New Yorkers will immediately recognize the opening shots of One of Us, the new documentary from Jesus Camp filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: ultra-Orthodox Jewish families roaming the big city, the women and girls in skirts and tights, the men and boys in long black coats and hats, looking as if the cast of Fiddler on the Roof broke for lunch and forgot to change into their street clothes. The film is a nuanced and moving illustration of the dilemma facing doubting members of the growing Hasidic community in New York City, home to the world’s largest population of Jews outside of Israel.
One of Us offers a rare peek into the insular world of ultra-Orthodox Jews through the eyes of three young adults who are struggling to leave it behind. Etty, in her early 30s, has seven children and an abusive husband whom she’s trying to divorce. Stalked and harassed by male friends of her husband, who was removed from her home by the police, she faces a custody battle in which her own parents and siblings are testifying against her. We meet the brooding 18-year-old Ari in a barbershop, having his sidelocks, or payot, shaved off; he began asking questions as a teenager and found he couldn’t stop. Wikipedia, he says, “was a gift from God” — which is ironic, considering that he was taught to believe that his God forbids internet access. Finally, we meet Luzer, an energetic, wiry man in his early 30s who left his wife and young children eight years earlier to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles, where he lives in an RV and drives for Uber.
The theme of religious indoctrination echoes the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp, released in 2006, which centered on an evangelical Christian summer camp in North Dakota. But that documentary had a wider, and somewhat more sensational, purview, with a focus on the spectacle of the fervent young campers speaking in tongues and the potential political impact of a generation of children tasked with “tak(ing) back America for Christ.” One of Us is both more somber and more intimate, concentrating on a handful of individual lives and only briefly touching on the issue of political mobilization of religious groups.
Ewing and Grady spent three years with their subjects, and the filmmakers reveal the details of this trio’s stories slowly. Their subjects are often partly obscured by shadows or visible only in the blurry reflection of a subway window, a fitting approach for a film about a group of people hiding in plain sight — conspicuous and yet somewhat ethereal. “I’m invisible,” Etty laments. These are portraits of isolation; like refugees, those who have left the Orthodox community are stuck between worlds, faced with the daunting prospect of learning how to live a normal life.
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In many ways, One of Us is a story of technology seeping, inevitably, into an insular Old World culture. In one scene, a bearded man reprovingly asks Ari, sitting with his laptop at a Williamsburg playground, if the park has free Wi-Fi; Ari responds that there’s not much you can do in 2015 to block people from accessing it. Luzer describes his early, furtive dalliances with the outside world, when he’d rent movies like Crossroads from Blockbuster and watch them in his car.
Although the focus remains squarely on its three subjects, One of Us effectively contextualizes this strange, backward community thriving in the middle of one of the most multicultural cities in the world. New York’s Hasidic community grew out of a post-Holocaust anxiety about the future of the Jewish people; Chani Getter, a counselor with the support group Footsteps, for former ultra-Orthodox Jews, explains that the Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust believed the only way to rebuild the Orthodox way of life in the wake of World War II was to make it stringent and insular.
And so a diaspora that has disproportionately contributed to the development of what we think of as post-war modernity gave birth to this fundamentalist, and fast-growing, group. Like post-Occupation Israel, this measure that once was a method of a people’s survival has morphed into something that’s too often ugly and authoritarian, another wedge driven between two opposing strands of the larger Jewish community. “Judaism has wanted a lot from me,” Ari reflects. He and Etty and Luzer aren’t out to destroy this way of life; they are still deeply connected to Judaism, a religion that, ironically, encourages questioning. As Luzer remarks, they’re searching for something that religion — and religion alone — was supposed to provide: “Purpose and meaning.”
One of Us premieres October 20 on Netflix.