Leaving ultra-Orthodox Judaism is, at the very least, an emotionally wrenching and often violent undertaking. The process has inspired a subgenre of memoirs that include critically acclaimed books by Shulem Deen, Leah Vincent, Leah Lax and Deborah Feldman. It’s also inspired documentary makers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing to train their camera on three former Hasidic acolytes for the new Netflix documentary “One of Us.”
Religious fundamentalism is not new to the duo, who also directed and produced “Jesus Camp,” which focused on a charismatic Christian summer camp that indoctrinated teens in fundamental Christianity. While “Jesus Camp” set its sights on presenting the extent to which true believers will go for their faith, “One of Us” shows the painful struggle of breaking away from an oppressive religious community.
Hasidim inspire an almost voyeuristic curiosity. It’s a sect in which men dress like 18th-century Polish gentry and whose members’ first language is Yiddish. They are averse to the secular world in the extreme: Hasidim are prohibited from watching television, accessing the internet or even setting foot in a secular library. This shunning of the outside world includes the belief that secular laws do not apply to them.
Of the three tales Grady and Ewing braid to tell a story of desperate escape and tentative survival, a young woman known as Etty has the most powerful arc. Married at the age of 19 to a man she met only once, she had seven children with this abusive husband. “One of Us” dramatically opens with a recording of a 911 call Etty makes after her husband and his companions have threatened to bang down her door. This relentless intimidation segues into full-blown psychological abuse in New York family court. Etty eventually finds her way to Footsteps, a non-profit organization that helps ex-Hasidim who are OTD—an acronym for “Off the Derech,” or off the path of ultra-Orthodox Judaism—navigate their way into modernity.
Among the many challenges Etty faces is losing custody of her children. The elders of the community, which keeps its adherents purposely poor and ignorant of the outside world, have deep pockets when it comes to keeping children with the observant parent. Those who attempt to leave with their children face a barrage of high-priced lawyers and judges who maintain that the status quo cannot be disrupted. Etty cannot possibly hope to support her children without money or the support of a community.
The two other protagonists in the film are 19-year-old Ari and 30-year-old Luzer. Ari is forever scarred by a childhood rape at his summer camp. He first takes a tentative step into the larger world by surfing the internet, which he exclaims is a “gift from God!” But Ari’s freedom comes at a steep price. At first, he rebels by munching on cheeseburgers. Unable to cope with his newfound liberty, he becomes addicted to cocaine, exemplifying that freewill must be constantly and thoughtfully negotiated.
Luzer abandoned his wife and children to pursue his dream of becoming an actor in Los Angeles. He lives in an RV in a parking lot and makes money working as an Uber driver. He has no practical knowledge or experience in surviving in a society that was initially closed off to him.
Grady and Ewing’s camerawork is notable in telling their subjects’ stories. With Ari and Luzer, the filmmakers are mostly flies on the wall, simply observing without comment; they use close-ups judiciously and often appear to be spying on these young people. However, for the first half of the film, they do not expose Etty’s face until she is ready to show herself to the world. Grady and Ewing accord her the respect she does not have in Hasidic society. Hiding her face also reflects the loneliness and alienation at the core of these stories.
“One of Us” conveys just how steep a price Ari, Luzer and Etty pay for their freedom. Etty, in particular, is subject to the cruelty of a society that fiercely asserts that every young Hasid is a replacement for a soul lost in the Holocaust. There are attempts on her life, as well as manipulations that she is unfit to raise her children. These three souls struggle to reconcile the Judaism of their upbringing with their determination to live life on their terms.