A Review of One of Us: Chassidic Life Revealed

By: Netah Osona  |  November 16, 2017

On October 20th, documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing released their Netflix original One of Us, a piercing glimpse into the insular world of Chassidic Jewry through the eyes of three young adults who are trying to break free. All connected with varying degrees to the Satmar sect, Etty Ausch, Ari Hershkowitz, and Luzer Twersky give us a chilling and heartbreaking peek into the hardships and struggles they faced while leaving their respective communities behind. “Nobody leaves unless they’re willing to pay the price,” said Chani Getter, a counselor who works for Footsteps, an organization that provides support to people who left or want to leave an ultra-Orthodox community. “And the price for freedom is really high,” she said. “The community is your family,” she continued. “If you’re sick, someone will show up, take care of your kids… You’re never alone. There’s so much help, and there’s a huge appeal to always being helped. You lose all that when you leave.” In the documentary, Grady and Ewing successfully contextualize what that price is and how painful and difficult it is to pay.

Etty is a mother of seven who becomes a target of harassment for seeking a divorce from her abusive husband. She is also in the midst of a custody battle in which her own parents, siblings, and friends are testifying against her. Luzer is an actor in his early thirties who has already left the community, and lives a bi-coastal life in Los Angeles and New York.  Pursuing his dreams meant having to cut off ties with his wife and children. Ari is a brooding 18-year-old who suffered sexual abuse as a child, and also struggles with drug addiction. Asking the metaphysical and esoteric questions about the existence of God, he comes to the conclusion that “[he] was living a lie”, and decides to choose a different path.

Each story is revealed slowly, with the subjects often hidden by shadows, or only visible in the blurry reflection of a subway window; this is a suitable technique to showcase a group of people hiding in plain sight – noticeable, yet very mysterious. Their stories are unfolded through sensitive camerawork, alternating between being up close and personal to the subjects at one moment, and then keeping their distance the next. Etty’s face is the only one that remains hidden up until she’s ready to expose herself to everyone around her, portrayed in a piercing visualization of her removing her wig for the first time: a difficult, yet cathartic transformation from invisible victim to resilient survivor. Through such delicate camerawork, Grady and Ewing beautifully capture this sense of alienation and loneliness all three subjects feel as they struggle to find themselves, and reconcile their upbringing into a new, balanced identity.

As a Jew watching this film, it’s a normal reaction to instinctively get defensive.  It’s hard to hear certain major flaws in a system that is rooted in a religion filled with so much beauty and truth. However, the purpose of a documentary is to bring to light a certain injustice, so naturally, bias will emerge. It exposes the extremes of groupthink from the point of view of the victims. The film concentrates on the individual, while only briefly mentioning aspects of the broader Chassidic community, which as a viewer, is an important distinction to realize and understand. There are many beauties and values that the Satmar community has, and that Chassidic culture has as a whole. Based on what I’ve witnessed and learned from watching this film and reading about Chassidic culture, the general hashkafa is based on doing the same things that the community’s ancestors have done, which can come off as very extreme behavior. The community values tradition in a way that’s almost admirable, but at the same time, intense and not subject to any modification. It’s a value that stems from not wanting to waver from their heritage and culture, and a mindset that is based on strict replications of what their ancestors did, from the language they speak to the way they dress, to the way they encounter the outside world. They present themselves in a very discernable way because remaining isolated is how they believe they will uphold their traditions and never lose the core values of their respective Chassidic sects. So what’s clear–and implicit in the film’s title–is that there are tough lines drawn around what it means to be “us”, and what it means to be “other”, and that crossing that line has extreme repercussions.

It’s very important to note that Etty, Ari, and Luzer didn’t leave the community hating Judaism. They had their struggles with the way the community raised them, and the film does a great job in telling us their stories and accurately presenting the tragic circumstances the subjects had to endure as a result of living in a community that treated them in such a negative way. But what the documentary also succeeds in doing is showing that they still very much hold onto the core values of Judaism and cherish them deeply. Etty begins attending services at a Renewal synagogue. Ari finds himself back in the community to attend a Jewish wedding. Luzer spends a Shabbat meal with his fellow Footsteps members. They all embrace this beautiful Jewish communal feeling and yearn for it every day. Even though they physically left their respective communities behind, they didn’t leave the religion behind with it.