“An irresistible read . . . Written with great intensity and rare candor, Brazen is a story of longing for more and manifesting that vision.”—Tommy Hilfiger
Ever since she was a child, every aspect of Julia Haart’s life—what she wore, what she ate, what she thought—was controlled by the dictates of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. At nineteen, after a lifetime spent caring for her seven younger siblings, she was married off to a man she barely knew. For the next twenty-three years, her marriage would rule her life. Eventually, when Haart’s younger daughter, Miriam, started to innocently question why she wasn’t allowed to sing in public, run in shorts, or ride a bike without being covered from neck to knee, Haart reached a breaking point. She knew that if she didn’t find a way to leave, her daughters would be forced into the same unending servitude that had imprisoned her.
So Haart created a double life. In the ultra-Orthodox world, clothing has one purpose—to cover the body, head to toe—and giving any thought to one’s appearance beyond that is considered sinful, an affront to God. But when no one was looking, Haart would pore over fashion magazines and sketch designs for the clothes she dreamed about wearing in the world beyond her Orthodox suburb. She started preparing for her escape by educating herself and creating a “freedom” fund. At the age of forty-two, she finally mustered the courage to flee the fundamentalist life that was strangling her soul.
Within a week of her escape, Haart founded a shoe brand, and within nine months, she was at Paris Fashion Week. Just a few years later, she was named creative director of La Perla. Soon she would become co-owner and CEO of Elite World Group, and one of the most powerful people in the fashion industry. Along the way, her four children—Batsheva, Shlomo, Miriam, and Aron—have not only accepted but embraced her transformation.
Propulsive and unforgettable, Haart’s story is the journey from a world of no to a world of yes, and an inspiration for women everywhere to find their freedom, their purpose, and their voice.
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|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Our lineage is the ultimate prequel to our lives. To truly understand oneself, you must understand your history, the intricate thoughts and lives that brought yours into existence. My parents come from Russian “royalty.” On my father’s side, my grandfather, a decorated general in the Russian army during World War II, was a very influential Communist after the war. When my father was nineteen, he was named head of the Komsomol (the young-adult arm of the Communist Party).
My mother too had some helpful lineage. Her mother was a ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet, and her dad was an inventor who created a chemical that restored old photos. Her family lived in Bender, Moldova, in the largest house in the center of the city. Sometimes Moldova was part of Romania, and sometimes it was part of the Soviet Union, and my grandfather managed, by some miraculous wrangling, to get a patent for his invention in a country that neither allowed personal business initiative nor recognized individual accomplishment. Yet, somehow, he did it. They both lived very privileged lives.
Lina, my mom, had one sister. My mother was considered “the smart sister” while her sister, Elena, was “the beautiful sister.” In photos of them as young women they look almost identical, both extremely smart and lovely, but there it was. Throughout my life, whenever anyone would compliment my mom on her looks, she would look at them with disbelief and shake her head.
My mom took her role of “the smart sister” very seriously. In her entire education, from kindergarten all the way through her two PhDs, one in mathematics and one in philosophy, she never got anything less than an A. She even received a gold medal from the Soviet government, for never getting a single test answer wrong.
When she was nineteen, she met a very handsome and charming young man named Michael. My dad is charismatic and great with people. Everyone always loves him. He’s the life of the party. On top of being brilliant, and an engineer (he and my mom both worked for IBM on the first PC computer), he’s also a concert pianist and guitar player and a fantastic dancer.
My mom is quiet and thoughtful and very serious—his polar opposite in every way. She is intense and somber. She loved his liveliness and he fell for her indifference. She was the only woman who wasn’t instantaneously charmed by him. She was tough and she challenged him and he loved it.
Within six months, they were inseparable. He was a committed and faithful Communist. She, however, had serious doubts. Eventually she would become more ideological and fundamentalist in her religion than my father ever was as a Party member, for it would be her faith that became the driving force in all our lives.
