The Unorthodox Choice (@theTable: “Unorthodox Media”)
By Shira Schwartz.
A central theme of My Unorthodox Life, the latest release in the genre of Unorthodox Media, is the presumption, acquisition and staging of “choice,” often paired with its close cousins, “freedom” and “self.” The liberal language of choice is a critical feature not only of OTD media, but of OTD life. (See for example the recent inaugural Yom Habechira, Day of Choice.) The show however, in its hyperbolic representation of OTD “real life,” through the lives of one particularly larger-than-life family success story, gives us a very different image of that “journey.” My Unorthodox Life points out the tensions, limits and contradictions inherent in this hallowed/hollowed language of choice, which promises the myth of a thriving individualism separate from community. As Sam Shuman points out, it is this individualism that Haart seems to be promoting as a kind of feminist praxis and path to success, one that paints her former world as fundamentalist and her new world as free. The suffering that the show highlights is Haart’s suffering-while-Orthodox, deepened and supported by the self-narration of her daughter Miriam. In skipping over much of the suffering of exit itself, the show manages to uplift the secular American world as a savior, and Haart herself as the agent of her own salvation—freedom that she chose by herself. The occlusion of the often prolonged suffering of OTDees in the quick-glamor of Julia’s success story elides not only the suffering created in leaving, but also, in OTD attempts to arrive.
While the hyperbolic Haart-Hendlers have garnered criticism for their representations of OTD and Orthodox life, their larger than life iteration of the reality TV genre blows up some key details and contradictions of both, bringing them into sharper relief. The show has prompted me to articulate a set of questions about the relationship between OTD life and media that have been building since the release of My Unorthodox Life’s older Netflix sibling, Unorthodox, in 2020. Is the OTD path necessarily a path of assimilation? That is, is it possible to leave Orthodoxy without immediately attempting to assimilate into the non-Jewish world? Is there a space between these worlds? And in a period of American Orthodox anxiety about losing its young membership despite apparent growth, and non-Orthodox Jewish anxiety about Jewish continuity and the threats of assimilation, what exactly is the OTDee moving toward, and who does their move threaten?
These questions are intimately tied to a feature of OTD media that I refer to as the goyishe gaze. Like Laura Mulvey’s male gaze, “which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” through the representation of sexual difference in cinema, the goyishe gaze is a perspective of power and desire that directs the way we look at Jews, through the self-conscious presentation and representation of Jewish difference in visual and other forms of media. 1 And what a spectacle we have in OTD reality tv. The goyishe gazer, which we might also call a viewer, occupies a position of social power in relation to expressions and depictions of Jewishness. This elicits a response that fashions Jewishness in the hegemonic image of goyishe desire and orients the audience’s glance to see what it already wants to see. The goyishe gaze is active in shaping OTD media through the desires and expectations of the largely non-Jewish audience to which it is marketed. Indeed, those expectations determine how an OTD story is told, what tropes and narratives are legible to its audience, and what viewers want to see in the images of Jews depicted on their screens; another reason perhaps why this genre hungers for lapsed Ultra Orthodox Jews in particular, a group that is most visibly and distinctively “Jewish-looking” in ways that may align with the goyishe gazer’s expectations.
Like the male gaze, the goyishe gaze is not simply a feature of OTD media, but of OTD life. It is a critical node in the power-web that structures the boundaries of Jewish and non-Jewish worlds and identities, between which OTD life is caught. Because in Real OTD Life (not ™), OTDees are caught between systems of power that shape one another. OTDees who seek to arrive in the non-Jewish world must translate themselves into the terms of a system of power that is responsible for producing the dangers of antisemitism that have prompted Orthodox insularity to begin with. Often enough, these attempts fail because of their incoherence, and because of how truly impossible it is to fully assimilate.
