is so ‘on the money’… so thorough, and so complete, it would be criminal not to share it with as many readers as possible. Not only because it destroys the false narrative of its protagonist, Julia Haart, but more importantly because it paints a much truer picture of what mainstream Orthodox life is really like.  In a Facebook post by Alexandra Fleksher that linked Leslie’s article, I made the following comment: 

A brilliant article by a brilliant woman. She also happens to be my son-in-law's sister. I know her very well and am not at all surprised by what she wrote. As others here have said, her article says it all! Some Netflix executive ought to read it - and contact her about making a series that reflects the reality of Orthodoxy instead of fantasy versions of it they prefer to use to depict it. 

So I am going to do once again what I rarely do here and publish this article in its entirety. I urge everyone to read it no matter what side of this issue you are on. It should be eye opening for all those that increasingly see Orthodoxy in a negative light – primarily because of the negative images almost always portrayed in entertainment and social media. Time is long past due to change that false image of us. Pease take the time to read it. It is a bit longer than usual but you will NOT be sorry. It follows in full. 

Over the past few days (and counting), posts written by Orthodox women started popping all over social media with the hashtags #MyOrthodoxLife and #ThisIsOrthodoxy. 

These posts are part of a social media campaign designed to counter the negative messaging on Orthodoxy and Orthodox women propagated by the latest Netflix series on leaving Orthodoxy: My Unorthodox Life, starring Julia Haart, and focusing on how her new glamorous irreligious life is inherently better than the world of Orthodoxy that she left, with so much fanfare. Launched by Alexandra Fleksher, the social media challenge asked Orthodox women and men (mostly women are responding) to post about their varied Orthodox lives and experiences. The purpose is to show snapshots of actual Orthodox people, living normal, healthy, and fulfilling lives. Fleksher is a talented writer and social media influencer. She is also a former student of Julia Haart, then Mrs. Talia Hendler, who lived and worked in Atlanta.

What’s behind this campaign? Why are Orthodox women writing and sharing these posts? We are writing because we are fed up with the messages that Netflix is conveying to the world: that we’re dowdy, backward, uneducated, and oppressed. “My Unorthodox Life” is yet another Netflix show that propagates negative stereotypes of Orthodoxy globally, and Orthodox women in specific. So women who identify as Orthodox, have stayed Orthodox, have chosen to be Orthodox are finally standing up to misrepresentation. Posts are popping up all over Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Journalist Tzippy Yarom-Diskind has created a website collecting the posts

#MyOrthodoxLife posts have ranged from heartfelt to humorous. Here are a few snippets of some of my favorite posts. I encourage you to read them in their entirety.

Fleksher kicked off by posting: “I want the world to know that there are Orthodox women who are leading happy, healthy and fulfilled Orthodox lives.”

Educator Eve Levy wrote on Facebook: “I am connected to thousands of other modern, educated, worldly, rockstar Orthodox Jewish women who feel just as passionate and inspired as I do about the lifestyles we choose to uphold.”

Chana Chava Ford wrote: “It ain’t all bagels and lox with a side of female subjugation.”

Influencer Bari Mitzman wrote a poem on Instagram:

Every hemline I choose to lower
Every strand I choose to cover
Is an emblem of freedom
Freedom to observe
Freedom to choose my path

Journalist Susan Jacobs posted on Facebook: “I’ve never felt that I fit inside a box, and I have never felt that Orthodox Judaism required that of me.”

Motivational speaker Gila Ross posted on Instagram: 

What do you see when you see my large Orthodox family? Do they know about birth control? (I’ve been asked that…) Let me tell you what I see… Each child a decision, a continued prayer, a blessing.

