#MyOrthodoxLife and the Erasure of Mainstream Haredi Women’s Experiences
By Miriam Moster.
Watching My Unorthodox Life on Netflix, a reality tv series that showcases Julia Haart’s successful fashion career as she and her family grapple with leaving the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, there were many things I could relate to, raised as I was in a similar community to the one Haart left behind.1 The Haredi marriage and childbearing norms that the series comments on are norms I was raised with. I dreamed of being married by the time I turned twenty or at the very least engaged by then. Of course, other parts of the reality show felt designed for reality tv or idiosyncratic to the reality stars’ experiences. That’s the nature of the genre. But the outsized response the show elicited took me by surprise. Orthodox women on LinkedIn and social media lambasted the show. In a hashtag campaign, #myorthodoxlife, they posted about their fulfilling lives and successful careers to dispel what they perceived as the myths perpetuated by the reality show. But their campaign is unrepresentative of the lived experiences and ideals of most Haredi women.2
Unlike the #myorthodoxlife hash-taggers, many Haredi women are not on social media, and some have no internet access at all.3 The Haredi voices we are hearing from comprise a self-selected sample of those venturing onto the internet and participating in social media discourse. Many of these women are coming from moderate Orthodox or Modern Orthodox communities, or are using these platforms illicitly from within the Haredi community. In fact, a number of these women have been using LinkedIn as a platform to air their successes because they are not supposed to be on actual social media. In contrast to social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn is a professional network and therefore considered to be acceptable by some who would not entertain joining a social media platform. Campbell, for instance, found that some Haredi women justify their use of the internet when it is used strictly for livelihood (hence the LinkedIn loophole). Similarly, for this reason men are more likely to have smartphones and access to the internet than women – who might be stay-at-home mothers or in professions like teaching that don’t require internet access.4
Another key discrepancy is in the faces of Orthodox women in their social media campaigns compared to the faces (or lack thereof) of Orthodox women in Haredi media. Haredi publications are notorious for refusing to print women’s faces. Contrary to what one might assume viewing the photos Orthodox women are posting of themselves to accompany their vignettes, women’s faces are often scrubbed from Haredi publications while men’s photos are on prominent display. The women sharing their photos in online posts and op-eds would not be able to get that same content published in Haredi print media.
Lieber writes about the way online anonymous blogs lend Haredi women a forum in which they can speak their minds without feeling like they are transgressing against community norms that limit their voices within the Haredi world. Something similar seems to be happening here as Haredi women have found a “Kosher” way to show their faces and showcase their successes through secular media in defense of their community, while similar expressions would not find representation in Haredi media itself.
Additionally, the Haredi system is not designed to encourage women to achieve the kind of successes the women hashtagging #myorthodoxlife flaunt. The ideal most Haredi women aspire to is to marry young and have children immediately.5 As a child, I experienced this socialization first hand. I went to a summer camp where, along with the typical camp cheers and chants, one of our summer camp chants to the division head, who must have been in her late teens/early twenties – let’s call her Adina – was: “Adina Adina Adina Adina, when are you getting married?” In my late teens, I attended a religious seminary where marriage was the subtext of many of our classes, if not the text itself.
This is not to say no Haredi women attend secular universities and achieve great career success – some do — but rather that they do not exemplify the Haredi ideal. For a glimpse into the Haredi worldview, see, for instance, the difference in the way this woman’s story was represented in a NY Times profile vs. in the pages of Mishpacha, a Haredi magazine. From its very title, “Mommy’s in Med School,” as well as throughout the piece, the latter is sure to idealize putting motherhood first, and the mother’s deference to male authorities like husband and Rabbi when deciding to pursue a medical career. In this woman’s case, the males in her life approved, but that is not always the case and the need to defer to male authorities limits women’s agency in cases where a husband and/or rabbi might disapprove of their pursuits.
Additionally, marrying young and having large families, as most Haredi women do, coupled with the well-documented motherhood penalty and cultural particularities that place additional demands on Haredi mothers, make it very difficult for most women who meet the Haredi societal ideal to achieve the career successes they might have achieved under other circumstances.
It is wonderful that there are some privileged Haredi women who are able to pursue graduate degrees and go on to enjoy success in their careers. And Haredi women are fully entitled to share their successes. But they deserve that platform in their own communities, too. There, their stories can help their Haredi sisters who don’t enjoy the privileges they have. And I’m afraid the curated #myorthodoxlife PR campaign on secular platforms hurts that cause, as it mutes the experiences of mainstream Haredi women and undermines calls for change.
Miriam Moster is a doctoral student in sociology at CUNY Graduate Center, a Mellon Humanities Public Fellow and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Her research focuses on Haredi life and the experiences of parents who leave strict religious communities. Alongside her research, Miriam founded Right to Parent, an organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for those parents.
- For more on the experiences of exiters from ultra-Orthodoxy and the challenges they face, see Davidman’s Becoming UnOrthodox and Newfield’s Degrees of Separation.
- See Samuel Heilman’s Defenders of the Faith, chapter 2, “Who are the Haredim?”
- For more on the Haredi stance toward the internet, see Ayala Fader’s article “Ultra-Orthodox Jewish interiority, the Internet, and the crisis of faith.”
- For more on discrepancies in Haredi women’s and men’s attitudes toward internet and smartphones, and the way women were marshalled in Rabbinic efforts to ban internet access, see Ayala Fader’s Hidden Heretics.
- See Michal S. Raucher, Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority Among Haredi Women and Tamar El-Or, Educated and Ignorant: Ultraorthodox Jewish Women and Their World.