Do glamour and high fashion bring freedom? Is wealth the antidote to a sheltered religious existence? For Julia Haart, matriarch of My Unorthodox Life, the answer seems to be a simple and resounding YES. But if you peel back some of its layers, the series actually suggests more complicated answers to these questions.
Ultra-orthodox Judaism has been having a pop-culture moment, and I was initially drawn to MUL for its apparent connection to shows such as Unorthodox and (the especially brilliant) Shtisel — which movingly depict people negotiating ( or leaving) their lives within strict religious communities.
But MUL is nothing like those series. First, because those shows are dramas and this is reality TV—a supposedly unscripted genre, starring real people. And next, paradoxically, because MUL feels so much less real than those other series. Or at least, it feels less human, foregoing deep exploration of emotion or spirituality in favor of a splashy consumerism that resembles a Jewish version of the Kardashians’ franchise. Admittedly, there’s a novel attraction in this—I cannot recall ever seeing overtly Jewish people getting to be as uber-glam, even decadently sexy on TV, as the Haarts. (Mrs. Maisel may dress well, but she’s too wholesome and UWS-secular to figure in such comparisons.)
I consumed My Unorthodox Life in nearly one gulp, hypnotized by the Haart family — refugees from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York, who emigrate to Manhattan for a life of utter fabulosity. The luxury and visual pleasure are off the charts. In MUL, good-looking people frolic in delectable settings: a sky-high Tribeca penthouse, Paris couture shows, private helicopters, and even an actual medieval French castle — which the gang uses as an AirBNB.
That castle felt especially suitable, given the show’s fairy-tale vibe. Yes, MUL relies heavily on that old pop culture stand-by: The Cinderella story — in which a humble woman magically acquires wealth, happiness, a better wardrobe, and of course a prince. (Think My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries, etc.) And as with all such stories, MUL strongly encourages us to believe that such transformation is unequivocally desirable. The series presents the Haart family’s “before” life in Monsey as oppressive, and their “after” life in New York as a grown-up Disneyland.
Fiftyish Julia is the duckling-turned-swan of MUL (to mix fairy tales) who at 43, fled her life as a modestly dressed, sheitel-wearing, Orthodox wife and mother, to morph into a sex-positive, skimpy-couture-wearing, Champagne-sipping, multimillionaire designer and fashion mogul. She’s a foxy and fit brunette who rocks skinny jeans and cat-suits. She dispenses sex advice, gives vibrators as gifts, and can do body rolls in a flash mob. The transformation seems improbable. How did someone with virtually no training, connections, education, or experience beyond her kitchen, become — in under seven years — first, a high-end shoe designer (specializing in “comfortable” six-inch, fuck-me platform stilettos), then artistic director of La Perla, then the CEO of Elite World Group, a vast international modeling and talent agency? MUL offers little explanation, save for the presence of Julia’s second husband, Silvio Scaglia Haart (yes, he took her name) — an Italian billionaire who just happened to own La Perla and oh, just happens also to be co-owner of Elite World Group. Silvio, in other words, is Julia’s fairy godmother (as well as her Prince Charming). It would be great to learn more about their working relationship and how he might have mentored her. Instead, Silvio’s role consists mainly of gazing adoringly at Julia and pouting when she is too busy for the romantic interludes he plans. Silvio then is a cipher, the sexy Italian lover who serves as anti-type to Julia’s unglamorous, observant, first husband (who appears occasionally and seems reasonable and kind, though Julia describes that first marriage as “a prison”).
