The Growth Is in the Fear: A Conversation with Julia Haart
Brazen: My Unorthodox Journey from Long Sleeves to Lingerie
by Julia Haart
Crown Publishing Group (2022); 416 pp.; $26.96 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Julia Haart is the CEO, co-owner, and chief creative officer of the talent media agency Elite World Group. She was the creative director for La Perla and started her own shoe brand a week after escaping from her ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism, known as “Yeshivishe” or Black Hatters, in Monsey, New York.
Haart is the star of the Netflix docuseries My Unorthodox Life. Most importantly, she is a women’s activist. “When I was in high school,” she says, “I realized I could jump. I wanted all women to realize they could jump too.” She revealed her life story in Brazen: My Unorthodox Journey from Long Sleeves to Lingerie (Crown Publishing Group, 2022) to demonstrate that women can rise above adversity.
This captivating story chronicles Haart’s years living in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community with her four children, Batsheva, Shlomo, Miriam, and Aron; her gradual six-year exit process at the age of 42; and her path to becoming the liberated, über-successful business person and the loving modern mother she is today.
“True freedom is being yourself—not having to hide your curves, your personality, your opinion,” Haart says. In the book, she describes the strategies she devised to dress fashionably when she was restricted. About writing her memoir, she says, “My skirt got shorter with every chapter.”
I met Haart when she was a speaker at the Alt Summit + The Riveter conference in New York City. Afraid to request an interview, figuring she would discount me due to her notoriety, I summoned my courage and asked. I’m happy I did because, as Haart pointed out, by approaching her, I’d already learned the primary lesson she sets out to teach all women in the pages of this book: “The growth is in the fear.”
As Profiles Editor, I’m excited to share my conversation with Julia Haart. We discussed Haart’s relationships, feminist philosophy, and the importance of listening to our children. This profile has been edited for content and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: Since you were immersed in an extremist religious environment most of your life, do you believe there is a relationship between the drive to create and God? How was your creativity treated in the ultra-Orthodox community?
Julia Haart: If you believe in God or any higher power, you believe your talents are God-given because he created you. To be told that you aren’t allowed to use these God-given gifts is torturous and completely illogical. God made me with the ability to predict trends, design, and create. Yet, simultaneously, I was told that God says, as a woman, I’m supposed to be quiet, retire behind the scenes in my kitchen, take care of my children, and help my husband to be great. It didn’t make any sense.
HRP: Your mother, an educated woman, grew up in Bender, Moldova. In 1974, when you were three, your family emigrated to the USA amidst the Soviet Union’s hunger pandemic. Since your mother lived in the outside world before joining the ultra-Orthodox sect, how could she sustain that lifestyle after knowing what life was like outside the community?
JH: The only way I can explain why this woman, who to this day is the most brilliant woman I’ve ever met in my life, was drawn to this extreme form of Judaism is because she was brought up in another extreme fundamentalist religion called communism. While people think of communism as a political movement or an economic system, it isn’t. It’s a religion because it dictates every action of your life. Communism taught her to live for something greater than herself, that she as an individual didn’t matter, and that she should be a martyr for a cause. So to be part of fundamental Judaism, a religion that tells you what to do, is similar to following the precepts of communism. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism was as close to communism as she could get. In this community, you don’t make any decisions. What foot you put down when you wake up in the morning, what hand to wash first, who to love, how to love, when to love—everything is decided for you. This brilliant, educated woman, who worked on her second PhD, chose a religion where women are not allowed to be educated. Go figure that one out.
HRP: Your mother expected a lot of you as a young girl, especially in keeping the house and minding your siblings. What is your relationship like with your mother now?
JH: She’s my mother. I’ll love her forever. I have zero anger in my heart. She was a tremendous influence in my life. I think my hard work ethic comes from her. Even though education for women was supposedly immaterial, she still pushed me to give one hundred percent, succeed, and excel.
