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Television

‘My Unorthodox Life’ Is an Unlikely Source of Parenting Insight

Header image courtesy of Netflix © 2021

I’m an involved Jew with kids at Jewish camp and Jewish school. So it was a given that my Facebook feed would start blowing up with posts about “My Unorthodox Life,” a new “reality” series on Netflix. (I think “reality” should always be in quotes when it comes to these types of programs, since in most situations, the reality bears no resemblance to any reality I know — and this show isn’t much of an exception to that bright-line rule.)

Much ink has been spilled about the show’s protagonista, Julia Haart — a Jewish mother of four who left her Orthodox Jewish community to become the not-religious CEO of Elite World Group — and the implications of her words and choices for the larger Jewish community. Haart, whose memoir, “Brazen,” about her exodus from observant Judaism, comes out next year, has many choice words to say about her former way of life, calling it anti-women and labeling Orthodoxy as “fundamentalism.”’ In response, many religious Jewish women have clapped back on social media; using the hashtag #ThisIsOrthodox, they decry the broad brush with which the characters and the show paint Haart’s former world. 

I wasn’t too excited to watch this show, as I binged on “reality” TV in the early 2000s to the point of triggering some serious antibodies to the genre. But when Kveller calls, I listen — in large part because I wasn’t asked to voice an opinion on the hot mess that is the “hillul Hashem” debate of whether this show is a desecration of Torah Judaism. Because, honestly? I’m not particularly surprised that a Netflix series that owes more of its origin story to “Real Housewives” than real life could possibly do the many, many nuances of Jewish observance a disservice. I also am not really excited about anyone even attempting to see one show, or one person’s experience, as indicative of the truth of a larger whole. That’s the kind of lazy thinking that brings you stereotypes, causeless hatred and endless Facebook debates with strangers. No thanks.

What I do want to talk about, though, is something that impressed me much more than the endless six-inch heels, the crazy outfits, the chauffeured Bentleys or, yes, even the chandeliered French sukkah on the grounds of a gorgeous chateau (and let’s note: I’m ALWAYS here for sukkah voyeur opportunities). Here’s what impressed me: There is actually good parenting insight in this show, even if it comes from an unlikely source. 

Before you get your comment fingers ready, I’m not going to get into the merits of parenting as a religious person versus parenting as someone who’s chosen to leave a life of religiosity. In the course of my life, I’ve met exemplary good and bad parents on both sides of that religious divide.

While the show rubs me the wrong way in so many ways, I found myself fascinated by the tension experienced by Aron, Julia’s youngest son, who still lives at least part of the time with his still-religious father in the yeshivish community of Monsey, New York. While Julia’s three older children are adults living in New York City who have their own individual relationships to Judaism in varying degrees of observance, Aron remains an observant Jew who goes to yeshiva, wears a black hat and repeatedly tells his mother — in a remarkably kind, humorous and respectful way — that, unlike her, he is happy leading a religious life. 

It’s clear that, to a certain extent, his embrace of this life is a trigger of sorts for his mother. While she’s quick to say that she loves and respects Judaism, it’s pretty obvious that she bears perhaps less love for the path her son has chosen to take.

We can’t all relate to the Haart family’s choices or context, but this part is universal: Being a parent means that you get what you get and, well, you MIGHT get upset. Because, as we all know, you don’t get to pick who your kid is, or what or who they love. You may encourage and practice and cheer your kid playing soccer for every weekend of your life for years on end —  and then find out that they always hated it and would rather just be at home, reading. You might dream of the day your kid will be the star of the high school musical just like you were, only to discover that your kid is shy and allergic to any kind of spotlight. And you might buy your kid T-shirts from your own college from the time they’re born, only to find out they don’t want to go to college at all, much less anywhere you’ve ever set foot.

I call these things the “Alex P. Keaton Effect,” after my former crush Michael J. Fox’s character on the sitcom “Family Ties.” The Alex P. Keaton Effect is the fact that you being you, as a parent, is highly likely to result in your kid rushing to be the opposite of whoever you are. I’m pretty sure this phenomenon is partially Freudian, partially adolescent rebellion, and partially indicative that there is a deity and that that deity has a deep appreciation for irony. When your kid’s true self emerges, you have a choice: you can either deny what you see, or embrace what you see. The former can be profoundly hurtful. The latter can be life’s most transcendent joy.

So that IS, in fact, the reality of this highly imperfect reality show: Our job as parents, like it or not, is to help our children be who they are — even if who they are isn’t exactly what we’d want for them or what we’d planned. One of the harder parts of being a parent is pushing down our egos in order to raise our children’s up. At one point in the series, Haart wonders aloud why she pays for Aron to go to a religious camp where he is taught ideas with which she doesn’t agree. And yet, she does it. The show doesn’t really address why she does it, but maybe it’s because the complexities of the why are too deep for Netflix (imagine that!). 

And sometimes, respecting your kids for who they are means having to make compromises in who you are so that the kids don’t have to compromise themselves. There’s a lot of tension between Haart and her oldest daughter, Batsheva, over her memoir — when Batsheva reads it, she finds that there are some details about her own sex life with her husband that she would prefer not to be included in her mother’s memoir. It wasn’t clear to me how that ended up being resolved, but I understood the underlying issue quite well. As someone who often writes child-oriented stuff, sometimes I don’t get to use great material because I have to step back and acknowledge that what I’m writing is not just my story: it’s my kids’ story, too. And it’s the balance between the two — mine vs. theirs — that’s the tightrope parents have to walk every day as their kids get older, whether in writing or in life.

Early in the show, Aron says to his mother, “I love you for who you are, not for who you were.” Even though Aron is just a young teenager, I have to say that that sentence is perhaps one of the best distillations of what it actually means to be a parent. As parents, we are duty-bound to forever love our children in the present tense. We love our children for who they are, right now, whoever that may be. It’s not always easy (and one could certainly argue that it’s probably harder to do it on reality television than in the privacy of one’s own home), but there’s little in life that’s more rewarding.

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