Due to my dad’s high standing in the Komsomol, he was given the unique task of traveling around the country preaching the Communist gospel, with the hope that as a bright and vivacious young man, he would inspire others to strengthen their faith in the system. Brezhnev was running the country at that point, and travel was verboten except to the very connected, because they didn’t want people seeing that the Communist reality was far from the Utopia Karl Marx had promised. My father, however, was deemed so completely committed that they were unconcerned with him being disillusioned and felt that his positivity and charm would keep the faithful strong. He, of course, was ecstatic, and invited his girlfriend to accompany him. Lina, always curious though already doubting the truth of Communism, eagerly joined him. But what ensued was not at all what the Party had in mind. What Lina and Michael found was a country in complete disarray, where most of the people they met were drunk until noon from the night before and living intolerable lives. My mother, already disillusioned because she had been fighting anti-Semitism her whole life in a country not known for being kind to its Jews, lost the last vestiges of faith in Communism. My father’s faith, already broken during that fateful journey, crumbled completely under her irrefutable arguments.
My young parents were believers by nature and went looking for something to replace Communism. They found Judaism. Being Jewish had always hampered my mother, and she had felt its nagging presence since she was a child. She wanted to know more, to understand what it meant to be a Jew.
Of course, religion was illegal during that time, and the Gulag and prisons were full of people who had risked it all to practice their faith. Even reading a religious book could land you in jail, yet they embarked on a harrowing journey of learning about their heritage. Meetings of like-minded, curious Jews happened in basements in the dead of night. Any neighbor or stranger or even friend could be an informant. If one member of the group was caught, he could be tortured and reveal the names of all the other members. Learning about their Jewish heritage was fraught with danger and subterfuge. For two idealistic young people in their twenties, it was just what they needed: a cause to believe in and risk their lives for. It was what they had been taught was the supreme act of goodness: to find a reason for existence outside of yourself to devote your life to, even at the cost of your own. The Cause was what they had been fed their whole lives. They just changed causes.
Despite the risk, my mother even took it upon herself to observe the mikvah (ritual bath) to ensure I was born pure. Women are supposed to dunk themselves three times into a mix of rainwater and regular water seven days after their periods, to regain purity, but there was obviously no ritual Jewish bathhouse in Moscow. My mother, undeterred, found out that you could also dunk in an open body of water, and so, under cover of night, risking her life, she dunked herself in the Black Sea. For my mother, the more difficult the task the greater the reward.
Within a month of their trip across the country, when my mom was twenty-one and my dad twenty, they got married. Then two things occurred simultaneously: my father was “offered” (in the Soviet Union, the Party made “offers” you couldn’t refuse) a very high-ranking position in the Communist Party—a post that would have put him at the center of Soviet power and under the watchful eye of the KGB—and my mother got pregnant.
Now living their double life—learning about Judaism on the down-low whilst my father was a top Communist—would be impossible. But it was an offer he literally couldn’t refuse. So my mom went in front of the Communist Committee, seven months pregnant, and convinced them that if my dad got this new position, which would require extensive travel and time away from his family, she would end up killing herself and this unborn future Communist leader (yours truly) would be at risk. My mother is a force of nature, and these mere mortals were no match for her. They withdrew their offer, and my dad was allowed to continue his job as a research engineer while my mom worked on her first PhD.
But eventually living in the Soviet Union became too much, and so my birth and their desire for a better life for their baby were the catalysts for them to begin the strenuous process of emigration. The minute you applied for a visa you were an enemy of the state, because emigrating meant that you didn’t believe in the Communist vision and were a capitalist pig. Those who tried to leave were called refuseniks, because most often people who applied never received permission to leave. The Soviets even came up with a tax that any emigre with a college degree had to pay, which was equivalent to five years of income, making it impossible for most people. My family, however, was one of the lucky ones. The United States had sponsored the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which basically meant that America traded grain for Jews. Due to the Soviet Union’s rampant anti-Semitism, the United States had put an embargo on grain, and because the Soviet Union was in the midst of a hunger pandemic and grain shortage, that embargo made an impact. My family was literally traded for food.
They left with me, my dad’s guitar, and a single American dollar bill that one of the members of their underground Jewish network had managed to acquire. It was 1974, and I was three years old. At this point, my parents had been learning English and Hebrew illegally for three years and were fluent. My mother still speaks with a British accent, because the illegal records she listened to in Moscow were all from the UK.
A U.S. nonprofit organization that dealt with Jewish refuseniks called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) sent us from Moscow to a processing center in Vienna. I don’t remember my time in Vienna at all, although we spent six months there waiting to find out which country would take us in. From Vienna, we were sent to another processing center in Rome to await our fates.