January 21, 2019

Controversial film ‘One of Us’ strikes a nerve. Here are a few reactions.

Screenshot from Twitter.

The “One of Us” Netflix documentary came out on Friday chronicling three former members of the Hasidic Jewish community and how they were demonized by the Hasidic community for leaving it.

The film has elicited a myriad of responses. A lot of people have voiced their support for the film, stating that it exposes a serious problem in the Hasidic community:

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Yitzchok Adlerstein wrote in the orthodox Cross-Currents blog that the film “was extremely painful” to watch because “it was painful to witness the deep pain and suffering of three human beings, all the time realizing that there are many more whose stories are still untold.”

Others, like Amy Spiro of the Jerusalem Post, felt that the movie wasn’t representative of the Hasidic community as a whole.

“The film is powerfully shot, and tells compelling, disturbing tales,” wrote Spiro. “It is a dark, engrossing and incomplete story of hassidic life.”

Spiro wrote that one of people featured in the film admits that a lot of people in the Hasidic community “are very happy.”

“That cannot be found in any portion of the film,” said Spiro.

One of the co-directors of the documentary, Heidi Ewing, came under fire for stating in an interview that Hasidic Jews were killed in the Holocaust for not blending into society. She apologized, although some believed her comments discredited the movie.

For more Journal coverage, read Gerri Miller’s piece here and Eli Fink’s piece here.

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.

‘One of Us’ co-director apologizes for Holocaust comment

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Heidi Ewing, a co-director of the “One of Us” Netflix documentary, has apologized for her comments about Hasidic Jews being targeted during the Holocaust for not blending into society.

Ewing appeared on The Charlie Rose Show on Thursday and said, “The vast majority of Hasidic Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, partly because they refused to blend in.

“They kept wearing the clothing,” said Ewing. “They sort of were loud and proud about their identity, and the vast majority died in the Holocaust.”

Ewing received some serious backlash on social media for her comment:

Others weren’t quite as taken aback by it:

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Ewing eventually apologized for her Holocaust remark.

“I am sorry if my words on Charlie Rose caused any pain and would like to clarify their meaning,” Ewing said in a statement. “The devastating losses that the Jewish community suffered at the hands of the Nazis is unspeakable. Almost half the population of world Jewry was destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators, whole communities destroyed.”

She added that “Hasidic Jews suffered disproportionate losses” since “they were more easily identified and therefore had more difficulty hiding.”

“It took great courage for Hasidic Jews at that time to refuse to change their appearance to look more like the general European public,” said Ewing. “I am only filled with respect and admiration for any person who chooses to live their own truth.”

Some weren’t satisfied with her apology:

Others felt that her comments shouldn’t take away from the substance of the movie:

“One of Us” is a documentary that follows three former Hasidic Jews who have been ostracized by the community since they left. The documentary was released on Friday. Gerri Miller wrote about it for the Journal here.

‘One of Us’ Reveals the Bitter Consequences of Leaving Chasidic Community

Screenshot from Twitter.

Fewer than two percent of Chasidic Jews ever leave the fold. The documentary “One of Us” reveals why, telling the stories of three people who have left — and paid a high price for their personal freedom.

Etty, a young mother of seven, walks out on her abusive husband and loses custody of her children. Luzer, an actor, struggles with depression and his decision to leave his family. And Ari battles addiction as he comes to terms with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

“Coming from a community where the collective is all that matters, these people had a ‘me’ inside that needed to have a voice,” said Heidi Ewing, who co-directed the film with Rachel Grady.

The filmmakers met in 1999 while working on a TV documentary about the Church of Scientology. “We’ve been able to build a career digging deep into subjects that interest us,” said Ewing, adding that filmmaking is “an opportunity to go into unknown worlds, ask questions and put together a story.”

Among their successes was the Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” about a charismatic Christian summer camp.

For their sixth film together, the filmmakers sought to crack open a window on a world they knew little about, one hidden in plain sight in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

“We were no experts on the Chasidic community before we started doing this film,” Grady said. “As outsiders, we will never truly understand.”

Grady, a nonreligious Jew, and Ewing, a non-practicing Catholic, found their way into that world through Footsteps, a support organization that helps Chasidic Jews who want to leave.

There, they found Etty, the young mother, who agreed to participate, Grady said, “with a lot of caveats,” such as hiding her face until she was ready to reveal it. “This is not someone who seeks attention,” Grady said. “She would never have chosen the spotlight had she not been in these circumstances.”

The film chronicles Etty’s custody fight amid ostracism and a smear campaign by the Chasidic community. “We couldn’t even grasp how difficult it was for these people to exit and start over — especially in Etty’s case,” Ewing said.

“She’s considered a turncoat, a traitor, because of the suspicion is that she won’t raise her children Chasidic,” Ewing said. “The way they look at it, these are the community’s children, to make up for what was lost” in the Holocaust.

Grady finds it ironic that Jews, who have a long history of facing religious oppression, would persecute their own. The Holocaust, she said, “gives you some context for this extreme behavior — things start to make sense, like why they hate the police, why they hate dogs,” she said.

Another of the film’s story lines follows Ari Hershkowitz, a young adult who as a boy was raped and beaten by a counselor at a Chasidic summer camp. He has struggled with anger, resentment and substance abuse, and is now working to stay clean and make up for lost time. “I was robbed of my life,” he says in the film.

Luzer Twersky has his own painful story. After an abusive childhood, he married at 19, fathered two children, and then walked away from his life. “Depression is something I’ll probably deal with for the rest of my life,” said Twersky, now 32. “There are issues that I deal with that have a lot more to do with how I was raised than religion.”

Describing himself as “genetically and psychologically Jewish,” Twersky said that now, “I’m not religious at all — I’m not even culturally Jewish.” He is in contact with his parents and some of his 11 siblings, but not with his ex-wife or children.

Though Twersky misses the food, the music and the sense of community, “I don’t miss the rules or the dogma or any of that, not for a second,” he said.

He drives for Uber to pay the bills, but his acting career is picking up. He often plays Jewish characters, as he did in three episodes of “Transparent” in 2015. Twersky recently shot an episode of HBO’s “High Maintenance,” and is rehearsing for a stage production of “Awake and Sing,” among other projects.

Hershkowitz is currently studying for his GED. Etty is planning to appeal the court’s custody decision. “A woman in Etty’s situation won on appeal,” Grady said, “so there’s a precedent now, a glimmer of hope.

Grady and Ewing have stayed in touch with their subjects, as the film’s release approaches. “Our main concern is preparing them for what’s coming at them,” Ewing said — including both national exposure and the Chasidic community’s potentially negative reaction.

“One of Us” has played at a handful of film festivals, before mostly New York secular Jewish audiences, who Ewing said were “outraged and offended by some of the things they saw.”

The filmmakers are currently developing several projects, including one about “fundamentalists, not necessarily religious” ones, Grady said.

As for “One of Us,” the directors say the film is less about religion than the universal theme of individuality. “I feel that it’s better to shine a light on a community that has been unchecked for so long,” Ewing said, “and have a productive conversation among Jews about these issues.”

“One of Us” opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and starts streaming on Netflix on Oct. 20.