But I can’t change other people. She chose a life that is difficult and very denigrating to women. It’s not the path I’ve stayed on because it’s caused me a lot of pain. But I understand why she doesn’t speak to or look at me. I hope that one day she’ll come and say hi.
HRP: You’ve said, “The growth is in the fear.” At what point in your life did you experience the most fear and, thus, the most growth?
JH: Take your choice. Everything I’ve done for the last nine years has been scary. I walked out of a world I’d never left, into a world where I didn’t know anyone or how it operated. That world felt 300 years removed from my world. Leaving, at 42 years of age, while knowing that everyone I knew would drop me, was officially insane. Starting a shoe brand without shoe experience is crazy. Everything I’ve done in my life for the last nine years has been scary.
HRP: You’re the queen of fake it ‘til you make it.
JH: That’s been used against me. When I say fake it until you make it, I’m talking about having confidence. Fake it until you make it doesn’t mean faking expertise or capability. It means fake the confidence that every guy has. Think you’re successful, and you’ll become successful. Men want to keep us down. It’s a fact. There’s a massive unspoken power struggle between the rise of women and the people who are petrified of this occurrence and therefore creating laws and systems to prevent this rise.
HRP: I was shocked at the scarcity of formal education you received. The outside world doesn’t realize that yeshivas concentrate mainly on teaching about Judaism. How did you learn so much?
JH: That’s my favorite question. The source of my capability is the fact that I’m an eternal student. I love to learn, to study, and to expand my mind. I educated myself. Until people graduate college, their pride is in their ability to learn. But the minute they graduate, they stop being proud of how well they grasp new concepts, new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of doing things. Instead, they are proud of what they know. That, to me, is the walking dead. One of my greatest strengths is that I didn’t know. I continuously challenged myself to figure out better ways. I love the unknown. I get turned on by the challenge of it. Allowing your mind to be open to new ways of doing things is where the growth is. That’s where the future is. The innovators are people who see what’s coming, not what is. My love of learning has been my guiding light. My ignorance was also helpful. Because I bet if I knew enough about fashion, I never would’ve attempted to start my own shoe brand. I had to figure out how to make a shoe before I could change the way a shoe was made.
HRP: I know you love being Jewish and are proud of your heritage. Do you consider yourself a practicing Jew? Do you go to the temple for the high holidays?
JH: I consider myself a cultural Jew. I have not walked into a synagogue since I walked out the door. To me, it was a place of denigration, and a reminder of my second-class status in that community. I do celebrate Passover and Sukkoth, but it’s not from a religious aspect. It’s because I love my family. I think it’s a beautiful custom. I love any excuse to get together with my kids and have a big meal.
HRP: I’m not Jewish, but I’m raising my children in my husband’s Jewish faith. I was happy that our rabbi allowed me to recite a Hebrew prayer on the bimah for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I noticed throughout your book that within the fundamentalist Jewish community, there is significant judgment about the degree of observance. Although my children identify as Jewish, I haven’t converted, so they wouldn’t be recognized as such in these communities due to the looser interpretation of Jewish law practiced in our reformed sect. Can you elaborate on that?
JH: Judgment. Fundamentalism (in any religion) teaches you to only mix with people who think, look, and act exactly like you. People think of righteousness as something positive because it makes them feel better than everyone else. But people will commit mass atrocities in the name of righteousness, in the name of God. I think God wants kindness from us, love, acceptance, understanding, caring for one another, gratitude, and support. I don’t think he cares whether my elbows are covered. I don’t think he wants me to humiliate a woman who is improperly dressed in the supermarket. That’s not religion; that’s extremism.
HRP: Your ability to leave the sect gradually was a test of your strength. You maintained an amicable separation from your husband for six years, splitting your time 50/50 between both worlds before you left with your children for good. Batsheva was married, Shlomo was almost seventeen, Miriam was thirteen, and Aaron was young. You said you couldn’t wait any longer. What allowed you to see how to execute your departure?
