“ONE OF US”— A New Life


A New Life

Amos Lassen

“One of Us” is documentary about three Hasidic Jews who have left that community, and the price they pay for having done so. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady introduce us to the three who have left for different reasons. Ari, a teen, left because his hunger for knowledge was in conflict with religious restrictions. Luzer is an aspiring actor who lives part-time in Los Angeles and tells us that his impression of the outside world came from secretly watching movies. Etty is in her early 30s and is seeking a divorce from a husband who the police took out of the home because of abuse. The Hasidic community has exploited legal loopholes and financial muscle to win custody battles.

Set in Borough Park and Williamsburg, we see the difficulties of the three subjects but we do at first in  obstructed, hazy, or fragmented” ways. This film is a very strong condemnation of the oppression that is part of the social structure of Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities. We see that the communities are insular and have high birth rates and their ownindependently operated ambulance and police forces. Directors Ewing and Grady challenge the culture of violence and silence that keeps many Hasidim isolated and privately anguished.

The film begins with a recording of a 911 call made by Etty, a thirty something mother of seven and a victim of spousal abuse. As she speaks out about the violence and forced sex in her marriage, her husband’s family takes terrible measures to silence her. Men stand outside her apartment wielding hammers to intimidate her. They are dressed in full Orthodox clothing ready to handle a perceived threat to their neighborhood.

Ari, a questioning teenager and victim of rape at an Orthodox summer camp, is first seen cutting off his sidelocks. Even though he is wearing a yarmulke, he is a rebel who chain-smokes as he defiantly uses the internet in a public park (Orthodox communities largely forbid the internet, and have their own limited libraries.) Most of Ari’s struggles, including drug abuse take place off-screen. Etty’s story is especially powerful because we see the masculine power systems that control so much of society.

“One of Us” spends two years following three individuals whose quests for meaning, purpose and even personal safety cause them to abandon the Hasidic religious community they grew up in but came to view as suffocating to the point of despair. None of the three people we meet here regrets leaving and joining the wider world. their after stories as well as their before ones touch on loneliness, insecurity and even trauma.

Satmar Jews speak Yiddish, are suspicious of outsiders and are bound by adherence to very strict rules of worship and life. The movement was born in 18th century Eastern Europe as a way to bring joy to everyday worship. It was almost erased by the Holocaust. Children are in part seen as community property essential to ensure the group’s survival. Nobody leaves unless they pay the price for freedom and we see that price here and how difficult it is to pay. The stories of our three characters give us anarrative through in which we can see the contradictions that make up our identities.

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