Netflix's My Unorthodox Life perpetuates harmful Jewish stereotypes, some say

The reality show has inspired people online to speak out against misconceptions about Orthodox Judaism.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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Abrar Al-Heeti
7 min read
Julia Haart and her family

Julia Haart (third from left) with her family, who star in Netflix reality series My Unorthodox Life.

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There are typically two types of Jews represented on screen, according to Allison Josephs.

"You see the Jerry Seinfeld, totally secular [character] kind of mocking their heritage, or you see the crazy Hasidic Jew who hates women and is judgmental and extreme," says Josephs, founder and executive director of Jew in the City, a nonprofit aimed at changing negative perceptions of religious Jews in media. "Why is there no representation of something in the middle?"

Her concern has amplified since the release of hit Netflix reality series My Unorthodox Life, which started airing July 14 and was renewed for a second season last month. The show follows the day-to-day life of Julia Haart, CEO of talent media company Elite World Group and a former member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, New York. Across nine episodes, Haart and her four children navigate their relatively new life in the secular world while revisiting moments from their religious past. 

In the first episode, Haart gives an overview of her journey from living in Monsey as Talia Hendler to secretly becoming a saleswoman and eventually leaving her ultra-Orthodox community called Yeshivishe Heimishe. She launched a shoe company under her new name, Julia Haart, which was bought by La Perla, and became creative director of the luxury fashion brand before being named CEO of Elite. Viewers get an inside look at Haart's luxurious Manhattan lifestyle, from her spacious penthouse to her shiny black-and-red Bentley to her massive closet with rotating racks of colorful tops and dresses.    

"I was covered up my entire life, so to me, every low-cut top, every miniskirt, is an emblem of freedom," Haart tells viewers in the show's opening. Further reflecting on her former life, she adds, "The women in our community are second-class citizens. We only exist in relation to a man.... In our community, a woman basically has one purpose: to follow her husband and to be a baby making machine."

Those comments, unsurprisingly, have led some women in the Orthodox Jewish community, including Josephs, to speak out against the show and its depictions. 

Netflix didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the show's backlash.

The series highlights Hollywood's tendency to perpetuate negative stereotypes about minorities including Black, Latino/a and Muslim communities, which can fuel generalizations and misunderstandings. Some people have turned to YouTube to debunk misconceptions presented in the show, such as the role of women and rules around modesty. Using the hashtag #MyOrthodoxLife on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, dozens of women are also sharing their own stories of life in their communities while asserting that My Unorthodox Life offers a false, dangerous portrayal of Orthodox Judaism.

"They will never make a Netflix show about my life," one Jewish woman commented on Facebook. "I was not oppressed or repressed. There was nothing that I had to escape from."

Someone else wrote: "I embraced Orthodox Judaism independently, as an adult. I fell in love with it, with its rituals and depth, with the communities it creates, with its richness and complexity. I believe that my religious practice infuses my life, and the life of my family, with truth, beauty and meaning."

Another post reads: "People are nuanced, the Jewish people are nuanced. I'm concerned that people will see #myunorthodoxlife and it will perpetuate the antisemitism that has risen significantly in the US." 

Pushback against My Unorthodox Life is just the latest instance of members of a religious community feeling they've been misrepresented on screen. Earlier this year, NBC pulled an episode of its medical drama Nurses following backlash over its storyline, in which a young Orthodox Jew and his father make disparaging comments about a bone graft that could be from anyone -- "an Arab, a woman." (A nurse sarcastically adds, "Or, God forbid, an Arab woman.") 

Amazon Prime's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has also been criticized by some for the "way it regularly repurposes Jewish stereotypes," as one Los Angeles Times commentator put it, by featuring characters who exhibit "native personality trait[s]" like "neurotic fastidiousness" and "classic boorishness." 

My Unorthodox Life's release comes on the heels of another popular Netflix show, Unorthodox, in which a Hasidic Jewish woman escapes an arranged marriage to start a new life overseas. 

"There's this fascination in reporting on ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews, but really what it is is the most dysfunctional stories of our community being amplified by secular media, as if this is normative Orthodoxy," Josephs says. "When in fact, the normal people don't make TV shows or movies or news, they just live their life quietly and happily."

Off-screen implications

Negative on-screen portrayals of Jews, as well as other minorities, can have dangerous consequences. For instance, a 2015 study found that exposure to negative portrayals of Muslims, who are also frequently misrepresented in the media, increased perceptions of them as "aggressive" and "increased support for harsh civil restrictions of Muslim Americans." 

