@theTable: “Unorthodox Media”
By Shira Schwartz.
This collection includes a number of responses by Jewish studies scholars to Netflix’s reality show My Unorthodox Life, released in June 2021. When I first conceived of this collection, I wanted to highlight the significance of this latest release in ex/post Orthodox Jewish media, which, as a hyperbolic reality television series, may appear to some to be the least serious of the genre. Referred to as Off the Derech (OTD), meaning “off the path,” the genre is often described colloquially as OTD media, a term based on the Orthodox-coined descriptor for those who veer from Orthodox Jewish life. But taking our cue from Netflix’s presentation of its most recent consecutive releases in the genre, including its earlier 2020 Unorthodox, we might also refer to the genre as Unorthodox Media. In introducing this collection, I want to suggest that what we call the genre has an important role in exposing whose gaze is directing us in making assessments of significance.
OTD media highlights the lives of formerly Orthodox–typically Ultra Orthodox–Jews. And yet, the production of these stories frequently relies on and caters to a majority non-Jewish audience–the public and world into which OTDees are trying to integrate, both in their real lives and through their stories. While this form of media can be an occasion for OTDees to share their stories, the context for doing so is heavily shaped by the gaze of an outside audience that is drawn in by the scandal and contrast of Orthodox and OTD lives in comparison to their own. Referring to this genre as Unorthodox Media highlights the sensationalization of OTDees (those who have gone “off the path”) as “unorthodox” through their break from tradition, and the role of the non-and-never Orthodox viewer—the real Unorthodox—in shaping this representation. What we call this genre, and the difficulty in settling on a precise term, is to some extent a reflection of the larger tensions among OTDees on how to self-identify, and whether or not to accept this Orthodox framing of their lives. But it also reflects the power of intersecting gazes that comprise this audience, that is, the viewers of media produced about OTD lives. What is important to understand about OTD lives is how they gather together and expose the intercultural web that is American Orthodox Jewish life, and how much that life and its exit paths are structured through the American non-Jewish world, its ultimate Outside.
Presented as a kind of feminist escape of fundamentalist American religion, the reality show highlights, as Dory Fox puts it, the “rags to riches” rise of Julia Haart, a formerly Ultra Orthodox American Jewish woman immigrant turned international secular fashion mogul. The series, like the OTD subject position, presents viewers with a complex intersection of forming and unforming identities that cross ethno-religious and secular worlds, and the structures of gender, sexuality and power that they produce. At times these differences are flattened into serving a neoliberal universalized non-Jewish world, deemed “the secular,” and its reductive representation of “feminism.” But if we add clarity and detail to what’s been blurred in the frame, the certainty and resoluteness of the series’ framing begins to lose its grip. Is religious feminism necessarily ex-religious? How does the language of fundamentalism that is invoked here by Haart herself shape expectations and responses to Orthodox Jewish life and its exit? How can we understand disputes in representation among Orthodox and OTD women? And how do we grapple with intersecting forms of Jewish and non-Jewish power and identity that are both incommensurable and constitutive?
The series captures the fissures and perforations of worlds that might otherwise be considered separate. In perpetuating the description of her changed lifestyle as a kind of leaving, or, an “escape,” Julia Haart gives the impression that these worlds are wholly distinct. And yet, from the images we get of the Haart-Hendler family, we come to see that their multiple worlds are more porous and determinate of one another than we otherwise might have thought. Similarly, as Orthodox Jewish, non-Orthodox Jewish and non-Jewish viewers flocked to watch this show, it has brought together a nexus of worlds through its viewers. It has given the Outside World™ a blown-up peephole, as Naomi Seidman argues, into the world of Orthodox Jews, through the big and public lives of one family who left, and continues to leave, at varying speeds. As Sam Shuman highlights, the show has garnered criticism from Orthodox viewers, claiming misrepresentation. Indeed, the optic angle through which we peer into this world is already disfigured and blurred by the wealth, opulence and larger than life excess of its protagonists. But, as Miram Moster has both reflected and demonstrated, some OTDees argue back, that the Orthodox Life rebuttal of My Unorthodox Life is itself another kind of distortion and disavowal. And so the rabbit peep-hole continues, astigmatisms all the way down. Whose life is really at risk? And whose lives get blurred out in the process of achieving visibility? It is a question of framing and editing, choices perhaps made in production and post-production. But as we engage in the discourse that emerges from My Unorthodox Life, let’s widen the scope of our question and ask it not only about this piece of media, but of the wider genre and the lives from which it emerges. Because it is not only a question of representation in media, but of the production of American identity, and its representation in everyday life. Where do OTDees fit in the contemporary world of American identity and its politics? If politicized identity is the solidification of self with a group, what to make of OTDees who are exiting their group and breaking with an identity?
The reviews and responses gathered here reflect different perspectives, disciplinary orientations, and subject positions vis a vis the American Orthodox Jewish world and its viewers. Together, they highlight a number of critical ways that one might respond to this show and argue for why this series, which seems to be the least serious of the genre, is an important piece of Orthodox Jewish, OTD, and American popular cultures.
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.
Our “Unorthodox Media” @theTable authors (in order of publication):
Monday: Shira Schwartz, “Introduction: Unorthodox Media“
Tuesday: Shira Schwartz, “The Unorthodox Choice”
Wednesday: Sam Shuman, “Feminism as Capitalism’s Handmaiden in My Unorthodox Life”
Thursday: Dory Fox, “My So-Called Unorthodox Life“
Friday: Open Call for Blogs (CFB)
Responses: Shoshana Olidort, “Where Have All the Women Gone?“
To view other blogs on FSR’s platform that discuss “My Unorthodox Life,” click here.