September 25, 2018

Ex-Chasids Find Strength in Their Brokenness

One of Us,” the story of three millennials at various stages of exiting the insular Chasidic community, is hardly groundbreaking within the subgenre of ex-Chasidic stories.

The stories are unique, but not drastically different from those we’ve read in ex-Chasid memoirs such as Shulem Deem’s “All Who Go Do Not Return.” Still, as the first widely released documentary film about this struggle, it’s a significant addition to the canon.

A picture is worth a thousand words and a film is worth 24 pictures per second. Movies move us.

On film, “One of Us” becomes something much bigger than powerful stories about three courageous people. In pop culture terms, it’s a cocktail of one part “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” one part “The Leftovers,” one part “This Is Us,” and a sprinkle of “Praying” by Kesha.

“One of Us” is a story about brokenness. Through the eyes of Luzer, Etty and Ari, we learn that their community is supposed to be perfect, but this perfection was the first thing that broke. Slowly, that imperfection broke each of them, too. But something incredible happens in the process. Their brokenness becomes their strength.

Luzer, Etty and Ari are like Kimmy Schmidt, the ex-cult member at the center of the Netflix sitcom. Each woke up one day in a world in which they know nothing — and the world where they know everything is gone. As Ari says, “I couldn’t Google how to Google because I didn’t know how to Google in the first place.”

Somehow, these people transcended their brokenness in a scary new world, despite missing decades of life experiences and knowledge. They were unbreakable.

Twenty-one years ago, “I’m there for you” was a punchline on “Seinfeld.” Now it’s our superpower.

“Life beats you up,” Kimmy Schmidt once said. “You can either curl up in a ball and die … or you can stand up and say, ‘We’re different. We’re the strong ones and you can’t break us.’”

“One of Us” is a story of that kind of strength.

Brokenness can make us curl up in a ball and die. That happens when the disappointment of discovering imperfections in the things we expected to be perfect is so crushing that we give up. “One of Us” is not the story of all those who were too broken to survive, those who didn’t make it out alive. It’s the story of survivors. Luzer, Etty and Ari are the ones who said, “We’re different,” when they realized their perfect world was a lie. Their brokenness didn’t break them.

Ironically, the insular Chasidic community was built by Holocaust survivors who refused to curl up and die. Their brokenness didn’t break them, either.

“One of Us” is the perfect film for the current pop-culture climate. Famous women in Hollywood silently suffered for years after they were harassed, abused, raped and controlled by powerful predatory men. Today, they are finding the strength to speak up.
Kesha became a symbol of this strength and her single “Prayer” has become an anthem of strength for this movement:

“I can make it on my own and I don’t need you / I found a strength I’ve never known.”

It’s spreading. Women around the world are supporting and empowering one another.
But how does it work?

It is surprisingly simple: Solidarity, empathy, validation and “being there” for one another just works.

Twenty-one years ago, “I’m there for you” was a punchline on “Seinfeld.” Now it’s our superpower.

“One of Us” shows ex-Chasids surviving and thriving because they have one another. They have Footsteps. They have Project Makom. They have us.

All of us will need superhuman strength during our lifetime. Life is fragile and things that seemed perfect betray us with their imperfections. Those moments can kill. Even if our bodies and minds survive, our hearts and souls can curl up in a ball and die. We all want to be the ones who channel our pain and turn a scream into a song. For that, we need to be there for one another.

The film’s most eloquent and beautiful moment comes at a Shabbat dinner. Ex-Chasids gather around an Old World table, eating traditional Chasidic Shabbos foods and singing traditional Chasidic songs.

They’re happy. They’re there for one another. That is power. That is strength.

“One of Us” is about us. Every ex-Chasid is one of us. Let’s be there for ex-Chasids. Let’s be there for all of us.

Showbiz meets shtetl: Helping Hollywood get Hasidim right

When it comes to Hasidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume.

But that approach isn’t without its challenges.

Meyer, a New York-based Lubavitcher Hasid, recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.

