Despite the absence of overt editorializing, it’s safe to conclude from Jesus Camp and the new One of Us that documentary co-directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have a visceral aversion to fundamentalist religions, not only because said religions aggressively stifle individualism, but also because they foster a kind of dependence that’s murderously hard to throw off.
Grady and Ewing’s focus in One of Us is the Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism as it exists in Brooklyn’s Borough Park and certain towns in upstate New York. More specifically, they profile three youngish people attempting to leave the community with the help of a support group called Footsteps, which is regarded by the Hasidim as God’s enemy incarnate.
The Hasidim are not as a rule camera-friendly, although you can see a relatively sympathetic portrait of them in the recent, fictional film Menashe. They dress like their ancestors and speak largely in Yiddish. They strictly forbid their members to use the internet or enter secular libraries. More important, they do not believe that secular laws should affect them.
Grady and Ewing cut among three ex-Hasidim, although the woman’s story is by far the most powerful. Her name is Etty (last name redacted). She has seven children by a man she says she didn’t choose to marry — the marriage was thrust upon her. She says her husband beat her and her children. In recordings of phone calls he made after she left and was forced to get an order of protection, he tells her that leaving their world is like “taking a gun and shooting your kids and yourself.” She hides her face in the first part of the film and then, all at once, she’s all there, in close-up, having made the decision to come out, as it were. She kept quiet for 12 years, she said. No more.
Anyone who saw the Israeli drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem understands the relentless psychological abuse that this community inflicts when a member attempts to leave, especially with children in tow. By bizarre coincidence (or is it by design?), the rabbi who runs Footsteps is named Chani Getter. She is not without empathy for the modern Hasidic movement. Most of its adherents were wiped out in the Holocaust. Now, its leaders have carefully designed a society where attrition is as arduous as possible. Its members — being poor in English and ignorant of the larger society — are poorly equipped to make it in the outside world. And if those members attempt to leave with kids, the law (of New York State, at least) says they have to maintain status quo. In other words, they have to keep everything exactly the same for the kids, though often without money or community support.
One of Us has two other protagonists, a teenager named Ari and a man nearing 30 named Luzer. The latter is trying to make it as an actor in L.A. and has the more wry perspective on his past. He’s out — but not quite. Having grown up speaking Yiddish, though, he still has an accent, and he’s a part of a Yiddish theater troupe. Still, he’s a relative success story next to 18-year-old Ari, whose momentous haircut is filmed by Grady and Ewing. Suddenly, Ari is getting off on eating cheeseburgers. He loves Wikipedia. He says Hasidic schools don’t even teach proper math. But he haunts the old neighborhood, listening to rebbes who tell him how wrong he is. And along with those cheeseburgers comes cocaine. As Grady and Ewing end the film, he’s edging back. I wouldn’t be surprised if by now he has let his old hair grow back.
One of Us is a fascinating title. It recalls, among other things, Freaks, the 1932 Tod Browning movie in which a similar phrase is chanted by circus pinheads, fat ladies, and the rest of the circus menagerie when a “normal” woman marries in. Grady and Ewing use music as scary as in any horror film. They had no interest in making an “objective documentary,” although I doubt the Hasidim would have made themselves available to two women with a camera and their own hair. In such cases, they usually say, “If you want to understand us, read the Torah.”
Fundamentalists rarely feel the need to explain anything to anyone outside their respective tribes. But a test of any religion — Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, Scientologist — should be, “How hard is it for an individual who wants to leave?” If the answer is “next to impossible,” then basic human rights are at stake and the world needs to hear from people we can confidently call victims.