I could watch 18,000 hours of the wildly compelling new Netflix reality show My Unorthodox Life. It’s thrilling and unexpected, and it doesn’t give me that terrible reality TV feeling, as if my brain has secretly been removed and stored in a facility.
I also think that the show will directly contribute to making life more dangerous for some Jewish people. Let me explain.
On December 28, 2019, a man wielding a machete broke into the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York, during a Hanukkah party. He stabbed five people, killing one. Prosecutors said he had googled things like “Why did Hitler hate the Jews.”
It was the second time in a month that a rabbi was stabbed in the tiny town of Monsey. Earlier a father of four was attacked standing outside of his synagogue. That same month, just miles away in New Jersey, shooters opened fire at a kosher grocery store, killing three people. Authorities said the store was targeted because it was frequented by Jews.
So it is hard for me to enjoy My Unorthodox Life, which follows Julia Haart, a woman who left the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, to start a new life as a mostly secular Jew in Manhattan. Haart is incredible—funny and feminist and, apparently, a very successful businesswoman. She and her four children feel like a new generation of Kardashians, but more substantive. Like that family, Haart’s clan is telegenic, with the rare alchemical skill of turning the mundane (eating salad, doing paid Instagram promotions) into high drama. They wear five-inch heels as they walk the line between ambition and entitlement.
But the show works overtime to paint ultra-Orthodox Jews as extremists, as evil people. “They’re fundamentalists,” Haart proclaims again and again, calling her community “dangerous.” Her young son’s religious behavior is “super looney.” The less observant members of the family laugh at and berate the Monsey Jews. At one point Haart’s daughter describes a rumor about a secret all-girl Monsey sex ring. When Haart visits the kosher grocery in Monsey, the camera work turns Orthodox shoppers into a leering monolith.
It’s true that some practices of more Orthodox Jews would be morally reprehensible to many of us. But watching and judging them on TV isn’t activism. Haart’s anger is justifiable, and in parts of the show she and her family engage in beautifully nuanced conversations about Judaism and feminism. (By the way, Haart would still be reality TV gold with less focus on Monsey and more focus on every other part of her life.) But the show pushes one message: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are dangerous.
It’s not acceptable to castigate an entire minority group, no matter how much you disagree with them or how harmful some of their practices are. It doesn’t help Orthodox women; it just puts all Orthodox people in danger. It’s not that portrayals of Jews in the media need to be favorable. It’s that Orthodox Jews live in legitimate fear of attack. Making a reality show that depicts them as monsters could put a bigger target on their backs.
Most people who watch My Unorthodox Life will not be hardened antisemites, looking for further evidence that Jews must be routed out. Instead some viewers, including Jews, might walk away from the show with greater contempt for all ultra-religious people. And that is tragic.
Growing up in a liberal Jewish environment, I pitied Orthodox women. I thought they were victims. I would guess this is how many people think, even if they wouldn’t say it out loud. It took a very small amount of time among actual Orthodox women for all my assumptions to fall apart.
I was totally incorrect to assume that any Orthodox woman must feel trapped and unhappy.
I find my Jewish practices deeply fulfilling. But Orthodox Jews have a level of community and ritual practices so endlessly meaningful that people in the secular world simply cannot fathom it. My pity was misplaced.
In fact, I learned that any given Orthodox woman might rightfully pity me back. When I looked at Orthodox women, I saw victims—forced to cover up, undereducated, kept out of the workforce. But an Orthodox woman could look at me and see a woman who feels the need to wear tight, revealing clothes yet is constantly obsessed with what other people think about her body. They could see a woman who is educated in a system that, in a quieter way, also treats males and females differently. A woman who, if she wishes to have children, has no real support from her culture to do so.
It’s not that I want to justify Orthodox practices that subjugate women. It’s just that I’m in no position to judge the way Orthodox people live. None of us are free from terrible things that could happen during the course of a woman’s life, like abuse, an unfair wage gap, and the underfunding of women’s health care research. And by the way, covering hair and dressing modestly has been practiced, for centuries, in major religions around the world. It’s not extreme. It’s just different from what some of us are used to.
During the Monsey grocery sequence, two local women briefly interact with Haart—neither of them seem like prisoners. If the show had spent any time with people who choose to live in Monsey, it would have painted a more complex picture. But I understand this is a reality show, not a documentary.
Media that depicts people leaving Orthodox Judaism—My Unorthodox Life, Netflix’s hit narrative TV series Unorthodox, and the 2017 Rachel McAdams movie Disobedience—is always misleading, because these works cannot contain the experiences of people who love their communities.
I understand if you’re drawn to these stories—I am too. But it’s a mistake to think that any group of people is beneath you, that their lives are small. I love the fact that when my parents were born, Jews weren’t allowed in some country clubs, and now there is a reality TV show where a family shoves schnitzel into their Louis Vuitton and rushes off to Paris to celebrate Sukkoth in a 13th-century castle.
But that fun shouldn’t come at the expense of Orthodox Jews’ dignity and safety. Julia Haart can reinvent herself, run a company, raise four children, and cook shabbos cholent in stilettos. If anyone can make reality TV more nuanced, it’s her.
Jenny Singer is Glamour’s staff writer.
Originally Appeared on Glamour