Reality TV is a guilty pleasure of mine that has only been indulged by the recent Sydney lockdown. But although the shenanigans of the genre as a whole tend to be shocking, Netflix’s latest offering ‘My Unorthodox Life’ stunned me for an entirely different reason. As a Jewish woman, raised in a predominantly secular household but educated in an Modern Orthodox school, I was surprised to see a reality show that was so firmly centred around Judaism. Whilst on the face of it, the series tells the story of a flashy CEO, Julia Haart, and her family, it simultaneously reflects a process of cultural and religious discovery as Julia, and members of her family, navigate life in the big city after leaving the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey.
From about the age of 15, I found myself more interested and attached to my religion. My family celebrated many of the Jewish festivals, I observed Shabbat and dressed more modestly than many of my friends. However, more recently I have found myself deeply reconsidering the cornerstones of my identity, cultural practices and value system. In view of this, I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive about the show. I was interested to see how others made such leaps in the process of self discovery, navigating waters much muddier than the ones that I found myself in. But all the same, I was concerned about the circulation of stereotypes, and demonisation of the Jewish community.
As a minority, we are always bracing for Western media to portray us through the lens of stereotypes and expect applause for representation. So after seeing several posts from Orthodox people, upset by the representation of their culture, and for some, their community, Monsey, I became cautious. Until recently, it felt like Jewish representation was limited to Holocaust movies, or in lighter spirits, the casual mention of a Barmitzvah or Chanukah by a character that was often whiny and rich (I’m looking at you Gretchen Weiners). But the new Vogue in Jewish representation appears to be a voyeuristic peek into the elusive Orthodox community, or should I say, a character’s escape from what is often represented as a prison of a lifestyle.
This is my religion. It feels intrusive for non-Jews to gawk at and criticise the more observant lifestyle — one that I have seen misrepresented and simplified countless times before. It only takes a brief scroll through Netflix to see that other cultures are equally prey to such intrigue. Whether it’s a show that follows the life of the Amish, or one about arranged marriages and matchmaking in India, we are naturally intrigued by what is different to us. As the world becomes more secular and modern, this makes it easy to balk at minority cultures that are more firmly stuck to their traditional ways.
That being said, I did enjoy seeing concepts like Tsniut (modesty) and Shabbat (the day of rest) being explained on popular television. In my more observant days, I had braved my fair share of disputes with Special Considerations trying to explain that I cannot do any work or use any technology until Saturday night, only to be offered unnecessarily complex solutions. The thought of more people being familiar with these basic cornerstones of observant life is immensely heartening.
Whilst many are happy in their Orthodox lifestyle, that does not mean issues of accessibility and broader societal discussions should be completely off limits. However, it is often very difficult and uncomfortable to have these conversations and introspections aired on a worldwide platform. Antisemitism remains a pressing issue around the world. In Australia, there were 331 antisemitic incidents reported from the 1st of October 2019 – 30 September 2020, and despite the pandemic and lockdown, the number of direct physical and verbal assaults increased. The Jewish community of Monsey themselves, where part of ‘My Unorthodox Life’ is set, were victims of two different stabbing incidences that took four lives in December 2019. Whilst throughout the nine episodes Julia makes a point of saying she loves Judaism but hates fundamentalism (which can exist in any religion or ideology), one cannot miss how she characterises her old community as extremists and fundamentalists. Such language tends to generalise – meaning that in the eyes of a non-Jewish viewer, there is a tendency to jump to conclusions and assume that any form of Orthodox Judaism can be equated to fundamentalism and extremism. Whilst this is obviously not true, the last thing we need in the current climate is more demonising generalisations of Jewish communities.
That being said, the nine episodes ‘My Unorthodox Life’ did manage to showcase Jews from across the spectrum. Yosef (Julia’s ex-husband) is having to manage co-parenting with a parent who clearly opposes many of his core beliefs. Yet he is only ever kind and understanding of his children’s decisions, regardless of whether they cohere with Jewish Orthodoxy. Chana, the only member of Julia’s immediate family who still speaks to her, proudly says on TV that she is happy with her lifestyle. However, one cannot miss the constant digs, particularly from Julia and her youngest daughter Miriam, at many aspects of their old religious lifestyle as outdated.
I understand many have a complex, and sometimes traumatising, relationship with religion. I personally loved dressing modestly, it felt like a reclamation of my body. Though, I should also note that it seems my definition of modest dressing was less intense than what would be expected in Monsey. It is clear Julia carries a lot of trauma from her time in the community. She spent years depressed, unfulfilled and harbouring guilt that she was committing her daughters to the same path. Miriam, a bisexual woman, was undoubtedly regularly invalidated, and probably had to unlearn some deep, internalised homophobia. It can be difficult holding the two truths that for some Orthodoxy is a beautiful lifestyle, and for others it can be a violent and systemic attack on their identity, particularly for closeted teens. For any non-Jewish watchers, I implore you to not form an entire view of Orthodoxy, let alone Judaism, from this single perspective.
As I mentioned before, I am the biggest sucker for reality TV plotlines. I’ll gasp when the dramatic music comes on and I’ll fall right into the overly edited plotline. However, I would never watch Keeping up with the Kardashians to learn about Armenian culture or use a Real Housewives spin-off to learn about the setting. As much as I appreciate the subtle education and representation that comes from watching Jews of different observance live their lives, the show’s main effect is still to entertain.