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Interview'This isn't about Judaism. My issue is with fundamentalism'

From frum to fashion week: Julia Haart’s ‘Unorthodox’ journey burns up Netflix

With her new reality series ‘My Unorthodox Life’ making waves around the world, the born-again style mogul wants viewers to know that she still feels deeply connected to Judaism

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

  • Julia Haart conducts a work meeting. (Courtesy Netflix)
    Julia Haart conducts a work meeting. (Courtesy Netflix)
  • Miriam Haart, Batsheva Weinstein and Binyamin “Ben” Weinstein lounge by the pool in the Hamptons. (Courtesy Netflix)
    Miriam Haart, Batsheva Weinstein and Binyamin “Ben” Weinstein lounge by the pool in the Hamptons. (Courtesy Netflix)
  • Miriam Haart and Julia Haart in her expansive Manhattan closet. (Courtesy Netflix)
    Miriam Haart and Julia Haart in her expansive Manhattan closet. (Courtesy Netflix)
  • Julia Haart and her youngest son, Aron Hendler. (Courtesy Netflix)
    Julia Haart and her youngest son, Aron Hendler. (Courtesy Netflix)
  • Julia Haart with her children Batsheva, Miriam and Shlomo in Atlanta in 2002. (Courtesy Elite World Group)
    Julia Haart with her children Batsheva, Miriam and Shlomo in Atlanta in 2002. (Courtesy Elite World Group)

“Julia Haart” was born at age 42. After more than two decades as Talia Hendler, the pint-sized powerhouse walked away from her marriage and her strict Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, New York, and reinvented herself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of fashion.

Now the Moscow-born style guru is telling her story in a new Netflix show, “My Unorthodox Life,” which premiered globally on July 14.

“When I first left, I didn’t really talk about my past,” Haart told The Times of Israel via telephone on the day of the show’s premiere. “I didn’t want people to know about where I came from, and my crazy story.”

But more than seven years after leaving her former existence behind, Haart felt ready to open up her past — to millions of viewers around the globe.

“I realized that even though my experience may not be typical, there are so many women in so many situations who have been told that they’re less-than, or have been made to feel small, or been told that they don’t have the right, or the capability to go out and work or be on their own and be independent,” she said. “And I realized that I have a responsibility here… it’s a story that I need to tell.”

Julia Haart conducts a work meeting. (Courtesy Netflix)

Against the odds, Haart launched her own shoe line months after leaving the community. She eventually parlayed that into a job at the La Perla lingerie brand, where she met her second husband, its then-owner, Italian billionaire Silvio Scaglia. Today Haart and Scaglia co-own Elite World Group, and she serves as CEO of the multinational modeling and talent agency.

Brash, blunt and with a newfound penchant for wearing revealing clothing and sky-high stilettos, Haart is a force both on and off-screen. And as the show gains traction and attention — as well as a wave of criticism from some Orthodox Jews — Haart maintains that she still has a profound love and respect for Orthodox Judaism.

“I have religious children, I have a kosher kitchen, I have a kosher pizza oven. This is not a woman who has anger in her heart,” she said. “I want women to have everything, I want them to know how incredible they are and what they’re capable of.”

In many ways, the real heart of the show lies with Julia’s four children, who are each navigating their own path in the wake of their mother’s decisions, and vary in their levels of observance.

Batsheva, now 27, married her husband Binyamin at the age 19, just weeks before her mother’s dramatic upheaval. The couple remains observant, but have drifted toward a more modern approach. Shlomo, now 25, still observes Shabbat but feels conflicted about certain aspects of religion. Miriam, 21, has followed her mother’s path toward completely leaving religious observance behind, and is exploring her sexuality and her newfound freedom. And Aron, just 15, who splits his time between Manhattan with his mother and Monsey with his father, is committed to maintaining his strict religious lifestyle — and chafes at others’ efforts to persuade him otherwise.

“As my kids progressed, I became less and less religious,” Haart said. “So the Talia [who is mother to] Batsheva and Shlomo was not the same Talia as [the one who was mother to] Miriam and Aron.”

Miriam Haart, Batsheva Weinstein and Binyamin ‘Ben’ Weinstein lounge by the pool in the Hamptons. (Courtesy Netflix)

Haart said it took her several years before she made the decision to completely walk away from her marriage and her religious observance.

“It’s not like one morning I woke up and I was wearing my sheitel [wig] and my stockings and I walked out the door,” she said. “It was a very gradual process. I started educating myself and learning about the outside world… so their experience was a little different than mine,” she said, because as they got older, she loosened up.

Refreshingly, the show refuses to cast Julia’s ex-husband, Yosef Hendler, as the villain, and he even appears on camera a handful of times.

“He’s a lovely, kind, good man,” Haart said. “The misery I had in my marriage, I realize now… didn’t even have anything to do with him.”

“My Unorthodox Life” is about as real and authentic as most reality TV shows of this genre — which is to say, not at all. Conversations are staged and scripted, scenarios are manufactured and “characters” are cast alongside the family members. And yet the show is, without a doubt, wildly entertaining.