“Who told you to hire Jews?” one of the producers said, according to Meyer, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.

Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to authentically depict Hasidic life.

These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hasidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.

Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted on or done casting work for more than half a dozen TV shows or movies.

He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hasidic Jews.

“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid,” he said of directors and producers in general.

Isaac Schonfeld, a graduate of Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah high school in Queens and an Orthodox Jew, has consulted on several independent films.

Most recently, Schonfeld consulted for the 2013 comedy “Fading Gigolo” directed by John Turturro, who stars as a novice prostitute being pimped out to female clients by a friend played by Woody Allen. One of the major plot lines focuses on a budding romance that develops between Turturro’s character and a lonely Hasidic widow who hires him as a masseur.

Schonfeld brought Turturro and several crew members to a regular social gathering he runs in New York called Chulent that is popular among many former Hasidim and others on the margins of the haredi world.

Other acquaintances of Schonfeld also helped with the film. One, Malky Lipshitz, contributed religious artwork and consulted with Vanessa Paradis, the French actress who played the Hasidic woman in the film. Others submitted voice recordings for actor Liev Schreiber to use to practice his inflection in his role as a member of a Hasidic community patrol vying for the widow’s affections.

Schonfeld pointed to one significant change that resulted from his advice. He said that Turturro had planned to name the Hasidic widow after a friend’s wife named Avital, wrongly believing it to be an authentic-sounding Hasidic name. Schonfeld noted that some people have a tendency to believe that Israeli and haredi names are interchangeable.

Schonfeld recommended similar alternatives that would be more plausibly Hasidic but would still accommodate Turturro’s attachments and artistic considerations. In the end Avital was named Avigal.

But the naming of characters was a minor challenge compared to another conundrum: finding a word for “pimp” in Yiddish to be used in a scene before a rabbinic court where Allen’s character is accused of providing a male prostitute for a Hasidic woman. Finding the one word, “alfons,” rarely if ever used in contemporary Hasidic parlance, required a significant amount of research on Schonfeld’s part.

When it comes to meticulousness, “Fading Gigolo” does not stand alone. “Felix and Meira,” a forthcoming independent Canadian film that follows a Hasidic woman from Montreal who engages in an extramarital affair with a non-Jewish man, also required significant research, consultation and visits to the haredi community.

Several former Hasidim consulted for the film in varying capacities. Rivka Katz, formerly a Lubavitcher Hasid, consulted on the script, while Luzer Twersky and Melissa Weisz, who attended Satmar Hasidic schools growing up, both acted and consulted. Twersky plays the protagonist’s husband and Weisz has the part of a Hasidic woman, a minor character in the film.

They pointed to the verisimilitude of a scene set during a Shabbat meal.

“The shtreimel [fur Hasidic hat] was real, the bekeshe [frock coat] was real, the chicken soup was real,” Twersky said of the scene.

Even though it was not shot on the actual Sabbath, the scene seemed so authentic that Weisz, who acted in the scene, said that on a visceral level it felt wrong to be engaging in un-Shabbat-like activity like filmmaking.

Afterward, when conversation turned to the movie, “I got mad,” Weisz recalled, “because they shouldn’t be talking about that on Shabbos.”

But film consultants do not always agree with one another on what makes for the most authentic depiction of Hasidim.

On Twitter, Twersky had criticized the 2010 movie “Holy Rollers,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a drug-running yeshiva student, for its costuming choices and other issues. He tweeted: “guys with peyos don’t wear short suits and fedora hats.”

Meyer, who worked on the film, says he advises a “mish-mosh look,” piecing together the hat from one Hasidic sect and the side curls of another, unless the director has a particular sect in mind.

To Twersky, that was one of several of the film’s failings.

But he acknowledges that departures from authentic portrayals of Hasidic life are not always such a bad thing.

“We need to get over the fact that we don’t own the story of Hasidic Jews,” Twersky said.

He noted that artistic considerations often result in departures from reality.

“Nobody wants to see regular people doing regular things,” Twersky said. “That’s not a movie.”