Film Review: One of Us

An eye-opening, emotionally wrenching documentary from the directors of 'Jesus Camp' about three young people fighting to escape New York’s strict Hasidic community.
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We have seen a surge in nonfiction filmmaking and television about the experiences of people who decide to leave insular religious communities. From Alex Gibney’s Going Clear to Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten’s Sons of Perdition, the stories share an arc and point of view. Disaffected with their group’s beliefs or unforgiving rules, the subjects begin to break away. Then, they are both bullied into returning and threatened with ostracization from all their friends and family. For good reason, the church members are depicted as close-minded at best, villainous more often. Among the many things that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s spectacular documentary One of Us does so well is breaking out of this template while keeping the fundamental power of its outsiders story intact.

Ewing and Grady’s movie is set in New York’s community of Hasidic Jews. A sect that originated in Europe during the 18th century and reestablished themselves in New York after the Holocaust, the Yiddish-speaking Hasidim practice a strictly conservative and anti-modern form of Judaism in the middle of Brooklyn’s multicultural 21st-century bustle. As in many small, intensely religious groups, the rigidity of their rules sometimes results in apostates trying to leave the fold. One of Us tracks the journey of three of them as they try to reconcile their desire for family and community with the unforgiving demands imposed on them.

The one seemingly least affected by leaving is Luzer. A peppy and forward-looking young man, Luzer started out years before wanting to “corner the market” on Hasidic actors in New York. (His first big rebellion was secretly renting movies from Blockbuster and watching them in his car.) Since that ambition didn’t exactly align with Hasidic principles, by the time the movie catches up with him he’s going on auditions in Los Angeles, driving an Uber and conspicuously missing the curling sidelocks and beard mandated by Hasidim. He tries to build a bridge between his old and new worlds, attending Shabbos gatherings for ex-Hasidim and working with a Yiddish-language theatre company. 

Having more trouble finding himself in the wider world is Ari, who started asking questions about the modern world as a teenager. Referencing the sect’s prohibitions against media—illustrated in a brief but stunning clip of a massive Hasidic rally at Citi Field in 2012 where the rabbi thunders against the evils of the Internet—Ari laughs, “I couldn’t Google how to Google.” Ari wrestles with his faith and also the trauma of being raped by an adult at summer camp; as with many insular religious sects that distrust secular authorities, unreported abuse is endemic. He jumps with both feet into the secular world but finds that freedom isn’t what he expected.

Ewing and Grady’s most vibrant portrait here is of Etty. Married at 18 to a man she barely knew, Etty suffered years of abuse and neglect while giving birth to seven children. As a typical Hasidic woman, she was trained only for motherhood, with the understanding not just that she would have as many children as possible, but that the children would ultimately belong to the community. After calling the police on her husband and filing for divorce, she was systematically harassed and intimidated by Hasidic men who pounded on her door, demanding that she return to her husband, and marshaled a phalanx of lawyers to take her children away.

Etty’s halting transformation is indicative of the ties that continue to bind apostates to the community. She begins as terrified victim, shown only in silhouette, and morphs into a still-terrified fighter who takes off the Hasidic-mandated wig, attends a support group for ex-sect members, and struggles to keep her children even as her entire family marches into the courtroom to denounce her as unfit. Her choice is an impossible one: return to the fold and all the resulting abuse and close-mindedness, or continue on alone in the world.

While One of Us is mostly a portrait of these three dissenters and the discrimination they face, its broadly empathetic viewpoint also extends to the Hasidic community. The point is made that the Hasidic emphasis on absolute adherence to authority and conservative tradition, as well as its distrust of outsiders, was born out of the trauma of the Holocaust. While that insular mindset proves cloying to many, it also offers a village-like sense of belonging and purpose. Once Etty, Ari and Luzer dip their toes into the modern world, its freedoms can be intoxicating but also terrifying.

“Are you one of us?” a Hasidic man asks Ari in a park one day while the camera crew hovers at a distance. Ari is quiet. He has no easy answer to that question, and neither does this rich and thought-provoking movie.

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