Local Orthodox Jews React to ‘My Unorthodox Life’

Jacob Oslick thinks portrayals of Orthodox Jews in popular culture are too often stereotypical. (Courtesy of Jacob Oslick)

The Netflix reality series “My Unorthodox Life” has an entire section on its Wikipedia page devoted to the critical response from the Jewish community.

Among Orthodox Jews in the Philadelphia area, the sentiment about the show, which premiered in July, isn’t much different.

Rabbis and community members alike denounced the series based on the story of Julia Haart, a woman who left her Orthodox community to become a fashion designer, as well as “Unorthodox,” another recent Netflix show starring Israeli actress Shira Haas, about a girl who escapes her Orthodox community. Haas was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and a Primetime Emmy Award for “Unorthodox.”

For the most part, Jews in the local Orthodox communities who spoke with the Exponent didn’t criticize the shows as antisemitic or anti-Orthodox. Rather, they said the shows are superficial and specific to the experiences of the real characters behind their stories, Haart and Deborah Feldman, the woman whose 2012 autobiography, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” inspired “Unorthodox.”

Sensational stories and exaggerated portrayals of communities perceived as rejecting modern values, like liberation and unbounded self-actualization, are more likely to stand out in a crowded content space, according to local Orthodox community members. Shows like these confirm secular values and otherize people who aren’t secular.

“It’s a very sensational story, so they can portray a certain element of Jews as backward, outdated, restricted,” said Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov, the executive director of the Lubavitch of Bucks County. “It just fits their narrative.”

Several local rabbis said they didn’t watch either Netflix show and don’t believe their congregants have, either. Some added that they don’t even watch television.

One rabbi who fits into that group, Yitzchok Leizerowski of Congregation Bais Medrash Harav B’nai Jacob, is nonetheless familiar with the shows and the conversations around them.

Leizerowski said that women like Haart are part of the “miniscule percentage that go off the path of their Orthodox upbringing.”

“Every religious and social group has exceptions,” Leizerowski said. “They do not represent the group.”

The rabbi pointed to a May 2021 Pew report as evidence that the Netflix shows didn’t capture the story of modern Orthodoxy. In the report, Pew found that 17% of Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 identified as Orthodox, a number that rose in the past decade.

“The Orthodox community is not worried about this lady,” said Leizerowski, referring to Haart. “We have been increasing at a faster rate than any Jewish group.”

Gevura Davis, a Bala Cynwyd resident, grew up Reform but transitioned to Orthodox Judaism as an adult. She views the Netflix portrayals as caricatures. But she said the public attraction to the recent slate of shows focusing on the Orthodox world reveals the same conclusion as the Pew report: There’s a growing interest in traditional Judaism.

Davis views the audience’s curiosity as genuine.

“We have to be open and inviting if people are curious about our lifestyle,” she said.

Davis chose to be Orthodox in college about 20 years ago. She married Rabbi Binyomin Davis, and they have five children and run Aish Chaim, a Jewish outreach organization that offers classes, programs, events and trips for Jews to pursue “Jewish living and learning in meaningful ways,” according to its website.

Like Haart, Davis has self-actualized. Unlike Haart, she has done so by choosing to become part of the Orthodox world, not by escaping from it.

Gevura Davis is excited that Netflix viewers are interested in traditional Judaism. (Courtesy of Gevura Davis)

“We’re all trying to live our best lives,” Davis said.

There is, at the very least, one Netflix portrayal that offers a more nuanced window into the Orthodox world, according to Jacob Oslick, a congregant at the Center City synagogue, Mikveh Israel: It’s “Shtisel,” a dramatic series, also on Netflix and now three seasons in, about a Jerusalem family and its traditional community. Haas plays a prominent role in that show, as well.

“It’s more difficult to narrate than to lecture. That’s the difference with ‘Shtisel,’” Oslick said. “They were trying to narrate the lives of the characters, rather than lecture that religion is bad.”

Oslick would still like to see more nuanced depictions of Orthodox communities on television and other streaming platforms, but said too many portrayals — of religion as burdensome and oppressive — are like those of “My Unorthodox Life” and “Unorthodox.”

“They’re catering to an audience that agrees with them,” Oslick added.

Rather than watch, for those who are genuinely interested, Oslick recommends visiting Orthodox communities. And not as tourists or anthropologists.

“But as people seeking to learn.”

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