Netflix’s ‘My Unorthodox Life’ Inspired Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Women to Speak Out About Their Lives
Over the past four years, Netflix has released several shows related to people leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. These shows include “One of Us”, “Unorthodox” and more recently the reality show “My Unorthodox Life”.
Each time, many members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have raised questions about their representation.
We are an anthropologist and philosopher who analyze how the mainstream media portray ultra-Orthodox Jews leaving their communities, known as “exiters” or “OTD” – which means “off the derech”, the Hebrew word meaning path. We also study how these individuals tell their stories through the media.
Our research shows that by making stories of suffering sensational in the experiences of leavers, especially women, the mainstream media has created a superficial narrative about the exit process.
But with “My Unorthodox Life,” ultra-Orthodox women responded to the image projected on the show in an unprecedented way. Instead of just discussing it privately and informally, many women took part, for the first time, in a public social media campaign to tell their own stories.
Mass media image of religious Jews
Mainstream television typically tells the stories of leavers in the context of broader critiques of ultra-Orthodoxy, which is portrayed as religious extremism or fundamentalism. While the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox worlds are extremely diverse in their practices of Jewish law, known as Halakha, popular representations do not sum up this plurality. Women are typically chosen for lead roles, with the shows drawing on a liberal feminist trope of exposing religious life as traumatic and oppressive.
In “My Unorthodox Life”, this story is somewhat modified. While traumatic experiences are mentioned, the main story concerns the successes of the protagonist, Julia Haart, once breaking out of ultra-orthodoxy.
The journey that Haart and his family take from religiosity to secularism over the nine episodes of the series is key to Haart’s professional and personal accomplishments. The secular and liberal world, characterized as a place of creation of a new set of values, is presented as a way of emancipation.
The transition or “struggle out of the community” as expressed in the show is presented as what allowed the protagonist to build her religiously and sexually diverse and inclusive family. These values would have been incompatible with a strict interpretation of the Halachah.
This point of view is also put forward to understand Haart’s success as CEO and co-owner of a fashion company. After following the tziniut – Jewish codes of modesty – for most of her life, she became heavily involved in the creation of secular women’s clothing, from lingerie to shoes. This departure from orthodox standards of modesty, experienced as a restrictive rule by Haart, manifests itself mainly through the creation and presentation of clothing revealing the body. As Haart puts it on the show, “every cropped top, every mini skirt” is an “emblem of freedom.”
In contrast, several productions made outside of North American mainstream media by outgoing women such as Malky Goldman, Pearl Gluck, and Melissa Weisz have told more nuanced stories about their former community in short films and plays.
These productions, however, do not attract a large audience.
Since 2018, we’ve also been interviewing ultra-Orthodox women in Montreal and New York City about their use of social media, including Instagram and TikTok. Because religious authority restricts and filters access to the internet and social media, their presence on these platforms is still controversial within the community.
If they are active on social networks, it is usually to promote their business. Sometimes they engage in criticism of ultra-Orthodoxy to transform it from within, on issues such as divorce, equal pay, birth control and modesty. Debates and discussions are often kept private and reserved for women.
While these women did not previously engage with the public, the release of “My Unorthodox Life,” emphasizing prosperity, prompted them to express their own successes.
Since mid-July 2021, when “My Unorthodox Life” premiered, women began posting under the hashtag #MyOrthodoxLife – a snub to Netflix’s #MyUnorthodoxLife. The objective was to reach a large audience and to oppose negative representations by highlighting their financial prosperity and their fulfilling religious life.
Many articles feature stories of professionally accomplished and educated women, contradicting the Netflix show’s view that success and religiosity is an oxymoron. To do this, they have posted numerous messages online exposing their religious life by following the precepts of Orthodox Judaism while highlighting their careers.
The primary objective of the movement is to reject the overly simplistic portrayal provided by reality TV shows and to allow women to expose the richness of their lives through their own lens.
Activist Rifka Wein Harris reflected the opinions of many other Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women when she said Haart’s story was misleading and undermined their achievements.
For many women, being religious and obeying Jewish laws is an essential part of their identity, guiding them through different aspects of their lives.
A message from the movement reads: “I am Orthodox… and I am fulfilled. I am Orthodox… and I achieved Level A results which ranked in the top 5% in the country. I am Orthodox… and studied my undergraduate degree at one of the best universities in the UK.
In response to this social media campaign, Haart told the New York Times, “My issues and the way I was treated have nothing to do with Judaism. Judaism is about values, community and love, kindness and beautiful things. I am very proud to be a Jew.
Her statement appears to be an attempt to distinguish Judaism and, by implication, Orthodox Judaism from what she called “fundamentalism” in the series. However, several women involved in the movement come from the same community that Haart called “fundamentalist”.
The hashtag #MyOrthodoxLife has permeated almost every social media platform. Photos, videos, blog posts and articles circulate under the hashtag on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn and WhatsApp.
Shaking up religious and secular media
By exposing their faces and voices to the general public, these women contradict their invisibility in the ultra-Orthodox media, implicitly defying religious authority. In upcoming publications, including a book to be published by New York University Press, we document the online activism of these women and their disruption of religious norms.
Not all women disagree with Haart’s portrayal of ultra-orthodoxy. Some have taken #MyOrthodoxLife as an opportunity to sue and voice internal criticism. Adina Sash, a prominent Jewish activist and influencer, supported the show as a representation of Haart’s individual journey and the ultra-Orthodoxy’s need for change. Orthodox podcaster Franciska Kosman used the show as a springboard to discuss the challenges women face in the Orthodox world, as well as how the presence of faith in secular media could improve.
We argue that the #MyOrthodoxLife movement resonates with what anthropologist Ayala Fader has identified as “a crisis of authority” occurring within ultra-Orthodoxy: heightened mistrust of religious authority.
But this criticism of religious authority has gone beyond those who question the faith and the exits that scholars have documented. He has become more present among practicing ultra-Orthodox Jews and other advocates of religious beliefs and practices.
“My unorthodox life” – love it or hate it – has finally overtaken its unique history of the religious life of a Jewish woman. This has led to some unexpected responses creating an alternate space for public and nuanced discussions on orthodoxy, ultra-orthodoxy, and gender.