Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- courtesy of Loki Films

Leaving a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn for secular Brooklyn isn’t easy

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed and Produced by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady
Released by Netflix on 10/20/2017
In English and Yiddish with English subtitles
USA. 95 min. Not Rated

With One Of Us, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady go farther into observing the closed, Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the U.S. than has any other nonfiction film. While the secular may think that all the bearded men with long black coats, hair curled around their ears under their black or fur hats in New York City’s Diamond District on 47th St, or B & H Photo, or the missionary-like Lubavitch Chabad Houses are the same in their 18th century garb like when their movements were founded in Eastern Europe, there are a dozen major Hasidic sects. The directors followed over three years three conflicted individuals who are struggling to emigrate out of the tight-knit, rules-bound community.

Even tentative exploration of leaving is difficult. In Brooklyn, each sect controls its adherents and limits their contact with the non-kosher society (including the internet). Yiddish is their lingua franca and some can’t read and write in English and their private religious schools barely teach secular subjects or skills (despite rising complaints about lack of Education Department oversight from those who have left). Marriages are arranged for 18-year-olds, and large families encouraged by tracking women’s cycles; women do help each other through health and other crises. Not mentioned in the documentary is that an apostate in the family could harm the marriage prospects of siblings.

But as has been seen in other documentaries on those rejecting their religious communities, including the Mormons (Meason & Merton’s 2010 Sons Of Perdition) and the Amish (Lucy Walker’s 2002 Devil’s Playground), there are rebels. A few ex-Hasidim have successfully published memoirs, even as there have also been tragic news reports of suicides among them. The organization Footsteps, founded in 2003 with funding from the larger Jewish community, provides guidance, counseling, and support groups.

Over a year, Ewing and Grady met with participants from the various sects to find those willing to go public with their struggle, honing in on three. One has already been very public. Luzer Twersky is a 31-year-old actor who over the eight years since he left the fold seemed to have a lock on fictional Hasidic roles, in Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (2010) and Maxime Giroux’s Félix & Meira (2014), on TV in Transparent and HBO’s High Maintenance, in Yiddish theater, and has a website with press clips. But here, more than in his promotional interviews, he goes deeper than the usual bi-coastal difficulties of an actor’s life with wistful hopes to re-connect with his estranged family. His children live with his ex-wife and her second husband in one of the Hasidic enclaves in Rockland County, where he has to duck from being seen by his nearby ex-father-in-law.

The travails of the other two are more heart-wrenching. Ari is turning 18, but his maturity is thwarted in the lasting effects of sexual abuse by a teacher (still working in the community, to his disgust), miring him in drug abuse. His parents do pay for a stint at a Florida rehab facility. He can’t, and doesn’t really want to fit in anymore. Even as he has discovered the internet, he is drawn back for exuberant family and holiday celebrations, though now standing out by looking Modern Orthodox. During the course of the cinema verité documentation, he announces how long he’s been clean. Unusually, he also benefits from a kindly older advisor, who meets with him in what looks like a rabbi’s study, and is sympathetic that the community doesn’t do enough to punish abusers and help their victims.

The extensive screen time with Etty is the most intimate and revealing. She is a 30-something mother of seven, and she weeps that her husband abused her and was violent to their children. First hiding modestly from the camera, her ties to the community fray when she divorces him and fights in court for custody. Transcripts of testimony show how courts accept the community’s insistence on enforcing “status quo” for the children’s religious observance and lifestyle in order to repopulate the community since the Holocaust. (Not that all the victims were Hasidic by any means.) Though the Family Court judges are appointed, there’s implications of the community’s political clout by how the judge keeps siding with the husband’s lawyer.

As relatives and neighbors turn against her, the camera is there when she gets a threatening call from a community leader, negotiating on behalf of her ex-husband. However, the caller insists on “Yiddishkeit” for the children, which the subtitles surprisingly translate as “Judaism”, when the caller really means “Hasidism”; in the secular community that term refers to nostalgia for Yiddish culture. But the only even implied alternative observance for the children is Etty’s participation in an egalitarian Jewish renewal service with a very supportive Footsteps counselor, and no other Jewish observance is even raised with the judge to help qualify as “status quo”. The intense, drawn-out community and legal pressure has the opposite of the intended effect by driving Etty further from their restrictions and she tearfully opens up to the camera, without the required wig. As discouraging as is her fight for her kids, she does stick to the frustrating rules of the court in order to preserve her right to appeal.

Other documentaries, including on TV, have only emphasized the ecstatic, unquestioning spirituality of Hasidism and always conclude with an obediently happy wedding. With their observational, cinema verité style, the directors do include passing scenes of warmth and affection within the Hasidic community. But the emotional pain of those trying to leave its control tug more at the heart.

Originally posted 10/20/2017 NB: Updates

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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