The terms of Jewishness and non-Jewishness are laid out in waiting at the threshold of OTD exit and assimilation. They structure not only the shapes and paths of OTD arrival, but of the backward glance OTDees may cast upon their worlds while exiting, and the images of these worlds that they reflect outward. This goyishe gaze can be seen reflected in the images of “self” into which Julia and her children “re-fashion” themselves, as Sam Shuman puts it. Indeed, one might look at characters like her daughter Miriam incredulously, in her conviction that her new life and identity are somehow her “true” self, free from influence, instead of the cookie-cutter prescriptive set of identity boxes that have been outlined for her to step into by the secular world. These images are fortified not only by the gaze of the show’s future non-Jewish audience, but by the non-Jewish character gazes within the show itself.
In episode 2, “Becoming a Haart,” Miriam’s decision to legally disinherit her father’s family name, Hendler, and adopt her mother’s chosen “freedom name” of Haart, is a key moment of identity construction. While renaming can be an important piece of self-fashioning for some OTDees that I do not intend to minimize, I want to analyze the staging of this change and what it tells us about OTD identity as representation, and as representable. Miriam chooses to align herself with her mother, in what might seem like a nod to matriarchy. Julia’s elation over her daughter’s rebranded kinship is paired with her concern over Miriam’s Orthodox father’s–Julia’s ex-husband’s–response to this “choice.” She coaches her daughter on what to tell him, “That name is synonymous with a world that I wasn’t allowed to…do anything.” In truth, that name is also likely part of an immigrant history of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing antisemitism and surviving in America. It is also an affiliation with her father’s lineage.
The actual moment of revelation is staged as a kind of coming-out scene in Miriam’s Hendler bedroom in Monsey, facilitated by Julia’s gay white non-Jewish assistant Robert, who appears to earnestly coach a struggling Miriam as she is unsure whether she wants to share this change with her father because it will pain him. “Your heart was set on Haart,” he quips. “On the one hand, you don’t want to disappoint your dad, but on the other hand, you have to think about yourself and your future,” Robert urges. He goes on to argue that by virtue of Miriam sharing her “true self” with her father—the self that is not attached to him by name–Miriam is already embodying her stronger self, her Haart. Robert relocates Miriam’s chosen identity for her–in her mother’s chosen name. The entanglement of Miriam’s self-actualization with her mother’s choice exposes how self and choice are produced as “free” despite their blurry boundaries.
Miriam’s ambivalence is packaged for us, and for her, into a narrative that she and we can understand in our contemporary shared American world of identity construction. This is about being a “yes woman” rather than about severing ties with her father’s lineage. Robert’s and Miriam’s queer identities (Miriam identifies as bisexual) are used to construct a recognizable script as an American coming-out story that is supposed to elicit empathy and allyship. We are poised to see her father as a parent who might oppose his child’s individual identity and run to her rescue. In actuality, he is portrayed as nothing but supportive as his daughter reveals that his name represents everything she does not want to be.
The contrast between the set-up and how things play out highlights the falseness of the narrative into which Miriam’s story is fed. Is disidentifying with her father’s name really like coming out? Perhaps in some ways. But there is no doubt that Julia’s own experience of that name and her narrativization of Haart as a freedom name have shaped her daughter’s perception of what this name represents. And there is also no doubt that the Haart name will lead her out of her Hendler-past and into a new lineage of access and privilege that may help her assimilate into the Outside World™—her “future.” These names bear attachments to worlds, identities and kinship, through the conflicting inheritances of Miriam’s two parents: Orthodoxy and (fashion) empire. But it is Robert, her chosen non-Jewish kin, made intimate through the capitalist machine of Julia’s company, who quite literally guides Miriam’s identity deconstruction and reconstruction in terms that are legible to the Outside, playing the role not only of cross-cultural interpreter but of her ultimate Handler.
