How “My Unorthodox Life” Highlights The Dangers Of Projections On Both Sides Of The Fence. 

By Dr. Leah Katz, Ph.D.

It was Halloween night 2019. I was at my improv class (which for some reason was not cancelled despite it being Halloween). Many people came dressed up. I did not. That night’s class warm-up was to go around the circle and have us all name our favorite childhood Halloween costume. These exercises are fast-paced and quick―and the game was to remember everyone’s costume. 

Uh oh, I thought, how am I going to navigate this one? I grew up in an orthodox Jewish community. I have to deal with more than a few holes in my secular pop culture knowledge because I didn’t have the non-remarkable experiences most other American children had growing up. These gaps make themselves known often―in social and work settings, and even when I’m chatting with the cashier at Trader Joe’s (where I nod and laugh like I know what movie you’re talking about).

I am comfortable now owning my past and being honest with others about why I don’t know a lot of ‘90s and ’00s pop culture. So, on this Halloween night a couple of years ago, when it was my turn to say my favorite childhood costume, I didn’t fabricate an answer (as I had at other times), I said to my class, “we didn’t celebrate Halloween growing up. We had Purim which also has costumes, so I’ll say Queen Esther,” to which the 10 or so members in my class laughed in an amused and awkward way. There I was, the Queen Esther, amidst the “Screams” and “scary witches.”

Netflix, pop culture, are now a maybe too big part of my life, for better or worse (learning to set those limits along with everyone else!). And I’ve been glued to “My Unorthodox Life,” the story of Julia Haart, who left the same community in which I grew up (on the same block, in fact) and became a business leader. I watched her series with a curiosity born out of kinship and interest. How would her story be similar or different to my own? My interest was magnified, because, I too decided to reevaluate religion and spirituality in my adult years. I can relate to much of Julia Haart’s story. I, too, covered my knees, collarbones and elbows and wore tights even in the summer heat, and secretly longed for a more open lifestyle. 

Ironically, on the same day her series was released on Netflix, my book was released for preorder on Amazon. My book is a self-help book on learning to access our bravery and make choices that will lead us down the path of living our most meaningful life. My book was born out of my own story, as well as my clinical observations and experience with mindfulness. The universe has a funny way of bringing things together. 

Much of what Julia talks about resonates strongly with me. I feel so much empathy for her story and am inspired by her strength and ability to make a life for herself that is in line with her personal values.  I know how difficult and brave that was for her to do. In many ways, I did that too. 

That said, I worry about generalities creating polarization, and the lack of nuance about the way orthodoxy is depicted on this particular Netflix series. ‘Shtisel’, on the other hand, does a beautiful job investigating the intricacy and personal binds that can come up in living a very religious lifestyle. This series is poignant, thought provoking, and does an excellent job of moving beyond religious stereotypes and into the complex dynamics of human and family relationships. It also is stunning in its portrayal of both the beauty and the heartbreak of not only being a part of a strict religion, but of being member of a large family. 

I think there are ways to move away from strict orthodoxy and still hold onto the beauty of Judaism, and maintain deeply spiritual practices (if one wants to). In telling our stories, it is always, always important to acknowledge that we can only speak about our own experience and not assume anything about anyone else’s. 

We all have a right to our story―and I strongly believe, should we want to, that we should narrate it. This is a big way to heal and work through shame. So, kudos to Julia for using her voice to talk about her story. And at the same time, we need to know, and let others know, that my story ends exactly where I do. I can’t (and shouldn’t!) assume my story is your story. That’s dangerous, inaccurate, and when that happens, it often points to the need for more healing work. 

As a woman who holds great pride and gratitude in having had the strength and courage to find myself and make difficult choices that helped me feel freer and happier, I am careful not to generalize or project my feelings onto others. That said, as a psychologist, I am profoundly aware of how similar we all are- especially those of us who have had uniquely similar experiences, and know that her story, my story- is a shared one and there are others who share these feelings of being stifled and stuck. 

In response to “My Unorthodox Life,” I’ve seen a lot of anger, defensiveness, even character assassinations pointed at Julia and her family. I see people posting about making a different series, a “My Orthodox Life” that portrays all the beauty and happiness embodied in an Orthodox Jewish woman’s experience. But that narrative is dangerous too, because while it may be the experience of some people, it does not represent everyone. 

When we brand our storys as being a paradigm of something that involves others and is bigger than ourselves, we are playing with fire. 

A general rule of thumb to follow for psychological health and well-being is to aim for balance, stay in our own reality, and not project our experience on to others. Polarities are usually distortions of reality and not healthy places to live. Can we (both people within this faith, but those outside of it too) embrace the beauty many find in their unorthodox lives while also acknowledging the meaning and fulfillment of those living orthodox lives? 

