One of Us, a new Netflix documentary by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing tells the heart-breaking stories of individuals leaving the Hasidic lifestyle. This documentary empathetically shows the real anger and communal hatred towards these individuals by their former friends and family, and shows how difficult of a decision it is for these people to leave what they know. The cinematic style and editing presents the information and stories in an incredibly intriguing way: one that pulls you into the darkest parts of a dimly lit corner of society. (RAK:5/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Rachel Kastner
The Hasidic Jewish community is a highly insular group of Jews. They live in certain communities in America, and have separated themselves from outward society. They have their own education systems, where their children are not taught english, math or science. They speak Yiddish, a mix of Hebrew and Polish language that many Americans do not speak. They dress like their ancestors and live without many electronics, free use of the internet or TV. These rules are all an attempt to shield their children and keep them in the fold; to prevent them from leaving the insular community. And while this works for many, for those in the Hasidic community who want to get out, for whatever reason, these restrictions hurt them.
This documentary follows several individuals. Etty was 18 years old when she got married. She had no choice in who her husband was. In fact, she had only met him twice before, for 30 minutes. She had 7 children, one after another in quick succession. Her deepest secret was that her husband was abusive and controlling, towards both her and her children. At the start of the film, Etty had just called the police on her husband to remove him from the home after a violent attack on their family. But because she had turned in a member of the fold to the authorities, her husband’s family and friends came to Etty’s house to threaten her. Etty explains that nobody talks about abuse in these communities: it doesn’t matter. There is an air of “law doesn’t come in here” and that the legal authorities can’t effect them. Throughout the rest of the documentary, we follow Etty as she battles for custody of her children in court. The process is hard as her community, including her best friends and neighbors, have turned against her completely. Etty’s stories about the abuse she faced, and how her community considers it irrelevant, are hard to listen to. One of Us also features Footsteps, an organization that assists people seeking to leave the hasidic community. Less than 2% of hasidic jews leave the fold. It is very difficult to do – socially, financially, emotionally. Footsteps helps Etty find ways to reconstruct her life.
The second case we follow is that of Ari, an 18-year old boy who decided that he didn’t feel like the person he looked like. As a child, he suffered a horrific experience that his community covered up. The experience left him with questions about his community, his faith, and his own self-worth. He was shunned by friends and family for being different and for asking questions. He discusses the first ‘breakthrough’ of learning about the internet. When he realized what Wikipedia is, he ”was the happiest person alive,” as he never had access to that kind of information before. The documentary delves into personal interviews with Ari, and with some members of the community as they tell Ari he is no longer welcome in the community. Considering how insular and ‘shut-off’ many of the people are, this documentary gains unprecedented access to the thoughts, opinions and conversations of the community.
ONE OF US also follows an ex-Hasic named Luzer, who left his wife and community because he wanted to be an actor. When he told his family he was no longer religious, they ex-communicated him for over 7 years. This documentary tells the stories and secrets of people who felt like they had nobody to turn to. It gives the inside lens into the scarier parts of insularity. It details the politics attached to the community: the Hasidic community is very politically active as they rely on state for subsidized housing. They are a big percentage of votes in certain geographical areas. When Etty was trying to get custody in court, she was intimidated by several Hasidic men who would call her and tell her to give up: “the state will always side with the religious parent.” These are the complexities that have never been featured before onscreen.
With unprecedented access into a very insular bubble of a community, ONE OF US tells the untold stories of brave individuals who stood up for themselves and what they believe in. This documentary will likely go a long way in making available the knowledge that it is possible to save yourself from insularity, especially if it is dangerous insularity- and that although the price to be paid is large, others have done it before, and there are resources and people available to help. ONE OF US deals with extremely difficult topics in an empathetic way that many documentaries don’t. I applaud the filmmakers, subjects and producers for being brave enough to make this film.
Rachel A. Kastner FF2 Media (10/31/17)
Top photo: Promotional poster for ONE OF US
Middle Photo: Hasidic men by the river (Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing)
Bottom photo: Hasidic men dancing at an event (Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing)
Does One of Us pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes. There are segments of the film when Etty attends job-hunting sessions in the city, or interviews with her in which she discusses other aspects of her life aside from her abusive husband.