RNS]) — There are many stories about people who leave insular religious communities. Only a few years ago, Tara Westover’s knockout bestseller, “Educated,” told of her escape from her fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho.
There have been a lot of stories in the Jewish world about people leaving certain strands of Orthodox religion behind. In 2012, there was Deborah Feldman’s memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” that later became a Netflix miniseries. In 2017, Tova Mirvis published “The Book of Separation,” in which she wrote about abandoning her marriage and her Modern Orthodox faith. These are only a few.
Julia Haart’s new memoir, “Brazen,” is the latest and perhaps the splashiest. Partly captured on the Netflix reality TV series “My Unorthodox Life .”
” was Haart’s rejection by her Haredi Jewish enclave as well as her meteoric rise into the elite fashion world.
In her new book, she meticulously explains the restrictions imposed upon women by her religious world. They are prohibited from wearing short sleeves or pants and must cover their hair once they are married. They are forbidden to read certain Jewish texts and they are not allowed to sing or dance in front of them, in order not distract from Torah values. This list could go on.
Julia Haart and Yosef on vacation in the Colorado Rockies during their first year of marriage (Julia was 19), from “My Unorthodox Life.” Photo courtesy Julia Haart
Haart describes her marriage to a man she didn’t know and her frustration with her life, in which her only option was to teach other girls. Her main purpose was to be a “babymaking engine .”
Her third child, Miriam was born. She challenged her parents about why she couldn’t sing or play soccer in public. This finally sparked Haart’s determination to flee. She gradually left her community in Monsey, New York, beginning in 2012, started a women’s shoe brand and eventually became creative director of the lingerie brand La Perla. Her life is full of sexual adventures and glamorous, high-rolling adventures.
“Brazen” by Julia Haart. Courtesy image
“Brazen” ends there. However, as Netflix’s reality TV series shows, she later married Silvio Scaglia, a Swiss entrepreneur, and became co-owner of Elite World Group with him. After she was fired from EWG, the two are involved in a bitter divorce.
RNS talked to Haart, who was born in Russia as Yulia Leonibov about her book, her feelings of being an outsider, and her future plans.
You weren’t born into this community but came into it as a girl. You weren’t born into this community, but you were brought in as a girl.
I think it was a great help. Although it was something I felt ashamed of, I did experience modern life to a certain degree when I was young. It’s been forty years since I was able to return into the modern world. It’s a place I don’t know much about but I have lived there once .’
You were a very accomplished teacher. You were a very accomplished teacher. Did you ever feel conflicted by the advice you gave high school girls about their future roles in life as mothers and wives?
When I was teaching, I believed everything. I did not believe the laws were wrong. I did not think it was wrong for a woman to be subservient her husband. I felt wrong for not accepting that. Despite feeling more miserable, I believed that this made me a terrible person that God couldn’t love. Miriam was my first child and it wasn’t until then that I realized it wasn’t me who was teaching. It was the system. From that moment on I have never taught. Even when I left 13 years later, my original plan was to stay religious. I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be a fundamentalist anymore. I was fully religious even though I had left.
Julia Haart making Challah for Shabbat during her first year of marriage, in her apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Photo courtesy Julia Haart
So what made you finally give up everything?
I started reading literature and meeting people once I was out. It was all the same. These same things that afflicted me in my life had nothing to do Judaism. These are not true to Judaism. They are the same in fundamentalist Islam, fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Mormonism. The rules of any extreme religion are the same. Women should be subservient to their husbands and cover up. When I was coming out, the first people to befriend me were women from similar communities. All of us spoke the same language. As I saw the world around, I began to realize that the things I was taught was false. This is how I became irreligious.
But you write that you still believe in God.
Yes, I feel spiritually closer to God today than ever before in my life. My old world’s God was very angry at me for not being quiet. I was not docile. I wasn’t shy. I responded. I asked questions. I learned Aramaic to be able to learn Gemara (a part of the Talmud). All the things I believed God would hate, I did. Only after I was gone did I feel God’s love. My life was filled with miracles. Every step of the journey, I felt God’s support.
How do you see God today?
First of all, it is a she. I believe in a God who gave humanity moral codes that have stood the test of time. These codes include kindness, charity and gratitude, love and community. These are the things that I believe have the inherent truth of Judaism.
Julia Haart with her children in Atlanta in 2002. Photo courtesy Julia Haart
You write that you’ve always felt like an outsider. You say in Yiddish, “Nisht Ahin; Nish Aher.” It’s neither here nor there. Are you still feeling like an outsider in secular society?
I’ll always feel this way. I’m weird. Take a look at my past. I am always the odd one out. I didn’t go on prom. As a teenager, I didn’t find my first love. I didn’t do anything normal peop