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Julia Haart cherishes the positive responses she’s heard since her reality series, "My Unorthodox Life," launched on Netflix. But the former Orthodox Jewish mom/yeshiva teacher, and Monsey, New York, resident and fashion mogul is also keenly aware of negative comments and admits she's been surprised by the level of vitriol.
“I wonder if those writing on these topics have watched the show,” Haart said the same week her reality show launched in an interview with Rockland/Westchester Journal News, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network. “I think if people would actually watch the show they would see it is very positive.
"I am actually surprised by the attitude," Haart added, as she readied for a European work trip. "I really thought that people would give it a chance. There’s no anger in my heart."
The show is, in many ways, typical reality TV fare. Haart lives a glamorous NYC-based existence with a fabulous job; four very different kids, whom she adores; a divorce and second marriage that adds to the work-life juggling act; and a best friend and confidant, who adds new storylines and provides opportunities to provide "outsider" definitions and translations for Orthodox Jewish life.
Haart said that her problem isn't with being religious, and points out that she will always support her kids. "The religious people in my family were so respectful to each other."
But, she added, "I just want to get rid of the fundamentalist part." That goes for fundamentalism in any religion that restricts women's choices and roles and freedom.
Many in the Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey and beyond, though, say Haart's reality show generalizes and simplifies in a way that isn't accurate and could feed harmful stereotypes.
It also comes as Jews face a large wave of antisemitism in the U.S. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,024 antisemitic incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism in the U.S. in 2020. The number fell just 4% short of 2019's all-time high, though was the third-highest year since ADL began tracking these incidents in 1979.
New York specifically saw 336 incidents, the most of any state.
"I acknowledge that (Haart) may have had her own negative experiences and pain and difficulties in the Orthodox community," said Alexandra Fleksher, a writer and educator who hosts the "Normal Frum Women" podcast. "I can respect that."
But, Fleksher added, many Orthodox women pursue their goals, including higher education and powerful careers. "Please don't speak for all of us and paint those broad brushstrokes. This isn't orthodoxy."
To that point, Fleksher started the campaign #myorthodoxlife and #thisisorthodox to respond to the gloss of "My Unorthodox Life." Fleksher also was a student at the yeshiva in Atlanta where Haart once taught. Like many of Haart's former students, Fleksher said she had a good relationship with her teacher.
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"When we see stereotypes and misinformation that is concerning to us as a community. we feel misrepresented," Fleksher said. "We want to stand up for our stories."
Fleksher said that whether or not Haart intended to, she's become a spokeswoman for orthodoxy.
"I'm not going to minimize that our community doesn't have areas where we need to improve," Fleksher said. "We do." But Jewish women, she added, are much more than the stereotypes Fleksher believes "My Unorthodox Life" perpetuates.
Instead of tropes, Fleksher said the general public should have an opportunity to understand that Orthodox Judaism is widely diverse. "She has a responsibility if she's going to create a reality TV show to somehow express that nuance," she said. "I do think it's damaging that we have a Jew herself who is promoting stereotypes."
Haart stands by her show and says that she won't back down on her love of Judaism. “I have so much love in my heart for my people, for being a Jew.”
But she also stands strong in her own journey.
“If I was worried about what people thought about me," Haart adds, "I never would have left.”
Monsey life, and pushback
Haart said those who question whether she was really as observant and restricted as her past life is portrayed in a reality series miss the point.
Trying to live up to the measures within her Orthodox world, she said, "was killing me." By the time she left, Haart said, she weighed 73 pounds. Suicide was on her mind daily, she said, but she couldn't take such an action that is against Jewish law. Instead, Haart said, she was just wasting away.
She also said that her religiosity changed at different times in her life.
"Yes it’s very true that once I hit mid-30s and became more modern Orthodox," Haart said. "I slowly started giving myself more exposure to the outside world. But you have to understand exposure to the outside – it's like you watching a documentary on whales, like watching another world. That was still me, nose pressed against the glass. Looking at the bakery inside but never tasting the croissant."
According to the Monsey-based mommy online chats and several articles by those who purported to be close friends in Haart’s Monsey days, she stood out even as a young woman and a yeshiva teacher.
Haart has seen such comments. She dismisses critical commentary that asserts she was never ultra-Orthodox, that she always dressed fashionably (which she takes as a compliment) and that her “modern” life was not restricted in education or career opportunities.
“The reason that people are questioning about what I don’t talk about,” Haart said, “is because I didn’t want to bring negative exposure to the community.”
Haart doesn't speak negatively about her Bais Yaakov education, for example. Her own experience, which she said may be different than others, was that she got the message that her future was restricted.
Roselyn Feinsod is an Orthodox Jewish woman living in Monsey and a principal at Ernst & Young in Manhattan. She also went to school in Monsey and she and Haart were friends throughout most of their adult life. "We go way back and we were super close in the decade before Julia moved into a new life."
The impression that Haart's extended family and friends had limited educational opportunities just isn't so, Feinsod said. "They can make a choice about their own personal religion but should not do that at the expense of attacking the Monsey community or Orthodox Jews as fundamentalist."
Feinsod said the Monsey community she knows has made strong contributions to Rockland County, New York, and the United States. "Every time to say Monsey with disdain and shuddering, it's painful," Feinsod said. "I think we have a lot to be proud of."
Haart acknowledged that her life wasn't as constrained as some and that she always loved fashion and dressed her best “within the confines of the laws.” But, she added, “I got in trouble for it all the time.”
She added: "I love being Jewish. I think there’s something wrong and I want to fix it.”
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This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Julia Haart, 'My Unorthodox Life' star, on Netflix show backlash