Nothing unorthodox about ‘My Unorthodox Life’

At a time of rising antisemitism across America the last thing American audiences should be exposed to is a television show that promotes negative stereotypes about Jews. Netflix, evidently, disagrees. In yet another (yawn) show about an Orthodox Jew disenfranchised from their community, “My Unorthodox Life” presents the true story of a former Orthodox Jewish woman, Julia Haart, a mother of four, who left her community, traditions and upbringing and started an entirely new life inconsistent with Orthodox Judaism’s values.

I haven’t seen the show (and I have no plans of watching it) but from what I’ve seen written about it, “My Unorthodox Life,” seems like just another show that portrays Orthodox Judaism as an archaic, backwards and repressive system that forbids its followers from freely expressing themselves. With rules that govern all aspects of Jewish life, it’s easy to point the camera in only one direction and depict Orthodox Judaism as repressive.

The tendency in Hollywood seems to focus on mocking religion through dramas, reality shows and documentaries. These programs show religion as a tool that restrict personal freedoms. Mocking Judaism misses an opportunity to show the beauty of Jewish traditions, culture and values. Judaism is a 3,000-year-old religion, arguably started with Abraham and publicized to the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah.

Judaism values kindness, generosity, humility and so many of the ideals humans of all cultures treasure. Judaism’s principles inspired two other major religions, Christianity and Islam, and an ethos that America’s founding fathers looked to when declaring America’s independence. These shows ignore the beauty of practices like the peaceful Shabbat table, the unique festive nature of the Chanukah candles, and the purity of Yom Kippur. Instead of showing Judaism’s majesty, they concentrate on the minutiae of Jewish laws, which without study, can seem limiting. This approach is prejudiced against Judaism.

Cynically mocking religion – even if done cleverly under the guise of a documentary or reality show – is corrosive to society. It paints people and communities as oppressive when they’re not. It causes outsiders to cast aspersions on the religion and plants the seeds of hate. Groups that already hate Judaism are given added ammunition to spread their antisemitism. These shows, are much as they’re presented as culture and entertainment, add to the hate churning against Jews today.

The power of Judaism’s beauty is inspiring – even life changing. There are many people that leave the Orthodox lifestyle and choose a different path, but there are many more who choose it. Over the last 50 years, the “Ba’al Teshuva” movement, literally the repentance movement, has seen tens of thousands of Jews who grew up outside the Orthodox community decide to trade their “unorthodox” life for one of Torah and mitzvot – the Orthodox life. Previous Saturdays on the beach become days with family in the Synagogue and around a joyful meal, Christmas break eating Chinese food becomes a family standing around the Menorah singing Chanukah songs and prayers, celebrating the Chanukah miracle, and Yom Kippur transforms from a meaningless day of fasting to the most meaningful day of the year, culminating in the triumphant Shofar blast and singing “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem!”

Hollywood and its followers would be better served by putting on inspiring programming rather than the acidic shows they’re choosing today. We live in times of declining family values, with communities devoid of previous generations’ meaningful lives. People are looking for meaning, for messages of love, not hate. Inspiration pays off in people’s hearts and at the box office as well. Our world should be moved by Hollywood, not depressed by it. Studio heads can lead the next generation to meaningful lives of inspiration, they should jump at the opportunity!

About the Author
Since 1982, Jeff Seidel has introduced thousands of Jewish college students to their first Shabbat experience as well as offered free tours and classes through his Jewish Student Centers at Hebrew U in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, and IDC in Herzliya. He has lived in Jerusalem’s Old City for over thirty years and connected tens of thousands to the Land of Israel. He has also authored “The Jewish Traveler's Resource Guide,” which lists Shabbat placement programs around the world.
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