You don’t have to be one of us to be touched by “One of Us,” the recently released Netflix documentary that features the stories of three ex-Hasidim. The film captures their most intimate and personal moments as the subjects navigate their way in a confusing and foreign world. The shots are masterful, and the stories we watch and listen to arouse the rawest emotions of the human animal, evoking an immediate, visceral response in the viewer.
In the opening scene we hear the voice of a petrified Hasidic woman who calls the police in a desperate attempt to find safety. “There is people at the door, banging at the door… I’m alone with my kids…. This is very dangerous.” Her face is invisible, but your imagination easily conjures up an image of a lone and terrified woman who’s trying to save herself and her kids from evil forces.
Etty, we learn, is embattled in an ugly divorce, and her husband, along with his family, her family and the entire community, do their utmost to make sure she does not retain custody of the children. It’s a battle against powerful forces; a battle that Etty ultimately loses. Etty’s face is obscured for much of the movie until she finally reveals it. She takes off her wig, shows her face to the camera, and we get to know the woman who, in her words, was beaten and yelled at by her husband but never responded. Now she responds, on a very public venue — and it ain’t pretty. The helpless voice of that invisible, vulnerable woman now reverberates all over the world, in American theaters and in every corner of the earth where “Netflix and Chill” is a thing.
The sense of drama lingers throughout the film. Given that there is no narrator in the background, it has the aura of a drama movie rather than a documentary. We encounter Ari, an ex-Hasidic, charming teenager, as he wrestles with the demons of drug addiction and an innocent childhood brutally destroyed by the evil that is sexual abuse. We meet Luzer, an aspiring actor who walked away from his Hasidic wife and two kids, as he navigates the uncertainties and challenges of the secular world. We watch him cry while skimming through pictures of his children, mourning a past that he is trying to forcibly eradicate from his memory, to no avail.
As a Hasid myself, I was deeply touched by the subjects’ stories. I was shaken and angry and perplexed. Living in this community, I have been witness to many a campaign in which fundraisers are held and posters are hung, and people gladly donate money to save children from a parent who deviated from the religious path and wants to transform them into goyim. There are huge posters showing images of boys whose peyes were cut off. And I know that as much as I’m shocked by the image of a child being taken away from a loving mother, many community members are equally shocked by the image of a Hasidic child with shorn peyes (Etty did not do this to her children, but sometimes parents do).
And that thought made me pause. I began wondering if the film producers do not employ the same tactics that the community uses to instill shock and dread where in reality there is nuance and detail. I kept thinking about the documentary for days, and gory images involving rape, abuse and violence were running through my mind, even though the documentary has no such explicit scenes. I began wondering if a viewer who doesn’t know anything about Hasidim comes to associate similar images with the Hasidic community at large.
The documentary exposes a darker side of the community, and this story needs to be told, but it’s being told in Hollywood style rather than in documentary style. Not only don’t we get enough details about each individual’s life story, not only is there little to no background to the dramatic scenes we watch, but we come away with an awful lot of misperceptions about the Hasidic community at large.
I know the Hasidic life very well because I live it. But had this film been my only window to the closed world of Hasidim, I would have gotten a caricatured image of my community. I would have gotten the impression that if a Hasidic woman wants to leave an abusive marriage, she has to leave the community as well. I would have gotten the impression that if a Hasidic man or woman divorces and leaves the community, they have to forego their children. But none of this is true. There are plenty Hasidic women who leave abusive marriages and remain in the community. There are plenty Hasidic men and women who choose to divorce and to change their life style to some extent, yet maintain a regular and healthy relationship with their children. I know personally several of them, but for some reason we don’t see their stories in One of Us. Domestic violence, sexual abuse and its cover-up are serious but universal issues. I’ve yet to see evidence that sexual abuse is more rampant among Hasidim than in the secular world (the Me Too phenomenon suggests otherwise). Yet, if you watch this documentary, where all of the subjects have suffered some form of abuse, you can’t help but wonder if abuse is standard practice in the community; if this is like ancient Rome where pedophilia was sanctioned by the state. Your heart and mind become filled with disgust and bewilderment towards this strange culture, hostile to vulnerable children and women.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t be interested in watching a romanticized depiction of a community that dedicates its life to God and is devoted to good deeds and modesty. That’s a false, idealistic image that some people - both within the community and outside of it - have in their mind when thinking of Hasidim. I even find it problematic that some critics suggest the film should have shown people who are “happy” in the community — as if happiness is a novelty in our community; as if we are supposed to have more or fewer happy people than any other society. In reality, the bulk of Hasidic people lead a strikingly similar life to that of the rest of the civilized world. We have internet. We have smartphones. We watch movies (although it’s considered taboo). We own businesses. We have young people who go to college and get a degree. We have good people and bad people; happy marriages and loveless marriages; believers and skeptics; philanthropists and pedophiles; rabbis and rapists (sometimes they are both the same person). We discuss politics and fashion and food and music — just like what you would expect from any vibrant community.
