real life

Until she was 42 years old, every aspect of Julia Haart’s life was controlled.

In her 51 years, My Unorthodox Life star Julia Haart has lived a big life. But for the majority of her years, she had no control over her anything - what she ate, what she thought, what she wore and what she was allowed to do in a day was regulated by a strict religious code. 

After emigrating from Russia to America with her family, Julia's parents settled in Monsey, New York. They soon decided to join an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey that practiced Haredi Judaism - a branch of Judaism known for its religious conservatism and social seclusion.

From a very young age to her early 40s, Julia was part of this community. And initially, it was something she was comfortable with.

While she loved being Jewish, it was the fundamentalist lifestyle that Julia couldn't accept - a world where she says little boys were taught to thank God every morning "for not making me a woman".

When we think about New York, visions of Sex and the City, progressive politics and a 21st Century life come to mind. But in Monsey, particularly the community Julia was a part of, this was far from the reality.

"Go back a couple of hundred years and the life women lived in the 1800s is exactly the life I lived in Monsey. Women are not educated, they're married off and they're told they are inferior to men," Julia said to Mia Freedman on Mamamia's  No Filter.

Listen to No Filter with Julia Haart. Post continues after audio.


She was taught that all non-Jewish people or irreligious Jewish people were dangerous. Her community and its people were the 'chosen ones'. Everyone else was not. And ever so slowly, her world was shrinking - and so was her autonomy, particularly due to her gender.

From a young age, Julia was taught that if any part of her body was uncovered in public, she would go to a "special kind of hell" reserved for just her and her mother. It was a confronting 'cautionary tale' to have drummed into you as a child.

"That's the danger of when people are taking away rights - you don't even realise because it's so gradual. It started with, 'okay Julia we're going to keep kosher'. That very basically means you can't eat at your friend's houses anymore and can only eat certain foods, and have to eat in a certain way. Then it was 'okay Julia, you can't wear shorts anymore'. 'You can't dance in public anymore'. Then it was 'cover yourself head to toe'. And before you realise, your world has shrunk."

By the age of 19, she was forced into an arranged marriage. Her first husband was Yosef Hendler, and together they had four children. She practically knew nothing about him prior to walking down the aisle. Julia also never had access to a proper education - the thought among the community was simply: "why do you need to educate women if their only purpose is to do what their husband says and have babies?"

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She also could no longer show her real hair - because that now belonged to her husband. It was for his eyes only: she had no decision in the matter. So she was forced to cover her real hair with a wig.

Haart married aged 19. Image: Netflix. Sex was controlled too. Her husband was taught 'no foreplay, recite psalms as you're having sex, and sleep in separate beds'. Sex became a chore, like folding the laundry or feeding the children.

During her time in the Orthodox Jewish community, Haart worked as a Judaic Studies teacher. But in this role, she grew more and more uncomfortable with the life she was living. 

"What we were taught in my community is that the Holocaust happened because God brought Hitler to separate us [from non-Orthodox Jewish people]. Basically, the story I was told is 'this is what happens when you don't isolate from non-Jews - God brings a Hitler to isolate you from the outside world'," Julia explained.  

"It was the idea that God loves you so much that when you stray, he punishes you in a way that he punishes no one else. It was taught that the Holocaust was proof of God's love for us."

Looking back on why her parents became so enamoured by the Orthodox Jewish faith, Julia said her parents had put their whole trust in something they wanted so desperately. Children, and stability.

"When we went kosher, my mum fell pregnant with my sister - but before that, she had been trying to have children and miscarrying for 10 years. She saw it as a divine sign."

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Julia's mother went on to have seven children - Julia was the oldest. Not only did Julia help take care and raise her siblings, but she also had to take care of her own children after marrying Yosef.

Watch My Unorthodox Life: Official Trailer. Post continues below.


Video via Netflix.

By the time Julia was ready to leave her old life behind, she was dangerously thin and struggling mentally.

It was Julia's then 13-year-old daughter Miriam who compelled her to leave - Miriam was struggling inside Haredi Judaism, and the community elders were trying desperately to mould Miriam into an obedient and meek woman.

And Julia couldn't stand for it any longer.

"If it wasn't for Miriam, I would still be there. She was an active, sporty kid and she was told she couldn't do these things. And she asked why. Hearing the questions I had inside my head being spoken by a young girl - she gave me permission to question the system," Julia said.

Julia's concern has never been with Judaism. It is purely and solely with fundamentalism. Because religious freedom is important - but so is autonomy and choice. And in that system, Julia felt as though she had neither of these things.

At age 42 in late 2012, Julia left Monsey. She had built up an 'escape fund' by secretly selling life insurance policies to customers.

At the time, Miriam was 13 and Julia's eldest daughter Batsheva, was in her late teens and recently married. As for Julia's two sons, Shlomo was in his mid-teens, and her youngest child Aron was seven and still living at home. 

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"I threw things, I went wild - all things I had never done before - all while packing my bags, and went to a hotel. It was the first night in my life that I slept alone in a room that I chose by myself," Julia said.

Julia began to build a life for herself on the outside. Only years later did her ex-husband Yosef also leave the Orthodox Jewish community. But in the meantime, the pair continued to co-parent their kids - each living a completely different life to the other. 

"Any deprogramming of a religious culture is extremely gradual and unique to every person. I was petrified. I think I knew the moment I had finally broken that last vestige was when I was in Rome with my non-Jewish boyfriend, had my first piece of bacon and wasn't wearing a wig," she said on No Filter.

Julia's three eldest kids are no longer part of the Orthodox Jewish community either. Although her youngest, 15-year-old Aron, still lives part-time in Monsey and remains religious, which Julia admits "scares the living daylights out of her".

In the nine years since leaving, Julia has essentially had zero contact with her parents or siblings. And that has been devastating for her.

Given the sheer success Julia has garnered for herself after leaving at the age of 42 - she's sad that her family hasn't been a part of that journey.

She launched her own shoe line, in 2016 joined Italian luxury house La Perla as Creative Director, started her own in-house fashion brand, is the co-owner of Elite World Group - and has a Netflix show, My Unorthodox Life

And now she written an autobiography, Brazen.

"When I walked out and I started my shoe company - I didn't know enough to know that was crazy [to consider starting a business from scratch]. I mean in my mind I had just essentially time travelled 200 years - so if I can do that, of course I can start a shoe company with no fashion experience or education! I had the courage to do it."

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Now, Julia's life is no longer controlled by religion or a man. It's controlled by her. And that's something she will never take for granted.

"I left the pack and I'm a sinner. Those same laws [in Haredi Judaism] exist in every extremist religion, so it's not just specific to my experience," she said.

To this day, Julia remains proudly Jewish. She continues to believe in a 'God' - just not as strictly as she once did. 

"There is so much beauty inherent in Judaism, just like any religion. It's only when it is taken to the extreme that the problems set in. I have seen God's hand throughout the last nine years of my life - and I'm very grateful."

To see more of Julia Haart you can follow her on Instagram watch My Unorthodox Life on Netflix now, or find her book Brazen  here.

Listen to the bonus episode of No Filter where Mia Freedman and Julia Haart talk about Julia's life after leaving the Orthodox Jewish community and the intricacies of exploring her sexuality and womanhood. Exclusive to Mamamia subscribers,  listen here

Feature Image: Netflix/Instagram @juliahaart.

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