With #MyOrthodoxLife, religious women say Netflix doesn’t speak for them
It looked like a pretty ordinary Instagram post: a smiling woman in a trendy periwinkle dress, posed against a background of roses.
But Alex Fleksher, the woman in the picture, was on a mission. She wanted people to know that plenty of women “are leading happy, healthy, and fulfilled Orthodox lives,” she wrote. “I’m a spiritually striving, discerning Orthodox woman who loves the best that this physical world has to offer.” Encouraging her followers to post about their relationships with Orthodox Judaism, she concluded with the hashtag #myorthodoxlife.
Fleksher, a 40-year-old podcaster based in University Heights, Ohio, didn’t elaborate on her reasons for posting. But anyone who’s been on Netflix in the past week could guess that she was referring to “My Unorthodox Life,” a new reality show about a formerly Orthodox fashion designer’s journey away from religious life.
Technically, the show represented one woman’s experience. But many Orthodox women felt it trafficked in demeaning tropes and generalizations. Now, under Fleksher’s hashtag, they’re using social media to tell the public what their Orthodox lives look like.
“I wanted to give a space for women to say, ‘This is misrepresentation,’” Fleksher said.
“My Unorthodox Life” follows Julia Haart, who grew up in Monsey, N.Y. and spent decades as an observant rebbetzin and teacher. After leaving her Orthodox community in 2013, she launched her own shoe line, helmed the lingerie brand La Perla and became CEO of an international modeling agency. Haart found religious life to be repressive and sexist; on the show, she draws a sharp contrast between the restrictions of Orthodoxy and the freedoms she enjoys in the secular world. Reflecting on her background, Haart characterizes the Orthodox community as “fundamentalist” and describes Orthodox women as uniformly oppressed “baby-making machines.”
On social media platforms from Instagram to LinkedIn, stay-at-home moms, influencers and businesswomen are testifying to a different vision of Orthodox life.
“I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, have held a top secret clearance for the National Security Agency and I currently own three pairs of running shoes,” one woman tweeted.
“I’m an Orthodox woman whose husband has never done anything other than push me further — academically, socially, professionally,” another wrote on Facebook.
“Yes, you can be a happily married orthodox woman and also be a medical professional who runs a health coaching practice on her days off while raising a large family,” one Instagram post read.
Yup, I am posting a pic of myself something I rarely do. It’s not that #ProudOrthodoxJewishWomen hide our faces, but rather our looks are so much less important than who we are and what we do. #ThisIsOrthodox pic.twitter.com/H6UXXZmg09
— Sandy Eller (@sandyeller) July 15, 2021
I am an Orthodox woman.
A Chassidish woman.
A partner in a blended family.
A business owner.
A founder of Non for profit organization.
An active member in my community.
My community isn’t perfect. I’d still choose it every day! #myorthodoxlife #thisisfrum pic.twitter.com/YKUg7rDW0h
— Shterny Steinmetz (@ShternySteinme1) July 15, 2021
My patient is watching My Unorthodox Life during chemo and how ironic that her HCP is an Orthodox Jewish doctorate-prepared nurse practitioner who treats her cancer while raising a family, teaching at university & running a non-profit organization.#SoRepressed #myorthodoxlife
— Blimi Marcus (@MarcusBlimi) July 15, 2021
Rifka Harris, 53, a former lawyer from New York City, rarely posts publicly on social media. But after hearing about “My Unorthodox Life,” she took to Facebook to write about the support she received from family members and rabbis on her way to law school, and the educational opportunities her daughters have within their Orthodox schools.
“There is this meta-gatekeeping in the entertainment media, where there’s only one story that gets greenlit,” Harris said. “And it aligns with a lot of people’s pre-existing prejudices about the Orthodox community.”
Rivkie Feiner, 47, a nonprofit consultant based in Rockland County, New York, says she spoke up because the show’s presentation of life in Monsey was so divergent from her own experience. While Haart said she received no secular education in her Orthodox high school, Feiner, who attended the same school a few years later, said she accrued dozens of college credits as a teenager.
“I want to see the successes,” she said. “But that’s not exciting for Netflix.”
Fleksher emphasized that #myorthodoxlife was not intended to whitewash problems within the Orthodox community. “There are a lot of women actively involved in improving the institutions of Orthodoxy,” she said of the campaign’s participants. “These are not people who are saying, “Everything’s perfect, there are no issues, we lead a utopian lifestyle.”
Not everyone agrees. Dainy Bernstein, an academic who grew up in an Orthodox community before leaving as an adult, saw “My Unorthodox Life” as inaccurate and simplistic, but was also skeptical of the backlash. “If the only time #myorthodoxlife crops up is after an ex-Orthodox person has told their story, that’s not saying, ‘Let’s tell both stories,’” Bernstein said. “That’s saying, ‘Let’s shut down all the conversation.’”
— Dr. Dainy Bernstein (@prof_dainy) July 19, 2021
On Instagram, Orthodox journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt (formerly a writer and editor at the Forward) argued that observant communities are at least partially responsible for the lack of nuanced representation. “The problem lies not only with corporations seeking sensationalism — it is also with our inability to foster a creative class that tells honest American frum stories that aren’t PR,” she wrote.
Harris is counting on seeing more of those stories in the future. “I am not benighted, I am not stupid, I am not uneducated,” she said. “Stop saying I am.”