‘My Unorthodox Life’ is about as real and authentic as most reality TV shows of this genre — which is to say, not at all

For the vast majority of Netflix’s more than 200 million subscribers unfamiliar with the religious Jewish world, terms like “frum,” “tzitzis,” “tznius” and “rebbetzin” (“religiously observant,” “ritual fringes,” “modesty” and “rabbi’s wife”) pop up on the screen with glossary-like explanations.

But those more connected to the observant world will get a kick out of Julia shopping in the sprawling Evergreen kosher supermarket in Monsey, dining at Mocha Bleu in Teaneck, New Jersey, or trying to explain the concept of “shells,” the tight undershirts worn by many religious women to cover up skin otherwise exposed by certain clothing.

Julia Haart with her children Batsheva, Miriam and Shlomo in Atlanta in 2002. (Courtesy Elite World Group)

While the entire family’s religious journeys are a central part of the show, it’s also about their transition from an average middle-class existence to one dominated by helicopters, the Hamptons and household staff. The family’s Tribeca penthouse was one of the highest price-tag sales in the neighborhood, and they rent a 12th-century castle when they travel to France for a combination of Paris Fashion Week and the Jewish Sukkot holiday.

Varying accounts from the different members of the Hendler/Haart family paint a picture of fluctuating levels of their past observance. The self-described “yeshivishe heimishe” community they belong to in Monsey is generally not as cut off from the outside world as the Satmar Hasidic sect portrayed in the Netflix drama “Unorthodox.” Haart worked as a teacher in a co-ed school and later secretly as an insurance agent, and the family also lived for a period in Atlanta.

Haart, born Talia Leibov, is the oldest of eight siblings. Only one — Chana, who appears in the show — continues to speak to her after her exit from the community, and her parents have also cut off contact, Haart said.

“I just have hope,” she said. “I keep on sending out love, and one day I’ll get some back.”

I keep on sending out love, and one day I’ll get some back

And Haart says she has some reason to be hopeful, as her ex-husband has moved toward a more moderate approach to religion, and her son, Aron, now attends the Frisch School, a co-ed modern Orthodox Jewish day school in New Jersey that emphasizes a strong secular education alongside religious studies.

“His school is wonderful, I love it, I love the rabbis, they’ve been incredibly positive and supportive” about the show, Haart said. “That’s Modern Orthodoxy.”

Miriam Haart and Julia Haart in her expansive Manhattan closet. (Courtesy Netflix)

Unsurprisingly, criticism of the show has abounded in some circles, in particular from Orthodox women who argue that their religious observance has not held them back from following their dreams. Many have told their own stories under the Instagram hashtag “My Orthodox Life,” including Beatie Deutsch, a marathon runner and Orthodox mother of five.

“Like Julia, I come from a warm, loving Orthodox community. I’m a proud mother of five, but I’ve been able to pursue a career that is rewarding and meaningful to me,” writes Deutsch, who notes that Netflix turned down an opportunity to board a film about her life story. “Netflix will probably never share my story because I’m not controversial or scandalous enough. Because I’m happy and proud of the life I live… But I’ll keep showing up here and sharing my stories, my authentic voice as a deeply proud and committed Orthodox Jewish woman, mother, athlete and representative of Israel.”

Haart maintains that her problem is not with Judaism, but with the extremism and misogyny that attempts to control women’s lives and their career paths.

“I think Shabbos is beautiful, and Yom Tov, if you want to keep kosher — why not?” she said, using the Hebrew words for the Sabbath, holidays, and strict dietary laws. “I have zero against Yiddishkeit [Judaism]. I think Jews are amazing. I love being Jewish, I’ve been the victim of antisemitism myself many times.”

Restrictions on women “doesn’t just exist in Judaism, it exists in any fundamental culture… this isn’t about Judaism,” she said. “My issue is with fundamentalism, period.”

Haart, who says she considers herself “a spiritual woman, I believe in God,” still has positive associations with her former life. When she was younger, her 5-year-old brother was killed in a car accident, and the Jewish community’s response was overwhelming.

“The way the community came together and supported us and took care of us — there is so much loving-kindness and charity, gratitude, appreciation, I learned so many beautiful things,” she said. “I love the beautiful concepts and precepts I learned in my community: caring, kindness, taking care of one another.”

Julia and Yosef Hendler on vacation in the Colorado Rockies during their first year of marriage. (Courtesy Elite World Group)

And with the enormous reach of a platform like Netflix, Haart is humbled at the thought of being beamed into the homes of millions of people around the world. She says she has received hundreds of messages from people who were inspired by her journey.

“People have unorthodox parts of their lives, people have suffered, people who have been marginalized or told that they’re less-than or that what they think they should be is bad,” she said.

What she wants viewers, especially those less familiar with Jewish life, to take away from the show is an understanding of the wide spectrum of Jewish identity.

“I hope what they take away from this is to see that there are all types of Jews,” she said. “You’ve got people like me and Miriam, who are extremely, you know, feminist, out there, trailblazing our way. Then you have Batsheva, who is a religious Jew, who also trailblazes in her way. And you have Aron, who is even a more religious Jew.”

At the end of the day, she says, “I hope what people take away from that is that Jews are just like everyone else. There’s different kinds of Jews, we have different belief systems, and we’re human, we bleed.”

“There’s no anger here. There’s just a desire to give women everything,” said Haart.

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