There are no talking heads in “One of Us,” Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s expertly crafted portrait of three ex-Hasidic Jews adjusting to secular life. Refreshingly, the interviews in this tense documentary take place on the move; there is a restless energy to the way Luzer drives around Los Angeles in search of auditions, or Etty’s furtive glances through shuttered blinds. The three subjects of “One of Us” are always looking over their shoulders, whether in precaution of real threats or just to make sense of the brave new world in which they find themselves.
Centering on only three subjects, Ewing and Grady keep the film’s focus narrow and intimately human. Luzer is the most charismatic of the bunch; an aspiring actor who got his start playing Hasidic characters, he learned about the secular world as a teenager by secretly watching movies in his car. “The plan was to keep the payos and the beard and corner the market on Hasidic actors,” he says. He “feels less ex-Hasidic” in Los Angeles, where he lives out of an RV after moving from New York. He doesn’t want people to know, for fear it would affect his image. “Not that I have an image. But if I had an image, it would affect it.”
When Luzer walked away from religious life, he left behind a wife and two kids. He is guarded about his kids, though later on we see that the loss clearly pains him. As a woman, Etty does not have the luxury of dropping everything. In an all too common occurrence, Etty left her abusive husband and was ostracized from the Hasidic community. The film opens with a 911 call in which she explains to a confused operator that her husband’s relatives are banging on her door. “So, it’s a family dispute?” asks the voice on the other end. Etty’s fight to keep her kids is a long and arduous one, bolstered only by the support of an ex-Hasidic group called Footsteps.
Ari is the youngest of the trio, the filmmakers even capture his barbershop visit to shave his beard and payos. Ari calls Wikipedia “a gift from God” for filling huge gaps in left by his religious education. Amongst the exhaustive list of rules set down by the rabbis, internet access is highly restricted in religious households. “I couldn’t Google how to Google, cause I didn’t know how to Google in the first place,” says Ari.
One day, at a local playground, an older Hasidic man asks Ari if he speaks Yiddish. He is concerned that the local boys are hanging out at the park for the free internet. “It’s 2015, you can’t stop progress,” Ari tells him. Looking him up and down, clean shaven but still sporting a yarmulke, the man asks, “Are you one of us?” It’s a gripping but brief exchange, and an amazing catch by the filmmakers. Ari stoically accepts the man’s final assessment: “You could use this place to repent.”
“One of Us” offers a rare window into a highly insular community that is often misunderstood, or tacitly sanctioned for fear of stoking anti-semitism. Secular Jews and progressives turn a blind eye to the very young women carting five or more kids on public transportation, the separation between genders, or the children banned from entering public libraries.
The most galvanizing realization comes from Luzer, whose rumination on the fervent possessiveness of children provides a bleak foreshadowing of Etty’s custody battle. “These souls were brought into the community to rectify something,” he says. “That was the only way we could do it, to re-build after the Holocaust. So it’s complicated.”
“One of Us” is currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.