What fails to be produced in My Unorthodox Life is the deeply authentic self that this Outside World is said to promise, the true self free of the Orthodox self, the self that is uninfluenced by group identity altogether–the Unorthodox Jewish self, authentically free and self-defined in a non-Jewish world. What is not highlighted is the neutralized public, invisible in its hypervisibleness, of which these new selves are necessary products. While this is a critique of the show, and to some extent reflective of the genre, it highlights a more insidious structure of OTD life more generally, which is how much it requires its constituents to buy into the goyishe gaze in order to survive. Indeed, the show highlights just how much there is no “self” without “world,” community or audience. This is why OTD life is so difficult: because contrary to the pristine image of material surfaces that Julia Haart represents, it is actually so very difficult to assimilate into the Outside. And that is because the path to success is a path of integration into somewhere, and that path is not as we might imagine it to be, “free.” We see this for a moment reflected in the one living, breathing, closeted OTDee who is brought onto the show in a somewhat exploitative manner, with little attempt to make visible the risks that this kind of self-exposure may carry for her actual life. The value of bringing in a “real life” closeted OTD human from Monsey to bolster the Haart reality TV image seems to outweigh the risk to this person’s actual life. Support here is a momentary gesture rather than a path to arrival.
What’s missing from Julia’s depiction of OTD life is not what she characterizes as the brutality of living in the Ultra-Orthodox world, but the brutality of the exit because of the impossibility of arrival. What’s missing is the critique of the very gaze that this show is made for, and into whose un-loving arms the Hendler-Haarts move up and into. Indeed, the story of our cultural mediator, played by an adopted non-Jewish gay man, reflects the very same patriarchal violence against women and the lack of choice faced by white non-Jewish women in the United States of America™. The two characters of Julia and Robert are well-paired, in between worlds and structures of family and kinship. But in directional contrast to Julia, Robert’s story climaxes in episode 9, “Extending the Family,” with the culmination of his own quest for identity and likeness, as a kind of mythic return to origin, in his search for the woman who birthed him.
Both Robert and Julia are lifted up as successful examples of choice, and of the possibilities of chosen kin. But differently than Julia who expresses the difficulty of choosing to turn away from a “choiceless” world, Robert represents the difficulty of reconnecting with a path cut off. His departure, like the religious, familial or geographic circumstances of one’s birth, is one that Robert did not choose. Robert’s initial ambivalence with “returning-to-origin” to gather up identity can be compared with Miriam’s ambivalence with returning to Monsey to leave it behind. And yet, the series seems eager to lead Robert backward, presenting the circumstances of his birth as worthy of revisiting and learning from, insofar as his journey continues to uplift the world of choice that was chosen for him as superior.
Similar to Julia’s, Robert’s story fortifies the idea that the shared upper class of Julia and Robert is better and freer than the places that either of them come from. And yet, this “choice” for a “better life” is exposed as the brutal shredding of choice for a young woman, Stacy, who birthed Robert. Stacy’s experience becoming pregnant at a young age with little sexual knowledge resonates unexpectedly with Julia’s Ultra-Orthodox narrative. Stacy’s child and her choice are ultimately stolen from her by her father, as she lies in a hospital room incapacitated, unable to choose. It is Stacy’s suffering that haunts me the most. The contrast in the staging of Robert’s and Miriam’s scenes of parental disconnect, and the discrepancy in the focus on paternal power over daughters in both, is significant. Do viewers recognize the important take-away here, that misogyny and patriarchy are everywhere? Do we see Stacy and Julia, Robert and Miriam, as related? And do we have the tools to undo the hierarchy that is created between them? Or does the goyishe gaze miss itself represented on screen, streaming unfree, down the face of a woman in tears, who was never given the choice to choose?
Shira Schwartz is the Phyllis Backer Professor of Jewish Studies at Syracuse University. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the construction of sex/gender and sexuality through educational institutions in Rabbinic Judaism, American Orthodox and ex/post Orthodox Jewish experiences (OTD), and comparative ex-religion. Her essay, “In Terms of OTD,” appears in Off the Derech: Leaving Orthodox Judaism, and her work is forthcoming in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.
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