Jerry Isaak-Shapiro
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro

The Problem with “My Unorthodox Life” is Not About Its Portrayal of Judaism

I would typically look askance if someone else did this, so I will readily admit that I am not (completely) happy with myself, writing about a series I haven’t finished watching. For consistency’s sake, I’ll have to forego lambasting reviewers who criticize half-read books. At least for a little while.

So much for my personal tshuvah. What prompts me to write my own I’ll-criticize-it-even-if-I-haven’t-finished-it is “My Unorthodox Life,” Netflix’ newest reality TV show. According to The New York Times, “In ‘My Unorthodox Life,’ Julia Haart Bares More Than Just Her Knees.” The Grey Lady’s headline writers’ penchant for a double entendre is annoying, but it also zeros in on one of the program’s self-indulgent weaknesses: its gratuitous insistence on skin and more skin. I didn’t have to complete the series (spoiler alert: I have no desire to do so) to figure that out.

I did not grow up frum, and I am not now frum. If forced into accepting a modifier, I prefer ‘traditional’ in lieu of a denominational label, not because any of them are specifically bothersome to me, but rather because the self-Balkanization of the Jewish People has a lousy track record. My preference: (just) Jewish.

I do not self-identify as ultra; I am not a woman. Representing neither of these demographics, an easy pushback on my weighing in on “Unorthodox” might be to suggest (or shout – take your pick) that I have no standing from which to voice an opinion. Julia Haart, the author and ostensible heroine of the book and its subsequent TV show, speaks passionately about both – about the womanhood she has embraced; and about the frumkeit that she says kept her ensnared in a life that wasn’t her own for decades.

Facebook and other venues have been bubbling over with comments and critiques, and the majority has been authored by women who, by their own definition, are “religious” (spanning the gamut from Orthodox to Mainstream Orthodox to Right-of-Center Orthodox to Ultra – with a few other adjectives thrown in for good measure. To be sure, there are a good number from those who eschew any label that would even imply a degree of – any degree of – religiosity.

So it’s with a good-sized dose of humility (and a bissle trepidation) that I wade into these waters. I understand and appreciate those critics who point out Ms. Haart’s blurring of the lines between “Yeshivish” and Haredi and just plain Orthodox. I have no idea if this linguistic confusion has been sowed consciously or without intention, but I do believe (OK, I know) that for the rank and file viewer who happens not to be Jewish, this is all so much inside baseball. The periodic chyron scrolled across the screen, translating (kind of) Yiddish or Hebrew into English, is helpful in a mechanical sort of way, but that service does nothing to provide context or deeper meaning.

The critics whose posts I have read primarily focused on the absence of positive discussion of Judaism – and I concur. There’s a bit (a teeny, tiny bit) of Shabbos-is-wonderful kind of talk, but for the most part, the conversation is about what one cannot do, what is allegedly withheld from people if they are observant. And some of that is a stretch, to say the least. Riding bicycles and driving cars is alleged to be off-limits for women, with Monsey being transformed into a North American Tehran in the eyes of the viewer.  “Fundamentalism” is tossed about so haphazardly that one has to wonder if that very charged word was edited into the script.

As noted, I’m neither woman nor Haredi/ultra/frum, in the manner suggested in the series. I do however (cue the trumpets) have decades of working with parents and their children under my professional belt, and it’s with that experience in mind that I will suggest that the core issue – and perhaps the offending issue – is not the author’s cavalier attitude toward Judaism or religiosity or observance. It is her unrelenting narcissism that drives the storyline, that forces her children into Jewish Hobson’s choices. Please your mother, or incur her wrath (her soft-voiced, manipulating wrath – shouting and yelling would be a piece of cake compared to her please-don’t-disagree-with-me stare).

Case in point: the woman who comes to Haart for emotional and practical advice and receives a makeover (and a vibrator). Ms. Haart is, it should be said, a remarkable woman, one who dramatically and radically transformed herself. Leaving everything else aside, she is a force of nature and is trying to be true to herself. Her becoming a CEO of a major fashion powerhouse would make Miranda Priestly bow in respect.

But a trained therapist she is not. Neither is she a licensed social worker or psychologist. Not a trained mentor or life coach. As a businessperson – a CEO, a marketing tornado and an expert on the New York zeitgeist – she has what to offer. But in speaking to the woman from Monsey – who is going back to Monsey – she is way, way over her head.

I don’t doubt for a second that she loves her children, but Batsheva (“Bat”) and Miriam and Shlomo and Aron only have one choice arrayed in front of them: their mother’s choice. In the end, the most cringe-worthy element of “Unorthodox” is not its portrayal of Jews and Judaism, ultra or any other version. Rather, it is how a turbo-charged ego can blind even a loving parent to her own actions.

About the Author
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro has a Masters's in International Affairs, specializing in Middle East history and U.S. Foreign Policy. He has been a teacher, madrich, camp director and head of school, and is convinced that nearly everything can be seen through the lens of leadership. He's a lifelong Zionist and adamant pluralist.
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