In ‘My Unorthodox Life,’ Fashion Is a Flash Point
Early in “My Unorthodox Life,” the Netflix reality series about Julia Haart, the fashion executive who turned her back on her strict religious upbringing for the high life in Manhattan, Batsheva, her elder daughter, strolls onto the set in a trim pair of jeans.
“What are you wearing?” Batsheva’s husband, Ben, asks dourly. “I got used to you not covering your hair. But pants?”
She has upended not just his sense of decorum but a stringent, and oft-misunderstood, dress code dating from biblical times. Ben, who has been slower to abandon the traditions of his Orthodox upbringing, pleads for time to process her choice. Plainly, she is not having it.
“The idea that a woman can wear short skirts but not pants — it’s really just a mind-set that you’re brought up with,” Batsheva said the other day. “I thought it was time to deprogram that thought.”
Such debates over fashion are central to a show in which fashion, along with the splashier totems of secularism — the TriBeCa penthouse, the helicopter jaunts to the Hamptons — is itself a protagonist. It is also a flash point around which family tensions revolve.
Those tensions are largely inflamed by Julia, the 50-year-old family matriarch and resident firebrand, who rejected the strictures of her Orthodox community in Monsey, N.Y., for a fairy-tale hybrid of “Jersey Shore” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
An irrepressible mix of ambition, entitlement and caustic indignation, she spends much of her time in the series railing against her culture’s restrictive mores and, in particular, its insistence on a version of modesty that prohibits showing one’s collarbone, knees and elbows.
Waging philosophical war on the community she fled, she gives rein to a fiercely evangelical bent of her own. “The idea that women should cover, that they are responsible for men’s impulses and impure thoughts, that’s pure fundamentalism,” Ms. Haart said in an interview. “It has nothing to do with Judaism.”
Fashion, she insists, has been a liberating force in her life, the most visible and immediately accessible badge of her unfettered self-expression.
On the show she exults in pushing boundaries, flaunting generous expanses of what her daughters would call “boobage” and greeting visitors in metallic leather hot pants and thigh-high skirts.
More provocatively, she throws on a tailored romper for an impromptu visit to Monsey. “You’re getting some looks,” her friend and colleague Robert Brotherton murmurs as she negotiates the aisles of her hometown supermarket. But Julia is unmoved.
She is more inclined to preach the gospel of self-fulfillment than to discuss the high-end labels she favors. But even in the bedroom, it would seem, her own initials aren’t enough, her pajamas boldly stamped with fancy Vuitton monograms. She flaunts chili-pepper-colored trousers and a star-spangled top on the show, proclaiming, “To me every low-cut top, every miniskirt is an emblem of freedom.”
Ms. Haart’s relentless sermonizing can seem abrasive at times. “The way she talks about freedom reminds me of someone who is very resentful of all the rules,” said Amy Klein, who alluded to her own abandonment of religious orthodoxy in an article on Kveller, a website focused on Jewish culture and motherhood.
Was she acting out of zavka? “That’s Yiddish for ‘spite,’” Ms. Klein said. “The idea is you should dress provocatively so that it really feels like you’re rebelling.”
No question, Ms. Haart’s journey was filled with trepidation, as will likely be detailed in her forthcoming memoir, “Brazen: My Unorthodox Journey From Long Sleeves to Lingerie.” After leaving her husband, Yosef Hendler, who is portrayed sympathetically on the show, “I was sleeping with other men but still wearing my wig,” she said. “That’s the level of fear I had. To me, taking my sheitel off meant God was going to kill me and I would go to hell.”
She confronted her fears in baby steps, first selling insurance to save enough money to leave Monsey and eventually designing a line of killer heels not unlike the six-inch platform stilettos she wears on the show. “Show me a law that says I cannot wear high-heeled shoes,” she taunts.
Or for that matter, the flashy togs that are part of the line she created for Elite World Group, the modeling and talent conglomerate she owns with her husband, Silvio Scaglia Haart, a collection replete with mock croc candy-pink jackets, emerald-sequined jumpsuits and the glittery like.
Her daughters tend to take their styles cues from mom. Miriam, 20, a student at Stanford, favors vivid tartan strapless tops, hot pink puffer coats and skinny tanks. Batsheva, 28, adopts a cottage-core-inflected look, all fluffy skirts and puffy sleeves, with an occasional, if not overtly racy, display of cleavage.
Partial to labels including Valentino, Fendi and Dior, she shows off her caviar tastes on the series, as well as on Instagram and TikTok. Very much her mother’s daughter, she favors vivid prints and color: searing coral, sweet lilac and hibiscus. Like her mother, she has come a long way.
Ms. Haart attended the Bais Yaakov seminary in Monsey, where she raised eyebrows when she wore a red dress. “Someone complained and I was called into the rabbi’s office,” she recalled. “He told me: ‘You have to stop wearing color. It’s not appropriate. You’re attracting attention.’ But where in the Bible does it say you can’t wear color?”
“Modesty is not mentioned in the scriptures,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “Those rabbinical interpretations of modesty were retrojected into the biblical texts over time.”
Deeply rooted in the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish law and tradition, those interpretations, Dr. Sarna said, were based largely on the supposition that the sight of a woman, and even her voice, is arousing for men.
Historically, the call to modesty was by no means uniformly or universally heeded. “A considerable degree of divergence was to be found in the social norms in this realm, which were significantly influenced by social, economic and geographic differences,” Yosef Ahituv observes in The Jewish Women’s Archive.
Men, it should be noted, were hardly exempt from the rules. Boys were expected to turn up at school in an unvarying uniform of black pants and white shirts buttoned to the neck, Ben recalled. “That way they wouldn’t be distracted from their studies.”
And yet, Dr. Sarna points out, “The paradox of modesty is that its obligations fall mainly on women.”
Because standards rarely were codified, it was often left to schools to enforce regulations, including the edict to cover one’s knees. Dr. Sarna can still remember a time when teachers measured girls’ skirts to determine how many inches they were above the knee. “Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel also were modest,” he said. “But I have doubts as to whether anybody was measuring skirts in those earlier days.”
Ms. Haart chafed under similar restrictions and ultimately ditched them along with her sheitel and calf-sweeping skirts, trading them for the gilded accouterments of corporate success. Her audacity has earned her a following, but it has also drawn ire.
“The show is not called ‘My Fringe Sect Life,’ it is called ‘My Unorthodox Life,’” reads an opinion piece from The Jerusalem Post. Julia “is therefore pointing the accusatory finger at all mainstream Orthodox Jews.”
Others question her motives, speculating that the show was a marketing ploy conceived to pave the way to a planned Elite World Group public offering.
Julia’s style alone has spawned plenty of chatter.
“I know Netflix loves fetishizing ex-Orthodox women who abandon their Judaism,” Chavie Lieber, a reporter for The Business of Fashion, wrote on Twitter, referring to the near prurient fascination spawned by shows like “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox.”
But as she observes: “There are thousands (millions?) of Orthodox women who have a very different story. And yes, some of us work in #fashion too.”
As Julia herself hammers home repeatedly, and somewhat defensively, her issue is not with her faith but with any and all expressions of religious extremism. Reaching for consensus, she aligns herself broadly with the precepts of feminism.
“How many times was I told as a girl, ‘Julia, your dancing, your learning the Talmud, these things are not appropriate,’” she said. “I want to eradicate this whole concept of the well-behaved woman.”
And with it the notion of suitable garb. “We are relying on men to tells us what God wants from us,” she likes to chide. “I want women to choose for themselves.”