How much would you give up in a search for truth? Many of us embark on a truth-seeking journey to uncover some kind of mystery, assuming we might lose a bit here and there -- time, money, a friend or two -- but never an entire community, lifestyle, or identity. In fact, rarely do any of us face losing it all.
Yet that’s the reality for three young Hasidic Jews who summon courage to question tradition in One of Us, a raw and rare behind-the-scenes look into the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, New York.
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, known for their eye-opening documentary Jesus Camp, have never been filmmakers to shy away from painful or taboo stories in favor of objective filmmaking. Instead, they take a personal approach, diving deep into the unheard to shed light on some of the most private sections of our society.
Through One of Us, Ewing and Grady invite us into the lives of three young Jews -- Etty, Ari, and Luzer -- as they go beyond the safeguards of their community to question the only worldview they’ve ever known. Their Hasidic Jewish community that has impacted everything from clothes and hairstyles to marriage, child rearing, and personal beliefs, and their search for truth certainly doesn’t come without consequence.
Luzer said goodbye to his marriage and children after a period of personal reflection and questioning. The rules and customs bore down too heavy until one day he woke up, called his mother to announce his divorce, shed the religious title, and left for California. Figuring out what to do and how to survive was the next step.
“You don’t have any skills, so what are you going to do?” Luzer said. “They’ve designed a society where you’re unable to make it in the outside world. The only way you can survive is by being a criminal. Everyone who leaves comes back or ends up in jail or rehab—they never make it out there.”
Yet Luzer was determined to be different. So he took up acting, met a mentor, and started taking small gigs. But for Ari, the reality hit a little too close for home.
After feeling unsettled by the faith proclamations of the community and being unable to reconcile the Hasidic truth with the condition of the world and his own childhood trauma, Ari turned to drugs. One of Us follows him into rehab where he fights to get clean with his parents’ help and support. Upon his return to Brooklyn, Ari wavers between being sure of what he believes, but unsure of separating himself from the faith after the glow of community and inclusivity beckons to him again.
But the painful highlight of the documentary is Etty—a young mother who wrestles with the fallout that’s guaranteed to come if she chooses to take care of herself and escape her abusive marriage. A divorce promises a healthier and freer future for herself, but it also promises an ugly custody battle in a court system where judges will favor the father who stays in the community, even despite the evidence of abuse and neglect. Her seven children and her motherhood are at the mercy of the courts and the Hasidic law.
The stories contained in One of Us are tinged with a mixture of both hope and despair—hope for what’s possible on the other side—a different ending, a new kind of beginning, but also despair for the consequences—the harsh excommunication and the complete loss of a whole life that comes with a battle for self-realized truth.
Through One of Us, Ewing and Grady effortlessly paired honest storytelling with thoughtful scenes to create a documentary that pokes at the soul, creating a deep desire in viewers to examine their own life journeys. You’ll leave questioning your own personal strength and courage, asking yourself “would I risk it all to stand strong for what I believe?”