My contribution to the trend, posted on Facebook and Instagram:

“People have told me I shattered their stereotypes of Orthodox women. I say stop watching Netflix and meet some real Orthodox women! I have been Orthodox all my life. I love being frum. I’m a graduate of a Bais Yaakov high school. I have a PhD from NYU and I work as the dean of a college. I’m writing a book — a history of Orthodox girlhood in America. My favorite author is Jane Austen. My favorite band — the Beatles. My favorite game…Trivial Pursuit, Azul, Ticket to Ride…. I’m a bit of a fashionista and kind of an adrenaline junkie, but I know there is more to life than superficial appearances and short-term thrills. While I don’t always love covering my hair, wigs give me the opportunity to radically switch up my hair length and color and NEVER have a bad hair day. I always love Shabbos & the break it gives me from the hectic pace of my life — 25 hours of family time and no phone! I love to travel. I’ve road-tripped all over the USA, surfed in Hawaii & backpacked Europe twice…. Being frum gives me the opportunity to ground my life and my family in meaning. Seeing my children’s joy in the same rituals and observances that I love brings me so much happiness. And I have never felt that being an Orthodox woman and being an accomplished woman were mutually exclusive. This is my Orthodox life.”

For many of the women posting — myself included — this wasn’t a typical social media post. Many of us do not usually get so personal. And I don’t think I’m all that special or unique. Like others, I am a normal woman struggling to balance life and keep it together. No one’s life is perfect, but the fact remains: Orthodox women are living inspired and interesting lives, delicately balancing tradition and modernity. We are far more common than Netflix makes us out to be.  

There has been pushback on the campaign. I have been accused of silencing OTD stories. So let me be clear. I don’t have a problem with OTD stories. I have a problem with this particular OTD story, or how it is being portrayed on Netflix. Here is why: 

This show is woefully inaccurate. The showrunners regularly conflate the very different Yeshivish and Hasidic communities in America. In the first few minutes, Haart talks about her Litvish Yeshivish community in Monsey (she invents the term Yeshivishe – Heimishe) while the B-roll video shows footage of Hasidim in Brooklyn. The footage would be more appropriate to the previous Netflix show on leaving Orthodoxy, Unorthodox. That show was set in the Hasidic community and centered around a young woman raised in an extremely sheltered environment. That was not the world Julia Haart was raised in, or the one she raised her family in. Orthodoxy is not monolithic. The two communities are radically different. “Unorthodox.” “My Unorthodox.” The shows have almost identical names, but Netflix doesn’t seem to know or care about the differences. In a later episode, the show adds Modern Orthodoxy to the fundamentalist mix, again failing to draw important distinctions.

Haart herself seems to be purposefully disingenuous in the way she describes Orthodoxy. Her claims of how unaware of the outside world she was when she was frum, the level of insularity, the lack of secular education, the restrictions on women, are not representative of the Yeshivish Orthodox community of which she was was a part. I am a researcher of American Orthodox girlhood. My doctoral dissertation and upcoming book are on the history of the Bais Yaakov school system that Haart attended, and the development of Orthodox girl culture. Haart’s descriptions, and the broad generalizations advanced by the show, do not match any reality. Certainly not that of Monsey in the 1980s or Atlanta in the 1990s. Dr. Dainy Bernstein, a formerly Orthodox researcher of Orthodox children’s literature, did an excellent play-by-play analysis of all the inaccuracies in the show. 

So I just played the first 30 seconds of My Unorthodox Life. It opens with the daughter saying she didn't know how things worked in the bedroom when she got married, "my bridal teacher wouldn't even say the word sex" and I just yelled and stopped it there because come on.

8:39 AM · Jul 14, 2021 

Haart, and, later, her daughter claim that girls in the Orthodox community receive no secular education, do not go to college, and that women in the community are expected to be nothing more than babymakers. This is patently false. Girls in the yeshivish community do receive a real secular education, typically stronger than their male counterparts. Bais Yaakov schools participate in robotics competitions and hackathons, they have job fairs, and New York schools take regents exams. Many women go to college and go on to be the primary breadwinners of their families, working while their husbands learn in kollel (full-time Torah study). Far from being discouraged from working, women are highly encouraged to work, even in the most right-wing Bais Yaakov schools. But Haart claims she had to keep the fact that she was running a side business a secret, as if Orthodox women are not successful and well-known entrepreneurs. And Haart did indeed publicly work during her marriage as a teacher, but that seems to be left out. Perhaps it does not jive with the “fundamentalist” narrative the producers are spinning. 

