October 17, 2019

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.