If you haven’t left an oppressive religious community, peeking inside one may seem novel, a curious poking of your nose into a weird upside-down world where everything mainstream culture takes for granted is swapped out for some alternate reality.
If you have left such a community, though, stories of others who’ve also found their way out induce a mix of panic and relief. Critics try to stay neutral, but I can’t pretend One of Us didn’t sock me in the solar plexus; the documentary about three young people trying to make their way outside of Hasidic Judaism is laden with a familiar sadness and longing.
My own background is much closer to an earlier film from One of Us co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, which looked inside a charismatic Christian summer camp for young people that trained them in spiritual warfare (and to an extent, conservative political warfare). That film is hard to watch too.
Whereas Jesus Camp focused on the faithful, though, One of Us takes a different tack in its examination of an insular religious community (and one that’s more impenetrable to outsiders). Instead of talking to the true believers, Ewing and Grady follow the questioners. The film’s revelations are two-pronged: They uncover much about the Hasidic community, while also more broadly exposing how insular groups keep people in and everyone else out. It’s hard to leave, even when staying is impossible too.
One of Us follows three young people who leave the Hasidic Jewish community over three years
The three subjects of One of Us are at different points in their journey away from Hasidic Judaism when we first meet them. Luzer left years earlier, and is living in an RV in a parking lot in Los Angeles while trying to make it as an actor. Ari is still a teenager whose serious questions about his community and his religion stem not just from natural curiosity but also from a traumatic experience of sexual abuse at the hands of an older man.
Both Luzer and Ari are compelling figures, but the film’s most riveting subject is Etty, a mother of seven who has finally broken free of an abusive marriage — but not of the community that enabled it — when we first meet her. The movie’s three-year arc most closely hews to her journey, from her first tentative steps away from a life over which she has no control to a hard-won, grief-tinged freedom that also results in having to surrender her children. Partway through the film, Ewing and Grady finally show her face for the first time; through Etty we encounter Footsteps, a support group for former Hasidic Jews.
Etty isn’t the only one of the subjects whose movement away from the Hasidic community comes with the steep cost of losing her family. Luzer, too, left a family behind when he left. And Ari’s difficulties adjusting to life outside the community leave him casting about for some kind of safety net.
Ewing and Grady stay with Etty, Luzer, and Ari for three years, chronicling their shifting arcs as they navigate life on the outside. Some things feel freeing — eating a cheeseburger, getting a haircut, getting a job, cruising down the freeway singing to the radio. But not everything is like that. There are costs to pay besides losing one’s family. There’s the anxiety that comes along with learning how to navigate a world to which you’ve never been introduced, with a subpar education and no safety net. There’s the panic that can come from learning to live outside the strictures of the laws set by the rabbis, even if you chafed against those laws. There’s the fear that you may be in physical danger whether you stay or go.
What’s clear — and implicit in the film’s title — is that there are stringent lines drawn around what it is to be “us” and what it is to be other, and that crossing that line has extreme consequences. As the film notes, a straight line can be drawn between many of the community’s actions and the staggering losses they sustained during the Holocaust; children are considered to belong to the community, not the parents, and the extreme ways they choose to protect themselves from the outside extends almost to flouting the law, something toward which, Etty claims, the city of New York turns a blind eye. That can allow abuse, in particular, to flourish, and leaves victims with no recourse if reporting it might threaten the community as a whole.
One of Us gives a way of understanding the feeling of leaving, even to the outsider
That Ewing and Grady managed to find their way into this experience with such clarity and compassion is remarkable, and that it’s so relatable for those who aren’t former Hasidic Jews is a testament to their empathy as filmmakers. Etty, Ari, and Luzer get to tell their stories on their own terms; Ewing and Grady silently fill in a few key details via onscreen text, and that’s it. Instead of being on the inside, we’re experiencing what it’s like to leave. And it’s devastating.
Perhaps the most devastating thing we come to feel is how much it hurts to lose the animating sense of purpose that a community like this can offer. Walking away from a world that you’ve come to believe, or even know, is ruled by abusive people also leaves you devoid of a life trajectory you were brought up to see as your own, as a parent and a member of the group. Losing that sense of purpose has vast psychological consequences too: Ari struggles with a cocaine addiction, Luzer speaks of his suicide attempts, and Etty weeps at Footsteps meetings. All of them look for consolation in places that feel even a little familiar — religious services that share some of the trappings of what they’ve left behind. None of them come to a final conclusion about what comes next.
That experience is familiar and devastating to those who’ve had similar experiences of leaving, of no longer being “one of us.” And it’s broadly understandable, too, which makes One of Us a bridge into empathy even for the outsider. It’s hard enough to live when the rug you were used to standing on is pulled out from under you. It’s even harder to deal with when you made the choice to yank it away yourself.
One of Us premieres on Netflix on October 20.