One of Us

One of Us is a documentary about the plight of hasidic jews who choose to leave the enclave of their community. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Jesus Camp fame, we follow the lives of three hasidic jews who step outside the confines of community norms. Etty is a 32 year old mother of seven children who divorces her abusive husband; Ari is an outside-the-box teenager with a drug habit, and Luzer is an actor who abandons his wife and children to pursue his dream in California.

Etty’s battle to maintain custody of her children is particularly heartbreaking and exhibits the double standard New York courts apply to ultra orthodox women versus secular women. If a secular woman has a standing history of abuse from her husband and can illustrate as much in court, there is absolutely no way he will be granted full custody of the children. But what seems a given is an uphill battle for Etty. The entire community finances and supports her husband while relentlessly harassing her; she is more than once deliberately hit by a car and a letter is circulated around the community to solicit legal funds to save the children “from satan.” While I had heard stories of hasidic women treated horrifically in divorce and custody settlements, I never realized how perilous the reality could be for them.

This is a good documentary but not as good as Jesus Camp. The pacing is a little sloppy and some camera work sub par. I would have liked to have seen more of the hasidic community writ large, heard from some rabbis (one rabbi does give commentary later in the film) or learned more about other hasids who venture beyond the fold. Perhaps a broader scope was not possible given how insular and anti-media hasdic jews are: internet access is forbidden, as is the viewing of secular media. In one particularly painful scene Ari is approached by an older man asking if the park has wi-fi access. Ari initially misunderstands the question to indicate the man wants access, and offers him the use of his phone. What entails is an icy third degree and brief lecture on how Ari should repent for cutting his payot (side curls) and engaging in the secular world.

One of Us takes you on a tour of disbelief; disbelief that a thirteen year old has never used google. Disbelief that these individuals, born and raised in Brooklyn, struggle to speak standard english. Disbelief that a kind and loving mother would need to fight for any access to her children. Disbelief that Ewing and Grady even managed to produce this film in the first place! I have to hand it to them- given how deeply sequestered and guarded hasidic society is, these two women have some guts.

This docu gets two thumbs up from yours truly, though I came away slightly disappointed from a technical aspect. As I have preached before, interesting content but poor execution is the singular disease of the documentary world, and while well done, One of Us doesn’t quite hit the mark of Jesus Camp.

 

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6 thoughts on “One of Us

      • So I’m fairly confident the Hasidic woman didn’t lose her kids because she was a woman; she lost them because she left the community and the community will close ranks to prevent kids from moving to irreligious households. Shulem Deen, who wrote All Who Go Do Not Return had it happen to him when he left the religion. There’s a good documentary that’s more sympathetic, A Life Apart.

        Going to just dump a lot of titles here because the baby is napping and I need to cook dinner. Hasidim are one type of Orthodox Jews. All broadly follow the same religious laws but differ in how much they are willing to interact with the modern world. My BFF is Orthodox but she and her husband have advanced degrees, the kids are getting a fairly extensive secular education, etc. but they still keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, etc. This list mostly covers Hasidim, I think. Look up Yitta Schwartz’s obituary. Unorothodox, by Deborah Feldman, though I read her blog back when she was anonymously Hasidic Feminist and I’m reasonably skeptical of some things she says. The Pious Ones, Joseph Berger. Inside the Rebbe’s Army. Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family. Mitzvah Girls. Teacha! Unchosen, Hella winston. Shalom Auslander. Postville. This is not a love story. Search Kiryas Joel in your favorite newspaper aggregator. Boychiks in the hood. The zaddik. Felix and Meira. Becoming un orthodox. Distant Sisters. Browse the public sections of imamother.com. Cut me loose. Defenders of the faith.

      • I guess what I found so puzzling is- unless there was something the docu didn’t show- etty wasn’t abandoning hasidic observance. Even if she had this should not be grounds to lose custody of your children. I hope the situation is one day remedied.

        The stories I’ve heard are usually hasidic women given a raw deal in divorce cases where the judge is receiving kickbacks from the husband’s family.

  1. What a truly TERRIBLE thing religious superstition is.

    Causing misery, death, and hate wherever it goes.

    The world would be a better, happier, and safer place without it.

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