‘Her Unorthodox Brand’

The Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are extremely upset about their depiction in the Netflix show “My Unorthodox Life.” People have accused the show’s star, Julia Haart, of maliciously slandering the lifestyle of thousands of women as outrageously “fundamentalist” in nature. One woman said in a local newspaper that “Monsey is home to thousands of women who are thriving religiously, professionally and personally. We are wise, we are proud and opportunities abound. We come in all different flavors. While some of us have chosen to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, many of us have pursued careers as CEOs, doctors, lawyers, nurses, authors, artists, business owners, computer techs, professors, therapists, accountants — and pretty much anything else out there.

While undoubtedly true, Haart’s story has its own message and it has so much less to do with Judaism than it does about the brand she is building and the money she hopes to make.

Julia Haart in Netflix’s “My Unorthodox Life”

Haart is the CEO of a modeling agency called Elite World Group and a clothing line named “e1972.” In the competitive world of modeling and apparel, brand message is everything and critical to success.

Haart elected to build her brands around the central theme of “giving women a voice,” and the entire “Unorthodox” show was developed to burnish that image.

The thrust of the “voice of women” message is found throughout. Haart specifically states that she is focused on helping models build their own personal brands as influencers on social media and elsewhere to extend their careers. In one episode, Julia spends time with a model helping her to launch her own line of sauces with flavors from her hometown and an image of herself on the label. One of Haart’s daughters builds her own social media presence, which she then tries to use on behalf of other models.

The underwriter of Julia’s modeling empire is her husband who built and sold a communications company years earlier. He is virtually invisible throughout the show, as his presence would undermine the message that this is a woman’s company showcasing women’s voices. The husband represents the “creepy old men from the fashion industry,” which Julia has promised to purge.

While marketed as a reality TV show, it is heavily crafted. That the women wake up in bed with an hour’s work of makeup on their faces and two-inch eyelashes in place, is but one tell-tale sign.

The storylines are all orchestrated with “the voice of women” message. Women – and Julia in particular – come off as assertive and powerful, while the men are feckless and timid. The women have successful or budding careers, while the men are faltering (there is deliberately no discussion of what Julia’s successful husband does). The women have active dating lives while the men cannot even talk to women without assistance of a female family member. There are repeated scenes of women keeping men waiting at restaurants or not showing up for appointments because the women are too busy, in a poor attempt to show the women as more important than those kept waiting, when it just made the women look rude and exposed the scriptwriters’ choreography too blatantly.

Of course, everyone comes to Julia for advice and she’s always the one with the right answers to solve each problem. She is the mascot of the brand and her voice and message must be the strongest.

It is through that lens that one has to consider the depiction of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism in the show.

Religion is just a tool in the script. To be a true inspiration to others, Julia must have broken away from a terrible past that had suppressed her. The darker and more fundamentalist her background, the greater her star shines in her new brand. In the past she was just a baby machine and unable to wear what she wanted; now she stops her children from having kids and walks around showing as much cleavage as she can while keeping the show PG. She had been limited to kosher and now enjoys shrimp and non-kosher restaurants. She had lived in her husband’s shadow in a male-dominated cloistered society, while now she is the star and bread-winner in the world, supporting the entire family.

The Orthodox community watches the Haart show from their particular vantage point, rightly insulted by the commentary on their lifestyle but cannot fathom that despite the show’s title, it has nothing to do with Judaism. “Unorthodox” is just a multi-hour long EWG “voice of women” infomercial, and the various over-the-top portrayals are simply gimmicks to keep everyone talking to burnish the brand.

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Hasidim “Chin Masks”

On March 1, 2021, Frontier Airlines forced a Hasidic Jewish couple to deplane a flight from New York to Miami because they allegedly refused to wear a mask. The airline stated that “a large group of passengers repeatedly refused to comply with the U.S. government’s federal mask mandate,” which led to the ultimate cancellation of the flight.

Martin Joseph, A Hasidic man on the flight disputed the airlines claim saying “[w]e understand that the mask has to be worn, and everybody has to wear a mask, and that’s the law. We comply one million percent.

I took a flight from New York to Miami with many Hasidic families during the pandemic. In my experience, both the airlines and the passengers were correct. Hasidim do wear masks, but it only covers their necks and chins.

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Shtisel, The Poem Without an End, Continues

“Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.
Inside my heart
a museum.
Inside the museum
a synagogue,
inside it
inside me
my heart,
inside my heart
a museum…”

Poem Without an End
Yehuda Amichai (1924 – 2000)

So ends Shtisel‘s season 2 in 2015. An Ultra Orthodox Jewish artist is seemingly caught between two worlds: a world which dominates his family and community, and the passions which drive him beyond the realms of that world.

It is a classic formula used by authors and poets for generations, the story of forbidden love. While typically written about two secular people pulled together against a repelling backdrop, Shtisel is written about a religious Jew pursuing a banned profession.

The protagonist, Akiva Shtisel, lives in a secluded world in which tradition calls for men to learn Jewish texts and to be married with children. But Akiva cannot fit neatly in that prescribed paradigm. He not only has difficulties in his relationships but is pulled by his talents to pursue his love of art. He gets encouraged by the secular world to pursue his artistic gifts, making his already awkward pursuit of a spouse yet more complicated.

In the season finale, we find Akiva walking in a modern museum past his own exhibition to find the comfort of an exhibit of a reconstructed old synagogue. He sits in the more familiar environment where he is surprised to be joined by a love interest. Akiva’s loves are now all contained within one another like nested Russian dolls but the viewer recognizes that the perfect setting does not obviate the conflict.

Unlike a family member who allowed tradition and established roots with a wife to pull him back into the Ultra Orthodox world and forgo his love for singing, Akiva is unmarried and involved with a woman who might entertain Akiva’s life in two worlds. That situation is not one of nested dolls but a life of dynamic movement with a troubling feedback loop like an M.C. Escher drawing.

The show was enormously popular, well beyond Israel where it was filmed. Jews and non-Jews in various countries admired the universal message of dueling loves in which passion and commitment are set against each other. The cast was featured in various events around the world over the past few years in which the actors considered why the show had such broad appeal. They negated the notion that viewers wanted a peak into the life of Hassidim and described the universally understood personal/family/community tensions that exist in all cultures.

Shtisel program held at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, June 11, 2019

Shtisel, the short-lived popular show with the perfect poetic ending was called back by its fans for a third season. The competing forces of attraction of the show’s actors demanded as much from its viewers.

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