Netflix series sparks debate over the lives of ultra-Orthodox women

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MONSEY, NY – Even in the more liberal flanks of the ultra-Orthodox community, there are everyday times when women live very differently from men.

At the synagogue, they must pray in separate balconies or sections closed with curtains. They are prohibited from becoming rabbis, and they are not advised to wear pants, sing solo in front of men, or dance in their presence, lest they distract men from Torah values.

But do they go to college, do they have careers, do they watch TV, do they enjoy their life?

Yes, say the women of the Yeshivish community of this suburban hamlet 30 miles north of Manhattan, some of whom are shocked by the way they are portrayed in the popular Netflix reality series “My Unorthodox Life.”

The nine-episode show traces the world of 50-year-old Julia Haart, who fled Monsey in 2012 and became a successful fashion and modeling executive. Haart paints a dismal picture of her former ultra-Orthodox life, describing it as oppressive, suggesting that women are deprived of a decent education and basically have only one goal: to be a “baby machine”.

“The women in my community are second-class citizens,” she says in one episode. “We only exist in relation to a man.”

It’s an image that’s dismissed by women like Vivian Schneck-Last, a technology consultant who has an MBA from Columbia University and worked as a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. She feels that Haart is diminishing the intellectual and professional advancements that women in the community have made.

“People in Monsey are upset because she has distorted who Orthodox are and especially Orthodox women,” Schneck-Last said.

Roselyn Feinsod, actuary and partner at giant accounting firm Ernst & Young who was once friends with Haart, said she and her daughter graduated from the same girls’ high school as Haart, Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley, and that most of her graduates now go to college. Challenging stereotypes that ultra-Orthodox women aren’t in the world, Feinsod said she ran seven marathons and cycled 100 miles around Lake Tahoe.

“Monsey is a great community with educated people who respect each other,” she said.

Reactions to the show, both positive and negative, have spread beyond Monsey. The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel and lohud.com, which covers an area that includes Monsey, all published articles on the debate. Critics and supporters of the show posted videos on YouTube.

Under the hashtag #myorthodoxlife, the women described their own successful careers and general satisfaction with the religious life.

“People were more than upset, people were personally insulted,” said Allison Josephs, founder of the Jew in the City website, who said people had posted complaints on the site, which she set up for. change negative perceptions of religious Jews. “Almost every Jew I have met has been like, ‘Can you still believe what they did to us?'”

Haart defends her description as being accurate and says she has heard from many ultra-Orthodox and formerly ultra-Orthodox women who agree with her that the community represses women.

“Everything about your story touched me so much,” one woman wrote in a post on Haart’s Instagram page. “I too left the Orthodox community and had to start over after struggling for so long to be unhappy. “

Several people familiar with the ultra-Orthodox community wrote directly to The Times to express their support for Haart’s point of view, including Tzivya Green, a former member of the same Yeshivish community in Monsey.

“Women are always told to be quiet and, learned from a young age, that men hold all the power,” Green wrote. “We are taught to never go against a man’s word. Men are everything and women are nothing.

Haart describes the criticism as a personal attack that distracts attention from the sense of empowerment of the women she hopes to promote. Since leaving Monsey, she has started her own shoe company and is now Managing Director of Elite World Group, one of the world’s largest modeling agencies. His show has just been resumed for a second season.

Haart agreed to address the debate on her show in an in-person interview if she could be filmed as part of her show. After The Times declined this arrangement, she and The Times were unable to agree on an alternative.

Although she did not respond to the Times’ written questions, claiming she had answered them in previous interviews, she gave her point of view, highlighting the remarks she made on social media and in issuing a statement. He said in part, “My only purpose in sharing my personal story is to raise awareness of an unmistakably repressive society where women are denied the same opportunities as men, which is why my next book and season 2 of my show will continue. to document my personal experience which I hope will enable other women to insist on the precious right to liberty.

There is community pressure in Monsey against watching TV as a waste of time, as the show shows. The role of women as mothers and housewives is valued. Although some scholars argue that this should not be interpreted as an affront, a prayer in which men thank God for not making them into women is recited each morning.

