(RNS) — There’s a whole genre of stories about leaving a narrow-minded religious community. Just a few years ago, Tara Westover’s best-selling book, “Educated,” recounted her escape from her fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho.
The Jewish world has also seen a spate of stories about leaving the various strands of the world of Orthodox religion. In 2012, there was Deborah Feldman’s memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” which went on to become a Netflix miniseries. In 2017, Tova Mirvis published “The Book of Separation,” in which she wrote about leaving her marriage and her modern Orthodox faith. That’s just a few.
Julia Haart’s new memoir, “Brazen,” is her latest and perhaps most hyped. Haart’s rejection of his Jewish Haredi enclave and his meteoric rise to the world of elite fashion is captured in part in the Netflix reality TV show, “My Unorthodox Life.”
In her new book, she provides an in-depth explanation of the prohibitions imposed on women in her religious world: They are forbidden to wear shorts or short sleeves and, after marriage, are required to cover their hair. They were forbidden to study certain Jewish texts, to sing alone in front of men or dance in front of them, so as not to distract men from the values of the Torah. The list goes on.
Haart writes about her arranged marriage with a man she barely knows and her growing frustration with her limited life where her only professional choice is teaching other girls, and her main goal in life is to become a “baby making machine”.
The birth of his third child, Miriam, who challenged his parents about why he couldn’t play soccer or sing in public, eventually strengthened Haart’s desire to run away. She gradually left her community in Monsey, New York, starting in 2012, starting a women’s shoe brand and eventually becoming creative director of lingerie brand La Perla. Her journey includes many sexually explicit adventures and exciting glamorous adventures.
“Brazen” ended there, but as viewers of the Netflix reality TV show know, he ended up marrying Swiss businessman Silvio Scaglia and becoming co-owners with him in the Elite World Group. The two are now embroiled in a nasty divorce after he fired her from EWG.
RNS spoke to Haart, born in Russia as Yulia Leibov, about her book, her lifelong feelings as an outsider and her plans for the future.
You were not born into this community but came into it as a girl. Did that help you leave it too?
I think it really helps. Even though I was very young and that is something I should be ashamed of, I experienced modern life to some degree. Forty years later when I return to (the modern world), there’s still that feeling, ‘Yeah, that’s Mars. Yes, it’s a world I know nothing about, but I’ve lived in it once.’
You are a very accomplished teacher. Do you end up feeling at odds with the kind of advice you gave high school girls about their future roles as wives and mothers?
When I teach, I believe in everything, hook, line and sinker. I don’t think the law is wrong. I don’t think that a woman who has to submit to her husband is wrong. I think I was wrong for not agreeing with that. Even though I was becoming more and more miserable, I think it made me a bad human being who could not be loved by God. It wasn’t until Miriam was a child that I stopped teaching and realized it wasn’t me; it is the system. Since then, I have never taught. Even when I left 13 years later, my original plan was to remain religious. I want to be a Modern Orthodox Jew. It never occurred to me that I would not be a fundamentalist anymore. Even when I was gone, I was still completely religious.
So what made you finally leave it all behind?
As soon as I got out, I started reading different kinds of literature and meeting people. And I realized they were all the same. The same thing that torments me in my world has nothing to do with Judaism. They are not authentic to Judaism. The same rule exists in fundamentalist Islam, in fundamentalist Christianity, in fundamentalist Mormonism. When it comes to extreme versions of any religion, the rules are the same. Women should be submissive and submissive to their husbands, they should be self-covering and humble. The people I first became friends with when I left were women from the community like me. We all speak the same language. The more I looked at the world around me, the more I realized that what I had been taught was a lie. That’s how I became irreligious.
But you wrote that you still believe in God.
Oh yeah, to be honest today I feel more spiritually connected to God than I have ever been in my life. My old world god was a furious God who hated me because I wasn’t quiet. I’m not polite. I’m not ashamed. I talk back. I asked a question. I taught myself Aramaic so I could learn Gemara (the Talmudic component). I did all the things my world thought God hated. It was only after I left that I felt God’s love. The rest of my life has been a series of miracles. I felt God’s hand on my shoulder with every step.
So how do you imagine God today?
First of all, that’s him. The God I believe in is the God who gave humanity a certain moral code that has withstood the test of time: kindness, charity, gratitude, love, community. Those are things that I think have the inherent truth of what Judaism is.
You wrote that you always felt like an outsider. You use the Yiddish phrase, “Nisht ahin; Here aher.” Not here or there. Do you still feel like an outsider in the secular world too?
I will always feel that way. I’m weird. Look at my past. I’m always the weird one. I didn’t go to the prom. I didn’t have my first love as a teenager. I don’t do anything normal people do. I’ve dated five men in my life. It’s very small. Two years ago, I was invited by Kering, the group that owns Gucci and Bottega, to watch a screening of ‘Thelma and Louise’ with Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis. Everyone was chatting and talking because they had seen it before. I was busy silencing everyone because I had never seen one before. The things people experience from 11 to 17, I experience from 43 to 51. I’ve always been a freak.
In one interview, you said that you are interested in helping women who are fleeing abuse gain financial independence. Is it something you want to devote your life to?
Very. I have met a group of people. I’m just waiting to get my money back. The plan is already in progress. I am a very determined person. Once I decide to do something, I will do it. Now, of course, I’m involved in some other stuff, so I’ll have to wait. But in the meantime, I organize so that when the time comes I can just leave.
Are you planning to continue working in the fashion world?
I have 17 things that I do simultaneously. I have my brand of shapewear coming to every multi-brand store this Christmas. I made the first shapewear that looks non-shapewear. This is the nicest and most beautiful shapewear ever made. Every shop has bought it. We are very excited about it. I have a few other things going on. But I can’t announce it yet.
Now that you live in the secular world, is there a part that you dislike or criticize?
How much time do we have? I think women are still treated badly. There is still a double standard. Women are still taught to be polite and obedient. When my daughter won her first hackathon at the age of 16 and went up for her award, the professor asked which man helped her. I saw tremendous injustice between men and women. I see a total double standard. When a man travels for work, he is a good provider. When a woman travels for work, she is a bad mother. Double standards are outrageous. We still have a long way to go. But I’m alive. I have a voice. I make. I work. I can show people what’s in my heart. The greatest freedom of all is being able to work. What I’m missing isn’t parties or clubs, it shows what’s inside of me. Working. This is everything. It keeps me alive. I love this world. It’s not perfect. But it’s much better than the world I came from.
The Netflix series has been criticized for distorting Orthodox Judaism. What is the response to your book?
When the show came out, it was a mixed bag. There are people who say, ‘He’s lying. He’s exaggerating. He’s making it up.’ It is very painful. But it taught me a lesson. So when the book came out, Random House allowed me to have a link called “source.” I have evidence and sources and backups for every word I say. So you can’t call me a liar. Since the book came out, there hasn’t been any of this, ‘He made it up.’ Everything is there in black and white. Everything is really positive. People feel more comfortable supporting me openly. Women wrote to me and DMed me on my Instagram about how their lives had changed since they read the book — how they left a bad marriage, left the community, started a company, went back to school, the things they have. dream but not come true. I am very grateful to those people. It makes everything else worth it.
RELATED: How Orthodox Jews became a streaming-TV hit