Netflix Series Stirs Debate About the Lives of Ultra-Orthodox Women


MONSEY, N.Y. — Even at the most liberal flanks of the ultra-Orthodox community here there are daily moments where women live quite differently from men.

At synagogue, they must pray in segregated balconies or curtained-off sections. They are prohibited from becoming rabbis and are cautioned against wearing pants, or singing solo or dancing in front of men, lest they distract the men from Torah values.

But do they go to college, have careers, watch television, enjoy their lives?

Yes, say women of the Yeshivish community in this suburban hamlet 30 miles north of Manhattan, some of whom are upset by how they are portrayed on Netflix’s popular reality series “My Unorthodox Life.”

The nine-episode show tracks the world of Julia Haart, 50, who fled Monsey in 2012 and became a successful fashion and modeling executive. Haart paints a dismal picture of her old ultra-Orthodox life, portraying it as oppressive, suggesting women are deprived of decent educations and are basically allowed just one purpose — to be a “babymaking machine.”

“The women in my community are second-class citizens,” she says in one episode. “We only exist in relation to a man.”

It is an image that is rejected by women like Vivian Schneck-Last, a technology consultant who has an M.B.A. from Columbia University and worked as a managing director at Goldman Sachs. She feels Haart diminishes the intellectual and professional strides that women in the community have made.

“People in Monsey are upset because she has misrepresented what Orthodox people and particularly Orthodox women are all about,” Schneck-Last said.

Roselyn Feinsod, an actuary and partner in the giant accounting firm of Ernst & Young who was once friendly with Haart, said she and her daughter graduated from the same girls high school as Haart, Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley, and that most of its graduates now go on to college. Defying stereotypes of ultra-Orthodox women as unworldly, Feinsod said she has run seven marathons and biked 100 miles around Lake Tahoe.

“Monsey is a beautiful community with educated people respectful of each other,” she said.

Reactions to the show, both positive and negative, have spread beyond Monsey. The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel and lohud.com, which covers an area that includes Monsey, all featured articles about the debate. Critics and supporters of the show have posted videos on YouTube.

Under the hashtag #myorthodoxlife, women have described their own successful careers and general satisfaction with the religious life.

“People were beyond upset, people were personally insulted,” said Allison Josephs, the founder of the Jew in the City website, who said people posted complaints on the site, which she created to change negative perceptions of religious Jews. “Pretty much every Jew I encountered was feeling, ‘Can you believe what they did to us again?’”

Haart defends her depiction as accurate and says she has heard from many ultra-Orthodox and formerly ultra-Orthodox women who agree with her that the community represses women.

“Everything about your story resonated so deeply with me,” one woman wrote in a message on Haart’s Instagram page. “I too left the Orthodox community and had to start over after struggling for so long with being unhappy.”

Several people familiar with the ultra-Orthodox community wrote directly to The Times to express their support for Haart’s perspective, including Tzivya Green, a former member of the same Yeshivish community in Monsey.

“Women are still told to keep quiet and, taught from a young age, that men hold all the power,” Green wrote. “We are taught to never go against a man’s word. Men are everything and women are nothing.”

Haart describes the criticism as a personal attack that distracts from the sense of female empowerment she hopes to promote. Since leaving Monsey she has created her own shoe business and is now chief executive of the Elite World Group, among the world’s largest modeling agencies. Her show was just picked up for a second season.

Haart agreed to address the debate over her show in an in-person interview if it could be filmed as part of her show. After The Times declined that arrangement, she and The Times were unable to agree on an alternative.

Though she did not respond to written questions from The Times, saying she had addressed them in prior interviews, she did provide her perspective by pointing out remarks she has made on social media and also by releasing a statement. It said in part: “My sole purpose in sharing my personal story is to raise awareness about an unquestionably repressive society where women are denied the same opportunities as men, which is why my upcoming book and season 2 of my show will continue to document my personal experience that I hope will allow other women to insist on the precious right to freedom.”

There are communal pressures in Monsey against television-watching as a waste of time, as the show depicts. The role of women as mothers and homemakers is prized. Though some scholars argue it should not be interpreted as a slight, a prayer in which men thank God for not making them a woman is recited each morning.

Still, several women interviewed in Monsey said the show’s perspective is often dated, sometimes exaggerated and conflates the multiple strains of Orthodox Judaism practiced in Monsey.

The hamlet of Monsey derived its name from the Munsee branch of the Lenape Native Americans who populated the area before the arrival of Dutch and British colonists. Monsey has become a metonym for the Orthodox Jews of Rockland County, who represent more than a quarter of its population and gather at more than 200 synagogues and roughly half that many yeshivas. Their arrival converted Monsey, a one-stoplight town with a single yeshiva in 1950, into a place populated by a variety of Orthodox Jews — some modern, some Hasidic and some of the ultra-Orthodox variation that Haart was part of, known as Yeshivish or Litvish (Lithuanian), and within those groupings, several gradations or sects of each.

That diversity, perhaps not as multicolored as Joseph’s coat, is nonetheless visible on the streets where thick-bearded men in black silk robes and cylindrical fur hats known as shtreimels mix with clean-shaven men in Polo shirts and chinos, recognizable as observant only by their skullcaps.

Haart has acknowledged in media appearances and other settings that there are “gradations of Judaism,” and that others from her community may not share her perspective. At its best, she acknowledged in a TV interview with Tamron Hall, her religion fosters an appreciation of charity, of kindness.

But critics say those nuances are not captured on the show, where she uses terms like “brainwashed” and “deprogram” to describe ultra-Orthodox life in Monsey in ways that suggest it is more a cult than a personal choice. They say they worry the show describes strictures more typical of, say, the Brooklyn-based Satmar Hasidim, not the less stringent community of which she was part.

For example, while the show accurately presents television as frowned upon in Yeshivish circles, they say it doesn’t make clear that many people, including Haart, owned one. (Haart acknowledged on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” that she had a television in her later years in Monsey and said she lied about it to school officials who otherwise would not have admitted her children.)

And yes, as Haart explains on the show, some in the community are not crazy about women riding bikes because the pedaling might expose their knees. But the critics said the show does not make clear that women, including Haart, still rode bikes, in modest attire. (Haart posted about her family bike rides on her Instagram account earlier this month.)

Though Haart has said she feels she was deprived of an education by a subpar school system, several women said she was a brilliant, top-notch student who could have attended college without any problem, or stigma, had she decided to.

“She was very popular, had every opportunity, a leader in the class, and now she’s turned it into some persecution situation,” said Andrea Jaffe, a certified public accountant and former American Express executive who said that for many years she lived across the street from Haart.

Much of the Netflix show concerns Haart’s relationship with her four children, three of whom retain various ties to Orthodoxy. (Haart is divorced from their father, but has since remarried. Both men appear on the show.) In Monsey, where religious traditions prescribe the patterns of daily life, her candid discussions with the children about her own sexuality, and theirs, run counter to the norm.

Feinsod, a mother of four, said she was offended by what she characterized as Haart’s effort in front of a national audience to draw her children away from an observant life.

“It’s fine for her to make choices, but for her to try and force the children’s hand…



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