Haart’s claims about her experiences within the community are further called into question by those who knew her. Haart was quoted by the New York Times as saying that she had no exposure to television or magazines, and that fashion was a “giant no-no.” Yet her students — Haart taught at a Modern Orthodox high school and Bais Yaakov high school — remember her openly carrying Vogue magazine at work. And they thought she was so cool for it. They remember her in stiletto heels and designer clothes, hardly a woman whose fashion was dictated by a culture where women are not supposed to care about their appearance. But that’s not the sensational narrative. To quote Fleksher, “‘BCBG-clad, stiletto-wearing, frum woman becomes model exec’ doesn’t hit the same way.” 

Haart’s former students remember her as being a fantastically brilliant master teacher, with a photographic memory, tremendous knowledge, and incredible depth. They are left trying to reconcile their memories of Mrs. Hendler with the phony and manipulative Julia Haart character of the show. “She was the paradigm of the empowered frum woman,” said Elise Steinharter, a former student of hers at the Bais Yaakov high school in Atlanta, “We looked up to her. She taught us to be our own person, to be proud women, and that frum didn’t have to mean frumpy.”

I do not know how much of this disingenuous negativity is Haart and how much of this comes from the producers, but it is hard to watch a show where the main character makes fun of your community at every opportunity. Every scene is cringeworthy. Some of the lines are falsifications. Some are true, but taken out of context. Some of her criticism is legitimate. But all of it is expressed with such a level of disdain and disrespect. She encourages that disrespect in her children as well; when her non-religious daughter intends to wear “tzanua” or “tznius” (modest) clothes to visit Monsey, in respect for the community norms, Haart encourages her to not to. Because, she says, respect needs to go both ways. On this point, Haart is absolutely correct.

In the show, Haart seems hellbent on stamping out every vestige of Orthodox observance in her children, berating them for keeping observance, even when that is what her children want. She contrives to get her adult son to stop keeping Shabbos. At the end of the second episode, there is a particularly painful scene where she chastises her teenage son because he does not want to have a girlfriend or watch television anymore (wait, I thought Orthodox Jews in Monsey don’t know about television!). She tells him she wants him to have all the options in life open to him, but she makes clear that her path is the only acceptable choice. 

Ultimately, this show isn’t helpful to anyone. Not to the global Netflix viewership, who are given a distorted and misleading perspective on traditional Judaism. Not to Jews globally. With rising antisemitism, a show like this is hardly what we need. Certainly not to Orthodoxy, which is presented as a fundamentalist cult. Not even to formerly Orthodox, the population she purports to champion. “If that’s what you need to do to live your life, that’s cool,” tweeted Dr. Bernstein during episode 2, “But you are casting all the rest of us OTD (Off the Derech — formerly Orthodox) in a terrible light by confirming the stereotype of OTDers as angry and bitter and out to shtuch (antagonize).”

An open letter on Facebook to Haart from Michla Berlin, a woman who knew her growing up, provides a fascinating response to the show. After describing Haart as a vibrant, cool, talented, funny, and (non-surprisingly) well-dressed young woman, she expresses her disappointment with Haart for sensationalizing their childhood community. She writes, “I totally support your journey. Hell, I believe we all form and find our own paths and what works for some doesn’t work for all. I might have even picked that up in a bechirah (free choice) class in good old Bais Yaakov. But your journey is your journey and while revisiting your past, you seemed to have altered all the facts of my past too. Because Monsey was not a shtetl, you did not grow up not watching movies, not reading magazines, not talking to boys…While you may have struggled personally or behind closed doors our everyday world and our society was not what you claim it to be. 

This is what bothers me about the show as well. As an Orthodox woman and as a historian. This show rewrites my community’s past. It misrepresents its present. And I fear it could damage its future. 

Julia Haart is a fascinating, impressive, and brilliant woman. She clearly experienced a lot of pain and she has achieved tremendous professional success. I would be very interested in hearing her story. But “My Unorthodox Life” is not telling that story. Netflix is not telling that story (or any story that has positive representation of traditional Judaism). So to borrow from Berlin’s terminology: Speak your truth, Julia Haart. But please, for all of our sakes, speak the truth. In the meantime, I will be speaking mine. 

Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein is a writer and speaker. She received her Ph.D. from New York University, where she researched the history of Orthodox girls’ education in America and the Bais Yaakov Movement. She is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and a recipient of the 2009 New York Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” award. Dr. Klein is also the founder and director of Girls’ Night On, a not-for-profit organization that promotes Jewish women in music and the arts.