Can we learn to make space for it all? Just as we advocate leaning into our own feelings—all of them―can we offer the same compassion for all people? We all belong here. We are all the same and different. We belong to ourselves and each other. We can see the world in different ways. I understand the urge to defend, to protect something that we cherish, especially something as meaningful as a religion, but we cannot invalidate anyone’s experience. Just because you’re happy and unoppressed in your lifestyle, doesn’t mean other women don’t feel differently. I know I felt this way for years- quietly, unassumedly―not in your face and you never would have known it.  

As an orthodox Jewish culture, we need to acknowledge that and make it safe for people to make other choices and find their way. We need to provide them with empathy, compassion, and legitimize their reality―simply because it is their reality. Not ascribe some mental illness to them for wanting a different sort of life (as I have seen happen time and time again when someone opts out of a restrictive society). We are all here, on this planet, for a very short time. I believe we get a say in how we choose to spend our time here. Someone’s experience isn’t only awarded validation because we agree with it, that’s not how healthy relationships work. 

And on the other side of things, we can’t call all members of orthodoxy “victims”(as I’ve read in different articles about the series) because that’s a big and harmful projection as well. We can acknowledge that we who have left felt victimized while completely accepting that many others willingly choose this way of life. There is complexity and accuracy in holding dualities. 

Both those within and those outside of any group need to accept the reality of this picture: there are those for whom it works, and those for whom it doesn’t. We can’t judge and project our experience onto anyone else’s, it just isn’t fair or accurate and it turns people who really have more in common with each other than not, against each other. And in a world where anti-Semitic crimes are up 69% it’s the last thing the Jewish community needs. 

I talk a lot about empathy, self-compassion and compassion for others (see my Instagram account @dr.leahkatz), and I think that is what holds the key here and what will ultimately allow us to enter the realm of being able to make space for conflicting realities: I can acknowledge this is my experience and not feel threatened by another person having a completely different one. On both sides of the coin. This is where empathy lies―can I imagine for one moment what it must have been like for this other person? Can I suspend my judgment and projections? And in a world swirling with anti-Semitism and mistrust of one another, an extra dose of empathy can go a very long way. 

Furthermore, if we look beyond the content of Julia’s story there is a lot many of us can relate to—even those of us who are happily orthodox. And that is relating to the process of her story―experiencing pain and loss in one way or another. This is relatable to us all because life, it’s just like that. It throws us curveballs and pain amidst the joy and meaning. Can we look beneath the surface and connect on this deeper layer to each other’s humanity? 

We miss these themes when we get stuck in the story of leaving a “fundamentalist” religion. This story is as much about that as it is about, loss, agency, and healing from trauma. While not many people can say they left a religion to find freedom and meaning in life, many more can say they underwent their share of pain, early loss, and even trauma. Can we connect over this piece of our shared humanity? 

Psychologically speaking, rarely are things black or white, all or nothing. They are most often nuanced and shades of grey. Religion is not terrible for everyone. There are some driven towards it and others driven away from it. We are all built differently, and it is okay to be on either side of the fence. 

Healing is found in turning towards pain. In embracing nuance. In understanding our projections―and setting them aside. In acknowledging that my reality isn’t THE reality. It is in learning to hold the present with gratitude, the future with excitement, and the old pain with a certain tenderness that those of us who have gone through tough things can understand. It is not found in linearity, in extremes. When we find ourselves there, we can assume we are having a reaction to anger, resentment, or unprocessed trauma. 

Let’s aim for embracing nuance and finding the beauty in wherever we choose to be in life (emphasis on the word choose). Let’s honor our pain and process it, connect over it, and learn to accept that people can live different ways and want different things. Our journeys can be beautiful and painful, and we all are connected with one another. None of us has to generalize our experience onto the other to feel validated. Your pain, your beauty, your reality, is valid because it is yours. That alone is enough.

Dr. Leah Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and writer living in Portland, OR (but is an east-coaster at heart!). Leah works at a group practice and specializes in working with teen girls’ and women’s mental health. Through her own life’s journey, Leah believes deeply in the transformative effects that mindfulness can have on our mind, body, and soul. She has just released a new book Gutsy: Mindfulness Practices for Everyday Bravery that draws on her training as psychologist and her experience leaving an ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith to offer tools and insights for getting “unstuck” from society’s unrealistic and often harmful expectations for women that we have adopted as our own. You can find her on Instagram at @dr.leahkatz.

Comments are closed.