Sure, we are an insular community. We have our own culture-within-a-culture with all kinds of paradoxes and contradictions. We have distinct values and beliefs. We have interesting traditions and weird superstitions. We wear a fur hat in the summer and we don’t own dogs. We don’t believe in science but are eager to use its productions. We publicly decry technology yet we utilize it to our advantage in private. We don’t have sex ed but the religious texts our children study are rife with sexually explicit material. We have strong family values yet we have no qualms tearing a family apart when it’s considered a sacred battle. We have a strange culture that is an amalgamation of shtetl life in the 1800s and the modern world of the twenty first century.
We are a community that is governed by tribal instincts. There is a strong sense of comradeship and we feel an obligation to preserve the integrity and purity of the community. If we get the sense that someone has “betrayed” us, like when a mother cuts off the payes (earlocks) of her children and their estranged father cries “oy vie!” the community will help the father by all means possible. And not because we’re traumatized by the Holocaust, as the film mistakenly claims, but because religion is important to us and our children are our future generation.
In the community’s perception, Etty does not only commit a sin against God; she is breaking a marital and parental agreement. When she married her husband and gave birth to her children, it was agreed upon that the children will be brought up in a community of faith and observance. She can’t backtrack on that agreement. She is being perceived not only as irreligious, but also as emotionally unstable. What kind of a mother would want to upend her children’s lives like that? She must be disturbed. It’s a mitzvah to grab those poor children from her.
And when community activists start a campaign to “save” those children, the run of the mill Hasid is unaware that the religious parent may be an abusive creep or that this is a family dispute in which religion is only a footnote. There is a lack of nuance; just like in this film. The Hasidic community is a tight knit community. And like any such community, it is hard to leave. If you leave the community you have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot of what defines you. You’ll have to deal with public shame and family pressure, and you’ll have a hard time fully integrating in secular society. If you have children and you plan to divorce and leave the community or change your religious lifestyle, be prepared for a bitter fight over custody or visitation rights. Yet, it’s a challenge that some people willingly take upon themselves and, if they are prescient and know the risks involved, usually don’t end up in rehab or on the streets or even losing their children.
I know, that’s a boring story and doesn’t make good cinema. So instead, we have three people who went through traumatic and abusive experiences telling the story of what it’s like to live in this community and leave it. While I tremendously respect the courage and strength of these people who are facing their demons and are making a life for themselves against all odds, I am troubled by the fact that their stories, in its heightened dramatized version of the film, is going to shape our image for many, many people around the world.
The producers seem to be woefully ignorant about our culture, and that’s evident throughout the documentary. Heidy Ewing said in an interview that people who leave the community have to learn how to open a bank account — as if this is some sort of cult where the community manages your finances. Her unsubstantiated comments about the Hasidic population being targeted in the Holocaust because they “refused to blend in” has also been widely reported. I don’t blame the producers for their ignorance; they are not historians or sociologists but filmmakers. Yet I find it disturbing that hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of people are going to learn about our community through their skewed lens.
For example, Ari says in the film that he didn’t know how to Google when he left the community. But that’s because Ari left as a young adolescent, and teens don’t have access to internet in our community. If he would stay in the community, get married and have a job, he’d probably use Google every day (as well as WhatsApp and Telegram and all the other apps our generation currently uses), like the vast majority of Hasidic men do. Yet, the viewer gets away with the impression that the people in this community are stuck in the middle ages and don’t even know what Google is.
In fact, Ari’s story is very unlike Etty’s. His story indicates a measure of openness and acceptance that exists in our community. His parents embraced him despite his new lifestyle, and they even paid tens of thousands of dollars for his rehab. We also see him (and Luzer) conversing freely with former Hasidic friends who seem to genuinely care about the happenings in their lives. We don’t witness the ostracism and vilification that the film subtly insinuates. And that’s because Hasidim don’t really care if Ari has left his faith; they still consider him a brother.
Had Ari been married, born children, and had those children taken along with him on his journey, against the wishes of his spouse — that would be a different story. The community would fight tooth and nail to bring those precious souls back to the religious parent, because then Ari would have been considered a traitor, just like Etty. Of course, it’s also possible that Ari just had supportive parents to begin with and that prevented him from landing in such a precarious situation to begin with. We will never know.
One of the most authentic and touching scenes in the documentary is when Ari discusses his struggles with a Hasidic mentor and activist Rabbi Yosef Rappaport. Ari demands answers. “You hear stories about kids being raped. Why is God not stopping them?” He wants to know. “Either there is a God and he’s evil or there is no God,” Ari concludes, reminiscent of Job in the bible.
Rappaport listens intently. His face, adorned by a bushy, grayish beard, emanates genuine love and concern to a fellow Jew, and he keeps silent. Rappaport later acknowledges that he considered this question not so much a philosophical inquiry as an outcry of pain. In his words: “Yo gleiben, nisht gleiben (believer or non-believer) — he is in pain.” What the Hasidic man is saying is that while he couldn’t care less about Ari’s philosophical agnosticism, he is deeply troubled by the fact that a member of his own community has inflicted immense pain on another member of the community, and the community at large could not, or rather would not, alleviate that pain.
Moshe Levy is a Hasidic writer living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.