Still, several women interviewed in Monsey said the show’s prospect was often dated, sometimes exaggerated, and confused the multiple tensions of Orthodox Judaism practiced in Monsey.

The hamlet of Monsey takes its name from the Munsee branch of the Lenape Native Americans who populated the area before the arrival of Dutch and British settlers. Monsey has become a metonym for Orthodox Jews in Rockland County, who make up over a quarter of its population and congregate in more than 200 synagogues and about half of these yeshivas. Their arrival converted Monsey, a one-stop-shop town with a single yeshiva in 1950, into a place populated by a variety of Orthodox Jews – some modern, some Hasidic, and some of the ultra-Orthodox variation of which Haart was a part, known as the name of Yeshivish. or litvish (Lithuanian), and within these groupings, several gradations or sects of each.

This diversity, perhaps not as multicolored as Joseph’s coat, is nonetheless visible in the streets where thick-bearded men in black silk robes and cylindrical fur hats called shtreimels mingle with closely-shaven men in polo shirts and chinos, recognizable as observers only by their caps.

Haart acknowledged in media appearances and other contexts that there are “gradations of Judaism” and that other members of his community may not share his point of view. At best, she admitted in a TV interview with Tamron Hall, her religion encourages an appreciation of charity, of kindness.

But critics say those nuances are not captured on the show, where she uses terms like “brainwashed” and “deprogramming” to describe ultra-Orthodox life in Monsey in a way that suggests he s it is more of a worship than a personal choice. They say they’re concerned that the show will describe restrictions more typical of, say, Brooklyn-based Satmar Hasidim, and not the less strict community she was a part of.

For example, while the show accurately portrays television as frowned upon in yeshivish circles, they say it is not clear that many people, including Haart, own one. (Haart admitted on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” that she had a television in her later years at Monsey and said she lied about it to school officials who otherwise would not have admitted her children.)

And yes, as Haart explains on the show, some in the community aren’t crazy about women who cycle because pedaling could expose their knees. But critics said the show did not specify that the women, including Haart, still rode their bikes, in modest clothing. (Haart posted an article about his family bike rides on his Instagram account earlier this month.)

Although Haart said she felt deprived of an education by a poor school system, several women said she was a brilliant and top-notch student who could have attended college without any issues or stigma if she did. had decided to do it.

“She was very popular, had every opportunity, a leader in the class, and now she has made it a situation of persecution,” said Andrea Jaffe, certified public accountant and former American Express executive who said during for many years she had lived across rue de Haart.

Much of the Netflix show concerns Haart’s relationship with his four children, three of whom retain various ties to orthodoxy. (Haart is divorced from their father, but has since remarried. Both men appear on the show.) In Monsey, where religious traditions prescribe patterns of everyday life, her candid discussions with children about her own sexuality and theirs go against the norm.

Feinsod, a mother of four, said she was offended by what she described as Haart’s effort in front of a national audience to take her children away from a life of observer.

“It’s fine for her to make choices, but for her to try to force the hand of children in front of an audience of millions is disappointing,” she said.

Of course, freeing her children from what she describes as the suffocating imprint of ultra-Orthodoxy is exactly what Haart embraces as her mission.

“I have lived in this world and it is a very small and sad world, a place where women have a purpose in life and that is to have babies and to get married,” she tells her. 14-year-old son Aron in the second episode.

She says that, for her, the high necklines she favors are not just gestures of style, but emblems of freedom, of a woman in control of her own body and the way it is presented.

Netflix declined to comment on reactions to her show, which is at least the third it has featured in recent years on Orthodox life. “Unorthodox”, a mini-series, centers on the flight of another woman from her Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

The Israeli family drama “Shtisel” was applauded by many in the Orthodox world for its subtlety, round characters and humor.

Several women who have lived in Monsey or spent a lot of time there have said that this kind of nuance is missing from Haart’s show, which they say makes no sense that some women can not only avoid misery. , but to flourish, while maintaining ultra-Orthodox values.

“There is no such thing as a monolithic Monsey,” said Josephs.

Additional reporting by Colin Moynihan.

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