Depicting Jews as "backwards" or "hateful" can put them in danger, too, Josephs notes. In 2019, there were more than 2,000 hate crimes against Jewish people throughout the US, according to the Anti-Defamation League -- the highest number recorded since the ADL started tallying antisemitic incidents in 1979. During the conflict between Israel and Gaza in May of this year, anti-Semitic incidents in the US more than doubled compared with last year, according to the ADL. 

"As people who wear religious garb, we feel more and more threatened to be walking on the streets and be this other vilified group," Josephs says.

That's a concern she fears will only become heightened with a show like My Unorthodox Life, which she says glosses over any religious nuances. (Josephs explored those nuances in an article following the show's premiere, debunking misconceptions such as the notion that sex is taboo and that women are second-class citizens.) "In the first five minutes, I felt like [Haart] just unloaded the most challenging issues within Orthodoxy," Josephs says. 

Watch this: How Hollywood is tackling misrepresentation of Muslims on screen

Haart, who serves as the show's executive producer, hedges comments about her experience in the ultra-Orthodox community by saying: "There are a lot of Jews who live perfectly regular lives. It has nothing to do with Judaism or religion; this has to do with fundamentalism. I love being Jewish, but I do believe whether it's Jewish fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, it is so dangerous." 

Esther D. Kustanowitz, a cultural commentator who writes and speaks about expressions of Jewish identity in pop culture, notes that Haart's experience and her rise to the top after leaving her Orthodox community was "very unusual." Because My Unorthodox Life is dubbed reality TV, some viewers could have a hard time separating her experiences from those of other Orthodox Jews.

Still, Kustanowitz notes, more shows depicting a variety of experiences could help reflect the nuances and diversity within the Jewish community.

"This moment is so exciting because there are all these different stories that are coming to the fore," Kustanowitz says. "But people are nervous, and especially people who are in cultures who maybe haven't been dominant cultures or have histories of persecution. There's a hesitation that, 'What if we don't look good?'"

But, she adds, the more portrayals there are, the more audiences will understand that there are a variety of stories and experiences within religious, racial and cultural groups. She cites Shtisel on Netflix as being a popular, nonjudgmental show about ultra-Orthodox life.

"It's very telling that for most people I've spoken to, while they have varied opinions on [shows] like Unorthodox or My Unorthodox Life, everybody loves Shtisel," Kustanowitz says. 

She adds, "There are different stories that people tell, and we don't have to live within the caricatures that we used to have to live in."

Diversifying real-world experiences

My Unorthodox Life being a reality show also means viewers could be more likely to take everything that happens at face value. But, Josephs reminds viewers, reality TV is often loaded with scripted and staged moments. 

In fact, many say the show features several fabricated scenes and lies about Haart's family and their experiences in the world of Orthodoxy. For instance, Josephs points to daughter Miriam's claim that girls couldn't ride bikes or play sports, but she was featured as "sportstar of the week" in Jewish Link in 2015. Additionally, in the first episode, oldest daughter Batsheva tries to convince her husband that he should let her wear pants, but viewers noticed she'd posted pictures of herself in pants on Instagram for years. Haart told The New York Times in an interview published in July that "she'd had no radio, no television, no newspapers, no magazines" before she turned 35. But her old friends reportedly told Page Six that was a "fictitious" tale, and that "far from this repressed fundamentalist person, Julia was a fun person" when she was part of the community.

It's one thing when scenarios are staged on shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Real Housewives, Josephs notes. But the stakes are higher on a series centered on religion. 

"This is not just a Kardashian show, because it's specifically about a certain minority,'' she says. "While people should know that reality TV is made up, they don't have any framework to know where the truth begins and the truth ends."

A YouTuber who goes by Classically Abby remarked in a video that the series paints a one-sided and inaccurate picture of Judaism. 

"To the average person, this is a true representation of the religious Jewish community," she says. "A religious Jew will watch a show like this and immediately be able to pick out all of the problems and all of the lies. But the fact of the matter is, the average person who's watching it thinks this is a real representation of a religious community."

That's why it's critical for shows and movies about minorities to pull from the experiences of writers who actually belong to those groups, Kustanowitz says, and to have Jewish consultants who, for instance, "can tell you when your Hebrew is backwards."

Josephs adds that it's also important for Jewish writers and consultants to have an understanding of Orthodox Judaism if that's going to be explored on screen.

"It would be so nice to be able to see ourselves [on screen] as we see ourselves," she says. "That's what every minority really is looking for."

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