In the mythology of personal growth, liberating yourself leads invariably to increased happiness. Yet what characterizes the seekers in the powerful “One of Us” is nothing that straightforward.
As directed by expert documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp,” “12th & Delaware”), “One of Us” spends two years following three individuals whose quests for meaning, purpose and even personal safety cause them to abandon the Hasidic religious community they grew up in but came to view as suffocating to the point of despair.
Yet though none of the subjects, connected to different degrees to the Satmar sect, regrets leaving and joining the wider world, their after stories as well as their before ones touch on loneliness, insecurity and even trauma.
As text on the screen briefly informs us, Hasidism is “a highly insular group of ultra-orthodox Jews,” Yiddish speaking, suspicious of outsiders and bound by adherence to very strict rules of worship and life.
Though the movement was born in 18th century Eastern Europe in part as a way to bring joy to everyday worship, being almost wiped out by the Holocaust, one observer notes, created an ethos of perpetual crisis. Children, for instance, are in part viewed as community property essential to ensure the group’s survival.
Focused on the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park and the upstate New York enclave of Monsey, “One of Us” reveals a world that turns a cold shoulder and worse to those who don’t walk in lockstep with norms.
“The community is your family, they offer so much help, you’re never alone,” says a young woman named Etty, adding that when you leave, “you lose all that.” Without it, former Hasids run the risk of becoming unmoored lost souls, people without a country.
Etty is one of the three people “One of Us” follows, and her story is in some ways the most disturbing and involving.
Unwillingly married at age 18 to a man she barely knew, Etty has had seven children in her 12 years of marriage. Now seeking a divorce because her husband is physically abusive, she’s introduced calling 911 for assistance after the NYPD’s late-night removal of her husband led to his relatives pounding threateningly on her door.
Younger than Etty is Ari, an 18-year-old we first meet in a barber’s chair getting his ritual side locks shorn. “I didn’t want to live the lie,” he says. “I didn’t feel like the person I looked like. I chose a different path.”
A chain-smoking teen filled with questions about the existence of God, Ari’s path to departure began with his discovery of Wikipedia (“a gift from God”) on the forbidden internet.
But as conversations he has with a white-bearded community member indicate, and as the film demonstrates, Ari finds that living in a fully secular society is more difficult than he anticipated.
Nominally more established in the secular world is the third focus of “One of Us,” an actor named Luzer.
Living a bicoastal life in New York and Los Angeles, and seen appearing in the New Yiddish Repertory’s successful production of Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” Luzer has had real success as an actor.
But he still struggles with his lack of a relationship with the parents, who have not forgiven him for leaving the fold, with not being able to see the two children he had when he was married, and with his belief that Hasidism “designed society so that you are unable to make it in the outside world. They only way to survive is to be a criminal or a drug addict.”
Because the fate of Etty’s seven children is involved, her case is the starkest and most chilling. As she attempts to gain partial custody, she learns the ways that the Hasidic community, by using the legal doctrine of status quo mandating no change to the way children have previously been raised, has learned to make secular laws work to its advantage.
“What have I ever done? Have I ever hurt the children?,” she asks rhetorically at one point. “Twelve years I kept my mouth shut. Not anymore.” It’s a heartbreaking situation all around.
Helping Etty, and many others who depart from the Hasidic path is an organization called Footsteps, a nonprofit group that offers emotional and education support.
“Nobody leaves unless they’re willing to pay the price,” says Chani Getter, a counselor. “And the price for freedom is really high.” It’s the accomplishment of “One of Us” to show exactly what that price is and how difficult it is to pay.
“One of Us”
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills
Streaming: Netflix on Oct. 20