The reaction to My Unorthodox Life is telling

The defensiveness of many modern Orthodox women belies genuine issues with fulfilment

August 05, 2021 11:58

I loved My Unorthodox Life, Netflix’s latest reality show.

The programme features Julia Haart, formerly a strictly Orthodox woman from Monsey, who dumped her boring husband and her religion and built a fashion empire in New York City. Along the way she married a billionaire and tempted her adult children to follow her out of the community (the two are possibly connected).

The show is contrived — and enormous fun. The outfits were great, Julia’s revolving wardrobe was eye-popping, there were weird family dynamics to unravel (Julia and her kids seemed completely co-dependent), Succot in a French chateau, and a sensitive best friend with a touching adoption story.

What’s not to love on a lazy summer afternoon?

Apparently, plenty. Haart, who repeatedly objected to fundamentalist religious attitudes and claimed she felt restricted by her life in Monsey, has been accused of “Orthodox bashing”. And in a concerted campaign, hundreds of Orthodox women have been posting on Facebook and Linkedin about their liberated, fulfilling lives. These women appear to be mostly from “serious modern Orthodox” to “Charedi-lite”, covering their hair and dressing modestly but modern enough to be on LinkedIn. Their posts mostly focus on their impressive professional accomplishments, but also frequently mention that they can do sports in skirts, how widely they read, their fun fashion sense and the joy they find in their community and families. The message is: “We are not oppressed.”

This reaction is actually far more interesting than the silly show. Julia Haart’s shallow new values don’t reflect particularly well on secular society either. Why, then, did her critique of Orthodoxy feel so raw and personal to this group of women — to the point where they felt compelled to respond? And what can we make of their response?

Some have claimed that they are defending Orthodoxy’s reputation to the outside world. But I haven’t seen any evidence that anyone’s particularly exercised about Haart’s accusations other than other Orthodox Jews. No, this conversation seems to be internal. The message is self-soothing, indicating an underlying insecurity and anxiety about their own agency. It’s only natural, because the reality is that all Orthodox women – accomplished as we may be – are part of a heavily gendered system that is often stacked against them. Personally I find it healthiest to acknowledge that tension and to deal with it. The defensiveness and the danger comes when you deny it, and choose to pretend that everyone is “separate but equal”. Any evidence to the contrary can shake the ground beneath you.

As for the main defence offered by the social media warriors, that they cannot be oppressed because they have professional accomplishments, here they are committing a category error. It would frankly be bizarre if many of these women did not have high-achieving jobs. Orthodoxy is, to some extent, a middle-class pursuit. In America even more so than here – because of day school tuition – it is an extremely expensive lifestyle. Women have to be entrepreneurial and to work. But it’s also a question of culture and class. A 2017 survey of American Orthodox Jews who call themselves “modern”, by Nishma Research, showed that this was an extremely affluent group. The median household income was $158,000, nearly triple the American median of $59,000 in 2016. And well-educated, too — over 90 per cent had a bachelor’s degree and more than 60 per cent, a postgraduate or professional degree. Of course women in or adjacent to these brackets are going to have professional ambitions and broad interests. It’s not surprising, either, that they would opt for relatively traditional lifestyles. Surveys consistently show that marriage is more common among the middle classes. These women are not achieving “despite” being Orthodox. They’re achieving precisely because of the socioeconomic dynamics of their community.

So are they “oppressed” or not? The testimonials on social media are written by women who claim to be leading fulfilling, happy lives. I believe them. But before the communal leadership celebrates too hard, take a closer look at where they’re finding that fulfilment: in their jobs, their exercise classes, and their friends and family. Noticeably absent is any mention of organised religion. Yes, there’s an occasional reference to the serenity of Shabbat. But the main reason they seem to be happy is that they have mentally exited from the areas where they are genuinely second-class citizens, like shul, and Jewish learning and leadership opportunities.

That might suit the men. But what does it say about our community that, when the women campaign to show how rewarding Orthodox life can be, their main evidence is their jobs – not their religion?

August 05, 2021 11:58

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