And in fact, the characters are mainly played as “stock” here — static types with one-note plot lines, rather than fully delineated humans. Younger daughter Miriam seems committed to being Julia’s mini-me — an adventure-seeking, hot-pants-wearing provocatrice — French-kissing her girlfriend in full view of her mother’s business associates. The elder Batsheva is framed as an earlier incarnation of Julia herself–married since the age of 19, and struggling to balance career aspirations with the demands of her more traditional husband. With son Shlomo, a law student, MUL focuses almost entirely on his sex life, or lack thereof. Still a virgin at 24 (pre-marital sex being verboten in Orthodox Judaism) Shlomo is tiptoeing into modern dating, with much prurient cheerleading from Mom (which he tolerates with good-natured stoicism). And while it feels uncomfortable to watch Shlomo’s private religious and sexual struggle used as TV fodder, it’s downright excruciating to witness his younger brother Aron’s situation.
At fourteen, and still living part-time in Monsey (in a shared-custody arrangement), Aron is the family holdout, clinging to strict Orthodox practice, in seeming protest of his mother’s hedonism. His scenes with Julia invert the usual parent-child conflicts: She scolds him for NOT watching television, for not talking to girls, for not listening to secular music. For not “having fun.” With Aron, as with everyone else, Julia’s approach seems to consist of bullying, goading, and manipulating him into behaving “freely,” which means, as she tells him to. He tends to respond with a sweet smile and a murmured restatement of his religious beliefs. When (the utterly winning) Aron declares that, for religious reasons, he’s cut off contact with a female classmate, instead of discussing his motivation, Julia forces the issue by engineering a cringing “chance encounter” between the two teens, shaming her shy, pious, adolescent son into talking to the girl — in full view of the cameras. (To be fair, Aron seems half-grateful to break his vow of silence around girls. In some way, his self-imposed constraints may derive partly from a teenaged need to rebel against his rebellious mother, and Julia seems to understand that.)
Overall though, Julia is a pint-size dynamo with an oversized need to control those around her. She preaches her gospel of money, pleasure, and sex with all the zeal of the convert she is. When Batsheva excitedly describes a business deal she’s pulled off, Julia berates her for not demanding more money. When the crestfallen Batsheva then dutifully tries to extract more money from her client, she loses the deal entirely. When Julia’s colleague, Robert Brotherton (the only non-family regular, and by far the most fully drawn and poignant character), confesses his deep unwillingness to pursue romantic relationships, Julia ambushes him with an on-camera session with an intrusive matchmaker. The normally genial Brotherton storms out of the room. In one extended subplot, the three oldest Haart children come to believe their mother is pitting them against one another to determine who will be granted a coveted job in her agency. In the end, she explains that there was never any competition, but that she’d merely been “testing” their trust in her. The kids accept this explanation with relief, seemingly untroubled — or perhaps just all too familiar — with their mother’s Machiavellian tactics.
Time and again, Julia demonstrates that rather than jettisoning the lifestyle she found so oppressive in Monsey, she has instead incorporated its tactics as her own. She has simply replaced the rules and regulations of Orthodox Judaism with those of high-stakes capitalism, and other commercial regimes, and replaced the head rabbi with … herself. In Julia’s hands, for example, the fashion business feels a lot like another restrictive and demanding religion.
When Shlomo suggests he might buy a Chanel garment in advance, to give to a hoped-for girlfriend sometime in the future, Julia snaps that no woman worth her salt would ever want an outdated item of couture. With this, not only does she again deflate one of her children’s dreams, she proves her utter devotion to the religion of fashion — with its unforgiving dictates and calendar observances. And while Julia may eschew the modest garb of Monsey, how liberating really are the catsuits, hot pants, and un-walkable stilettos she wears and markets now? Don’t both extreme styles of dress regard women’s bodies as hypersexualized objects — requiring either protective cover or ultraracy exposure? (Does anyone else remember the jeweled fishnet “naked” gown Julia designed for Kendall Jenner a few years ago?)
Finally, I can’t help noticing the Trumpian overtones of My Unorthodox Life, with its dynastic family business, wealth porn, ginned-up rivalries, super-sexy women, and a CEO at the helm who seems to mistake corporate success and unreflective indulgence for freedom. In the end, MUL feels less like the tale of a woman’s liberation and more like a cautionary story of the uneasy proximity between the worlds of extreme religion and extreme capitalism.