Early in â€œMy Unorthodox Life,â€ the Netflix reality series about Julia Haart, the fashion executive who turned her back on her strict religious upbringing for the high life in Manhattan, Batsheva, her elder daughter, strolls onto the set in a trim pair of jeans.
â€œWhat are you wearing?â€ Batshevaâ€™s husband, Ben, asks dourly. â€œI got used to you not covering your hair. But pants?â€
She has upended not just his sense of decorum but a stringent, and oft-misunderstood, dress code dating from biblical times. Ben, who has been slower to abandon the traditions of his Orthodox upbringing, pleads for time to process her choice. Plainly, she is not having it.
â€œThe idea that a woman can wear short skirts but not pants â€” itâ€™s really just a mind-set that youâ€™re brought up with,â€ Batsheva said the other day. â€œI thought it was time to deprogram that thought.â€
Such debates over fashion are central to a show in which fashion, along with the splashier totems of secularism â€” the TriBeCa penthouse, the helicopter jaunts to the Hamptons â€” is itself a protagonist. It is also a flash point around which family tensions revolve.
Those tensions are largely inflamed by Julia, the 50-year-old family matriarch and resident firebrand, who rejected the strictures of her Orthodox community in Monsey, N.Y., for a fairy-tale hybrid of â€œJersey Shoreâ€ and â€œLifestyles of the Rich and Famous.â€
An irrepressible mix of ambition, entitlement and caustic indignation, she spends much of her time in the series railing against her cultureâ€™s restrictive mores and, in particular, its insistence on a version of modesty that prohibits showing oneâ€™s collarbone, knees and elbows.
Waging philosophical war on the community she fled, she gives rein to a fiercely evangelical bent of her own. â€œThe idea that women should cover, that they are responsible for menâ€™s impulses and impure thoughts, thatâ€™s pure fundamentalism,â€ Ms. Haart said in an interview. â€œIt has nothing to do with Judaism.â€
Fashion, she insists, has been a liberating force in her life, the most visible and immediately accessible badge of her unfettered self-expression.
On the show she exults in pushing boundaries, flaunting generous expanses of what her daughters would call â€œboobageâ€ and greeting visitors in metallic leather hot pants and thigh-high skirts.
More provocatively, she throws on a tailored romper for an impromptu visit to Monsey. â€œYouâ€™re getting some looks,â€ her friend and colleague Robert Brotherton murmurs as she negotiates the aisles of her hometown supermarket. But Julia is unmoved.
She is more inclined to preach the gospel of self-fulfillment than to discuss the high-end labels she favors. But even in the bedroom, it would seem, her own initials arenâ€™t enough, her pajamas boldly stamped with fancy Vuitton monograms. She flaunts chili-pepper-colored trousers and a star-spangled top on the show, proclaiming, â€œTo me every low-cut top, every miniskirt is an emblem of freedom.â€
Ms. Haartâ€™s relentless sermonizing can seem abrasive at times. â€œThe way she talks about freedom reminds me of someone who is very resentful of all the rules,â€ said Amy Klein, who alluded to her own abandonment of religious orthodoxy in an article on Kveller, a website focused on Jewish culture and motherhood.
Was she acting out of davka? â€œThatâ€™s Yiddish for â€˜spite,â€™â€ Ms. Klein said. â€œThe idea is you should dress provocatively so that it really feels like youâ€™re rebelling.â€
No question, Ms. Haartâ€™s journey was filled with trepidation, as will likely be detailed in her forthcoming memoir, â€œBrazen: My Unorthodox Journey From Long Sleeves to Lingerie.â€ After leaving her husband, Yosef Hendler, who is portrayed sympathetically on the show, â€œI was sleeping with other men but still wearing my wig,â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s the level of fear I had. To me, taking my sheitel off meant God was going to kill me and I would go to hell.â€
She confronted her fears in baby steps, first selling insurance to save enough money to leave Monsey and eventually designing a line of killer heels not unlike the six-inch platform stilettos she wears on the show. â€œShow me a law that says I cannot wear high-heeled shoes,â€ she taunts.