JH: I’m a very organized human. I saw a goal and plotted the steps to get there. I knew the best way to keep my children with me was to make gradual changes so I began to read current books about the world outside. I waited until my kids acclimated to one change then I made the next one because it made it more palatable for them. I wasn’t leaving my kids, and I knew I had to do something drastic to bring them with me.
HRP: What was the single most defining moment that made you realize you weren’t the flawed one, but the institution was?
JH: Miriam was about six. She said, “Hey, if I can’t play soccer, because a man could see me and have bad thoughts, and if I’m responsible for his behavior, that makes no sense.” It was Miriam giving voice to all the questions I had in my mind.
HRP: When you spoke at the conference, you said the best way to keep someone in line is to mess with their children. Those tools kept you invested in the ultra-Orthodox community. But I read in the book that you had a turning point with your daughter, Miriam. Did you make the right choice to remove your children from this sect? There’s nothing you regret?
JH: Miriam saved my life. I only regret that I didn’t leave sooner. If I hadn’t left Monsey, she would’ve been married and pregnant instead of in college. Miriam is bisexual. If I hadn’t left, she would be married to a man she didn’t choose and pregnant with her next child. The world would’ve lost a brilliant light and a beautiful mind. So, no regrets. The only thing is, I shouldn’t have doubted myself. I had a right to say, “I’m out of here.” But I waited for it to come out of Miriam’s mouth to give myself permission.
HRP: What do you want for your children?
JH: Freedom to choose their own paths. That’s it.
HRP: You encountered many characters who took advantage of your naivety once you left the community. I guess those relationships were learning experiences. Did any of it jade you about the outside world?
JH: No. It taught me I have a long way to go until I internalize the idea that a man doesn’t know best. I was programmed to be obedient, subservient, and submissive and to please my husband. That was my purpose in life. So deprogramming my body, mind, psyche, heart, and emotions to think differently is a lifelong project.
HRP: It’s inspiring to step back and be honest with yourself. In your book, you discuss never letting anyone see you cry. Does that serve you well? And are you still abiding by that edict?
JH: Nope. Not abiding by it anymore. It was the only thing in my life I could control. I am perfectly comfortable, and I cry like a baby now. Wait until you see season two. To me now, crying is an act of strength. I don’t have to hide who I am anymore.
HRP: Speaking about control, your choice in the book to attempt suicide by starvation was impactful. Talking about it illustrated how trapped you felt.
JH: It was my only choice because I was too scared to leave the community. I wondered, “Do I exist if no one knows about my existence? Who am I outside this world if no one’s ever heard of me?” I didn’t know the outside world. It was disorienting. It felt to me like time travel to leave. That’s why many people who leave my community commit suicide, get addicted to drugs, or need therapy. We aren’t equipped to handle normal life. I ultimately decided I loved my children too much to leave them, and I didn’t want them to bear the stigma of my committing suicide.
HRP: How do you feel about your role as a women’s activist, and why are you vocal about the subpar treatment of women within this religious community?
JH: My purpose in life is to change the world. I want to leave it better than when I came into it. Women have suffered a lot, and our rights are being stripped from us. There is no place in the world where women are considered equal. It gives my life purpose to force, demand, and instill change that will make the experience of my life and the lives of millions of women who have been belittled, betrayed, and denied rights better. I have to be true to what I believe is my mission. Originally, that mission was to create an army of financially independent women. After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I realized I’d been missing a big piece. I can’t help women in business if the laws deny them the same human rights that every man on Earth has. You know me, I’m a very loud person, so they can’t shut me up. They can hate me; they can denounce me. I’m still gonna keep fighting. Then one day, [we] can say fuck you to the patriarchy.
HRP: What’s next for you?
JH: A shapewear brand called, +Body by Julia Haart. It’s the first ever shapewear that’s made to be seen. I had to think of a way to put color into the fabric so it could permeate through. It took three years, but we invented a new way to color the fabric, so now the pieces aren’t just black or beige.
HRP: What is your greatest achievement in life?
JH: Hopefully, I haven’t gotten there yet.