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November 8, 2017 3:19 pm

Gut-Wrenching Film Looks at Problems in the Hasidic World

avatar by Alan Zeitlin


Heidi Ewing in 2016. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Some horror films keep you up at night without a monster — and the blistering and mesmerizing documentary “One of Us” is one of them.

There is no violence shown in the film, although it opens with a 911 call as Hasidic protesters threaten a woman with hammers outside her home.

In the documentary, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady present stories of three New Yorkers who decided to leave the Hasidic fold. They face numerous challenges — from violent threats from the Hasidic community, to court battles, drug addiction and severe depression.

One subject — Etty, who has had seven children by the time she’s 32 — is harassed by her ex-husband, and is fighting a losing battle to get custody of her children. She calls for help when threatening men march outside her home in an attempt to pressure her to give up custody. Etty’s was a forced marriage, and she had no choice in the matter — until she finally worked up the courage to leave.

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Ari talks about going to rehab — and laments that when he was raped by the head of a Jewish summer camp as a young boy, no one believed him. Indeed, the film shows how sexual abuse by some Hasidic leaders is covered up, and allowed to continue by the community.

In addition, Ari’s yeshiva didn’t teach English or math (there has been publicity about the lack of enforcement of basic educational standards in these yeshivas, but not much has been done). Therefore, getting a job or living outside of the Hasidic world is not easy. He has even been prevented from knowing that the internet exists.

“I couldn’t google how to google cause I didn’t know how to google in the first place,” he says.

The third subject, Luzer, has gotten some roles as an actor, but is living in Los Angeles in an RV, and doesn’t have much. Driving an Uber, Luzer sings along with “Staying Alive,” and you can’t help but laugh when he admits that he doesn’t know the words ,and instead sings: “Beetle Deetle, deetle, deetle, stayin alive, stayin alive.”

But there’s nothing funny about a scene later in the film, when he casually looks at a report of his attempted suicide. He also hasn’t seen his children in a few years; his family excommunicated him after he divorced his wife and left the fold.

“One of Us” is a film that slices at your soul because you sympathize with these people — and wonder why their Hasidic families would behave so terribly towards them if they really loved them in the first place.

It is also noteworthy that two of the most powerful scenes in the film involve music. Luzer is clearly searching for meaning as he sings with fellow ex-Hasidim at a Shabbat table, and Etty embraces a friend during a service at Romemu, a synagogue on the Upper West Side, as the congregation chants a prayer. I cried during that scene, as well as a scene where Etty’s daughter begs her mother not to let her end up with her ice-cold father.

There are likely many more people like these three subjects, that have — at great risk — decided to leave their respective communities. What is universal about this film is the need for humans to break away when feeling trapped and pressed, and their need to feel loved in the face of isolation.

“One of Us” is a harrowing and haunting film. It should also be a call to action. We can only hope that as a result of the film, abuse in the Hasidic world is not overlooked — and that those who feel alone can find out that they aren’t.

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