Or for that matter, the flashy togs that are part of the line she created for Elite World Group, the modeling and talent conglomerate she owns with her husband, Silvio Scaglia Haart, a collection replete with mock croc candy-pink jackets, emerald-sequined jumpsuits and the glittery like.
Her daughters tend to take their style cues from mom. Miriam, 20, a student at Stanford, favors vivid tartan strapless tops, hot pink puffer coats and skinny tanks. Batsheva, 28, adopts a cottage-core-inflected look, all fluffy skirts and puffy sleeves, with an occasional, if not overtly racy, display of cleavage.
Partial to labels including Valentino, Fendi and Dior, she shows off her caviar tastes on the series, as well as on Instagram and TikTok. Very much her motherâ€™s daughter, she favors vivid prints and color: searing coral, sweet lilac and hibiscus. Like her mother, she has come a long way.
Ms. Haart attended the Bais Yaakov seminary in Monsey, where she raised eyebrows when she wore a red dress. â€œSomeone complained and I was called into the rabbiâ€™s office,â€ she recalled. â€œHe told me: â€˜You have to stop wearing color. Itâ€™s not appropriate. Youâ€™re attracting attention.â€™ But where in the Bible does it say you canâ€™t wear color?â€
â€œModesty is not mentioned in the scriptures,â€ said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. â€œThose rabbinical interpretations of modesty were retrojected into the biblical texts over time.â€
Deeply rooted in the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish law and tradition, those interpretations, Dr. Sarna said, were based largely on the supposition that the sight of a woman, and even her voice, is arousing for men.
Historically, the call to modesty was by no means uniformly or universally heeded. â€œA considerable degree of divergence was to be found in the social norms in this realm, which were significantly influenced by social, economic and geographic differences,â€ Yosef Ahituv observes in The Jewish Womenâ€™s Archive.
Men, it should be noted, were hardly exempt from the rules. Boys were expected to turn up at school in an unvarying uniform of black pants and white shirts buttoned to the neck, Ben recalled. â€œThat way they wouldnâ€™t be distracted from their studies.â€
And yet, Dr. Sarna points out, â€œThe paradox of modesty is that its obligations fall mainly on women.â€
Because standards rarely were codified, it was often left to schools to enforce regulations, including the edict to cover oneâ€™s knees. Dr. Sarna can still remember a time when teachers measured girlsâ€™ skirts to determine how many inches they were above the knee. â€œSarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel also were modest,â€ he said. â€œBut I have doubts as to whether anybody was measuring skirts in those earlier days.â€
Ms. Haart chafed under similar restrictions and ultimately ditched them along with her sheitel and calf-sweeping skirts, trading them for the gilded accouterments of corporate success. Her audacity has earned her a following, but it has also drawn ire.
â€œThe show is not called â€˜My Fringe Sect Life,â€™ it is called â€˜My Unorthodox Life,â€™â€ reads an opinion piece from The Jerusalem Post. Julia â€œis therefore pointing the accusatory finger at all mainstream Orthodox Jews.â€
Others question her motives, speculating that the show was a marketing ploy conceived to pave the way to a planned Elite World Group public offering.
Juliaâ€™s style alone has spawned plenty of chatter.
â€œI know Netflix loves fetishizing ex-Orthodox women who abandon their Judaism,â€ Chavie Lieber, a reporter for The Business of Fashion, wrote on Twitter, referring to the near prurient fascination spawned by shows like â€œShtiselâ€ and â€œUnorthodox.â€
But as she observes: â€œThere are thousands (millions?) of Orthodox women who have a very different story. And yes, some of us work in #fashion too.â€
As Julia herself hammers home repeatedly, and somewhat defensively, her issue is not with her faith but with any and all expressions of religious extremism. Reaching for consensus, she aligns herself broadly with the precepts of feminism.
â€œHow many times was I told as a girl, â€˜Julia, your dancing, your learning the Talmud, these things are not appropriate,â€™â€ she said. â€œI want to eradicate this whole concept of the well-behaved woman.â€
And with it the notion of suitable garb. â€œWe are relying on men to tells us what God wants from us,â€ she likes to chide. â€œI want women to choose for themselves.â€