Tuesday, July 13, 2021
As an Orthodox Jew, I'm always learning something new about myself thanks to the media. I'm a fundamentalist who is insular, backwards, stuck in the past and, of course, because I am a woman, I am oppressed. I am so oppressed I don't even know I'm being oppressed. I can't hear all the horrible things these terrible male Orthodox rabbis are saying to me beneath my head covering.
I'll have another opportunity to educate myself when "My Unorthodox Life" premieres on Netflix this month. This show is about a 40-something woman, Julia Haart, who lived in an Orthodox community and decided to stop being religious. As we say in our community, she "went off the derech," or "went off the path." Now, she is a successful CEO who is the star of a new Kardashian-esque reality show. In the trailer, she says, "It takes time to deprogram yourself."
Media outlets are reporting that the show "takes a strong stance against fundamentalism" and they're praising her for "escaping" the grasp of her ultra-Orthodox community in Monsey, New York.
This is a story we've heard over and over again. A person grows up in an Orthodox community, they claim the community treats them so badly that they have to leave, and then they write a tell-all memoir that bashes everyone they used to know. If they're lucky, they'll get to appear in a documentary or get a show on Netflix. Usually, the word "unorthodox" is involved.
If there is one thing I want readers to take away from this article, it's this: Stop using the word "unorthodox" when you go off the derech. Pick a new word. We get it!
In all seriousness, most of these stories involve individuals that either have some type of mental illness, were abused by their families, had spouses who didn't understand them, etc. Somehow, though, the Orthodox lifestyle and/or community are to blame for all their troubles. And when they bring up shocking stories about their communities, nobody bothers to look into them to see if they are true. Everything is taken as truth, when much of it has actually been debunked. The Orthodox perspective is almost never taken into account.
These salacious stories are actively making people hate Jews. And Orthodox Jews usually don't speak up because they are too busy living their lives and not paying attention to what the media has to say. If they do take a stance, mainstream publications typically won't publish their responses. The media doesn't want to hear it. And so we just get pummeled over and over again.
Of course, there are people who have legitimate grievances with their Orthodox community and they feel the need to be true to themselves and leave. I am not talking about those people. As a community we are, like every other community, far from perfect; we are comprised of flawed human beings. Still, I can't help but notice what seems to be a distressing media obsession with us.
So who am I to say all this? Well, I had the typical secular American life growing up. I wasn't born a Jew; my background is English, Irish, Scottish and German. After meeting my Jewish husband, I learned about Judaism, and specifically Orthodox Judaism. We went to beautiful Friday night dinners at our local Chabad House, which is run by Lubavitch Jews, a sect of Hasidim that mostly live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I thought the long-bearded rabbi in a black hat was going to dislike me because I have blonde hair and blue eyes and I was clearly not born Jewish. I was wrong. He and his family welcomed me in and made me feel like a part of the community right away.
I had never experienced such warmth. Once I began studying the Torah and going to an Orthodox synagogue, I began a five-year conversion journey. At the end of it, I converted through an Orthodox beit din (a Jewish court of law consisting of three rabbis) and today, I observe Shabbat, keep kosher, pray every day, cover my hair, and send my child to an Orthodox school.
What astounds me is the difference between what the media reports and what I've experienced in my life. Orthodox Jews are some of the friendliest people I've met. And, yes, even the "ultra-Orthodox" ones are nice. My husband and I used to live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and buy our food at the Satmar Hasidic grocery stores, and they were lovely, too. One time we were in a rush to shop for food before Shabbat and a Hasidic man offered us a ride to the store. Because of him, we made it there in time. I couldn't believe he would let random strangers into his car, especially when we weren't Hasidic. But he did.
When I gave birth to our daughter, our Orthodox community here in Los Angeles organized a meal train for us. We ate a homemade dinner every night for a month. Sometimes, we got food from people who didn't even know us. They simply heard that someone had a baby and they wanted to help out.
I could provide countless examples of how wonderful Orthodox Jews are, but when it comes to Netflix, the media and the publishing houses, that's not what sells.
When "My Unorthodox Life" comes out, I anticipate it'll get a lot of praise. Reviewers will say the star of it is bold and brave, and they will continue to bash Orthodox Jews.
While it may be easier to sit back and angrily read these headlines or try to ignore them, I encourage my fellow Orthodox Jews to push back against these harmful, degrading stereotypes. They are hurting us more than we think. Yes, ultimately, God is there for us, and he will protect us and sort everything out in the end. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't let our voices be heard.
It's time to stop hiding and to show the world who we really are. No one else is going to; that's for sure.
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