A non-Jewish woman’s insights into the film “One of Us”, which follows three Hasidic Jews as they transition into the secular world
If there are two shows to choose from, I’ll always choose the one that has a connection to Israel or the Jews. Why? Because “it is what it is” as Jerry Seinfeld said the other week when I went to see his show – I went mainly because he is Jewish. OK, he is also funny. But he is mainly Jewish. So, for that reason, I chose to watch the Netflix original Documentary ‘One of Us’, which premiered October 20th.
All I knew about the film was that it was about the Hasidic Jewish community. Since I am not Jewish myself, I often find the different layers of Judaism and the different types of Jewishness perplexing. Something not even my current graduate degree studies in Judaism can ease. How could it, to be honest? Every person I turn to in the big Jewish community all give me different answers on what it really means to be a Jew.
But back to the Hasidim. They are a community that – as an outsider – I’m trying hard to decode. You know, to me they are a mysterious group that you don’t even know how to act around. Do I look at the men? Can I even ask questions? Are they even going to talk to me, a goy? But really, what I always try to decode is: Are they happy?
Before I started watching the new documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, I only had two previous experiences with ultra-orthodoxy. The first was meeting two Haredi women in Israel. The second was watching ‘Menashe’ – another documentary about a non conformist Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn. While the former reassured me of what I hoped for, namely that an ultra-orthodox religious life can be a happy life (the two women are also extremely successful in a startup career), the latter one showed me that no matter what community we live in, the journey through life takes on similar twists and challenges.
‘One of Us’ walks us through three Hasidic Jewish persons’ attempts to leave their orthodox life and enter a risky new territory. The film arches over three years. We have a mother of seven, Etty; a sexually molested 18-year-old Ari; and an aspiring actor Luzer, who left his wife and child. The characters are so different, and yet the struggle is so similar. What connects them all is what is articulated by each: “I did not feel like the person I looked like.”
While I could offer you a film critic’s opinion, I want to instead share how it impacted me as an outsider: a curious non-Jew. ‘One of Us’, shocked me already with the opening scene. A woman, whose face isn’t visible at this point, calls 911. Her voice is shaking, she is filled with fear and she is protecting her kids. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady pretty much set the tone of the movie in the first few minutes.
If I were to sum up my feelings during the film, it would be something like: “I hope no one is going watch this.” All I wanted is to keep it a secret, so that it can’t be used against the Jews.
I spend my days and nights standing against anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism. Trying to mediate between the Jewish world and the non Jewish one in a Utopian attempt to make stereotypes evaporate. But this film doesn’t help because the first image a non-Jew has about Jews is that of the Hasidic community. Before I got swept up into this world and went to Israel for the first time, all I knew about Jewish people was what I saw in District VII, the Jewish Quarter in Budapest near the Synagogue: Orthodoxy. Other than that, I was totally ignorant. So just always assume that I was not the exception but the norm.
So my initial feeling while watching was one of discomfort and thinking “don’t they [Jews] have enough issues already? Aren’t there many people who hate them already? Why do we need this? Why do we need to show this?”
Of course, all these aren’t good enough reasons not to show a heartbreaking picture that may or may not be the reality for many. Anyone with the slightest intellectual comprehension will know not to judge. All religions and their various denominations, are similar. We are still human beings with sins and the strong belief that our truth is The Truth.
From a cinematic point of view, the film is great. It made me feel part of the journey – I felt like a fly on the wall; exactly what I wanted to be when it comes to my searching the Hasidic community.
But throughout the movie I learn more. I learn that only 2% of such a community ever attempts to leave. Why? Because the system is designed that way, so that you can’t leave. Or better put, you can try to leave, but you are missing the basic survival skills to cope with the secular world. Most of those who leave end up in rehab, become criminals, or commit suicide.
This is not unique to the Hasidic community though. Scientologists, Nuns, Orthodox Christianity are but a few that come to mind. Frankly, I’ll go even further: leaving any sort of closed community, let it be of dancers, doctors, actors, anything that gives you an identity, a safety circle, above all an identity, is a risk. A risk that you have no idea how you will overcome; if you overcome at all.
I grew up in a very closed and restrictive community of professional ballet dancers. My physical and mental upbringing was controlled and taken over by my ballet masters with whom I spent more time than with my family. I, therefore, found myself identifying with the struggles of these three former Hasidic Jews more often than I like to admit.
I know that feeling of emptiness of not having the identity you grew up into. The feeling of loneliness outside of your known territory. The one-dimensional set of skills that they instill in you, the continuous dilemma of whether I’ll be able to make it outside. Obviously, I had more leeway than they had, but I felt them. I really did.
As Etty says towards the end of the film, there are plenty of Hasidic Jews who found and find happiness and their purpose in their community. But those who don’t will have a hard and stressful journey, often without the anchors necessary to survive in the outside world. Something they called “secular anxiety”.
All in all, the film left me with the Catch-22 feeling I had before. While it showed me an extract of lives of those who did not find happiness and purpose in Hasidism, it didn’t say it wasn’t possible. Just as not everyone feels the need to leave the life of a ballet dancer as I did, and despite all odds, I stepped out of my safety world.
So if anything, this documentary showed me what the film “Menashe’ did: life is a journey for all of us that might take us through different paths, but what we all have in common is the power of choice: to stay or to go.
Virag Gulyas, is a Judaism graduate student at Touro College and the founder of “Almost Jewish”, a pro-Israel movement