(RNS)-There is a whole genre of conversation about leaving insular religious communities. Just a few years ago, Tara Westover’s knockout bestseller, “Educated,” spoke of her escape from her fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho.
The Jewish world has also seen a series of stories about leaving the various threads of the Orthodox religious world. 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 leaving her marriage and her modern Orthodox faith. That’s just a few.
Julia Haart’s new memoir, “Brazen,” is the most recent and perhaps the most recent. Haart’s rejection of his Haredi Jewish enclave and his meteoric rise into the elite fashion world were partly captured on the Netflix reality TV show, “My Unorthodox Life.”
In her new book, she gives a meticulous account of the strictures imposed on women in her religious world: They were forbidden to wear trousers or short sleeves and, if married, had to cover their hair. They were forbidden to study certain Jewish texts, forbidden to sing solo in front of men or dance in their presence, so that they would not distract men from the principles of the Torah. The list goes on.
Haart writes of her arranged marriage to a man she barely knows and her growing frustration with her confined life where her only professional option is to teach other women, and her main purpose in life is to be a “child -making machine.”
The birth of her third child, Miriam, who challenged her parents as to why she couldn’t play soccer or sing in public, ultimately strengthened Haart’s will to flee. She gradually left her community in Monsey, New York, beginning in 2012, started a women’s shoe brand and eventually became the creative director of lingerie brand La Perla. Her journey includes many overt sexual escapades and engaging, high-rolling adventures.
“Brazen” ended there, but as viewers of the Netflix reality TV show knew, she eventually married Swiss businessman Silvio Scaglia and she became co-owner of Elite World Group. The two are now involved in a bad divorce after he expelled her from the EWG.
The RNS spoke to Haart, born in Russia as Yulia Leibov, about her book, her lifelong feelings as a foreigner and her plans for the future.
You were not born into this community but entered it as a woman. Did that help you leave it, too?
I think it totally helped. Even though I was very young and it was something I should be ashamed of, I did experience modern living to some degree. Forty years ago when I came back to the (modern world), there was still that feeling, ‘Yeah, this is Mars. Yes, it is a world I do not know, but I have lived in it once. ‘
You are a very good teacher. Did you eventually feel conflicted about the kinds of advice you gave high school girls about their future roles as wives and mothers?
In my teaching I believe in everything, hook, line and sinker. I don’t think the laws are wrong. I don’t think a woman should submit to her husband wrong. I think I was wrong because I wasn’t OK with that. Although I was more miserable, I felt that I was a bad person who did not have God’s love. It wasn’t until Miriam was young that I stopped teaching and realized it wasn’t me; that was the system. Since then, I have not taught. Even when I left 13 years later, my original plan was to stay religious. I want to be a Modern Orthodox Jew. I don’t think I can be a fundamentalist anymore. Even when I left, I was still religious.
So what led you to finally leave all this behind?
When I was outside I started reading different types of literature and meeting people. And I realized that everything was the same. The same things that plague me in my world have nothing to do with Judaism. They are not true of Judaism. The same rules exist in fundamentalist Islam, in fundamentalist Christianity, in fundamentalist Mormonism. If you come to a serious version of any religion the rules are the same. Women should be submissive and submissive to their husbands, they should cover themselves and be humble. The people who first befriended me when I came out were women from communities like mine. We all speak the same language. The more I saw the world around me, the more I realized that a lie was being taught to me. That is why it became irreligious.
But you write that you still believe in God.
Oh yes, I actually now feel more spiritually connected to God than I have ever experienced in my life. The God of my old world was a very angry God who hated me because I didn’t keep quiet. I did not keep quiet. I am not ashamed. I spoke back. I asked. I taught myself and Aramaic so I could learn Gemara (a part of the Talmud). I do all the things that according to my world God hates. It was only after I left that I felt God’s love. The rest of my life is a series of miracles. I felt God’s hand on my shoulder every step of the way.
So how do you imagine God today?
First of all, it’s a he. The God I believe in is a God who gives mankind specific moral rules that can withstand the test of time: kindness, charity, gratitude, love, community. Those are the things that I think have a natural truth about what Judaism is.
You write that you always feel like an outsider. You use the Yiddish word, “Nisht ahin; Aw. ” Not here or there. Do you feel like you’re out of the secular world, too?
I always feel that way. I’m surprised. Look at my yesterday. I’m always the weirdest. I didn’t go to the prom. I had no first love in my youth. I don’t do normal people. I have been with five men in my life. It’s small. Two years ago, Kering, the group that owns Gucci and Bottega, invited me to watch the screening of ‘Thelma and Louise’ with Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis. Everyone was chatting and talking because they had seen it before. I’m busy silencing everyone because I haven’t seen it before. Things that people experience from 11 to 17, I experience from 43 to 51. I’ve always been the weirdest person.
In an interview you said you were interested in helping women break free from abuse to gain financial freedom. Is that something you want to sacrifice your life for?
Perfectly. I met a group of people. I’m just waiting for my money to come back. The plan is already in the works. I am a very determined person. Once I decide to do something, I will do it. Now, of course, I’m involved in other things, so I’ll have to wait. But in the meantime, I organized so that when the time came I could hit go right away.
Do you plan to continue working in the fashion world?
I have 17 things I do at the same time. I have a brand of shapewear coming to every multi-brand store this Christmas. I made the first non-shapewear look shapewear. It’s the most flattering and beautiful shapewear ever made. Every store buys it. We are very excited about it. I had other things going on. But I can’t announce yet.
Now that you live in the secular world, are there parts of it that you don’t like or are critical of?
How many hours do we have? I don’t think women are treated well. There is a double standard. Women are still taught courtesy and obedience. When my daughter won her first hackathon at age 16 and went up to get her award, the professor asked which guy had helped her. I see a huge amount of inequality between men and women. I see a general double standard. When a person travels to work he is a good provider. If a woman travels to work she is a bad mother. The double standard is worse. We have a long way to go. But I’m alive. I have a voice. I created. I worked. I can show people what is in my heart. The greatest freedom of all is to be able to work. What I miss isn’t the party or the clubs, it shows what’s inside of me. Worked. This is all. It keeps me alive. I love this world. It’s not perfect. But better than the world I come from.
The Netflix series has been criticized for distorting Orthodox Judaism. What is the answer to your book?
Exiting the show, mixed bag. There were people who said, ‘He lied. He was exaggerating. He’s doing things. ‘ It was very painful. But it taught me a lesson. So when the book came out, Random House allowed me to have a link called “origins.” I have proof and sources and backup of every word I say. So you can’t call me a liar. Ever since the book came out it’s been nothing like, ‘He did it.’ They are all available in black and white. Everything turned out positive. People felt more comfortable supporting me openly. The women wrote me letters and sent me DMs on my Instagram about how their lives have changed since they read the book – how they left their bad marriage, got out of their community, starting a company, going back to school, things they did. dreaming but not realizing. I am so grateful to those people. It makes everyone else worth it.
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