Ari wore his first pair of shorts at age 19.
He remembered seeing in a “Vine” – a short online video – that they were cool. This scene provides one of the very few moments of levity in the new Netflix original film One of Us, which explores the lives of hassidic Jews who choose to leave the fold.
The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and became available globally to Netflix customers on Friday. One of Us was directed by the team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, best known for their 2006 Jesus Camp, about an Evangelical Christian summer camp.
Over the course of 90 minutes, viewers meet three former and transitioning hassidic Jews: Luzer, Ari and Etty.
Luzer has left it all behind, moved to Los Angeles and is trying to make it as an actor (while also driving for Uber). His first “sins” were renting movies secretly from Blockbuster and watching them in the car.
Ari, at 18, is eager to explore the outside world, the lure of young women, cheeseburgers and Wikipedia – “a gift from God.”
Etty, a 31-year-old mother of seven, is struggling to escape from her abusive marriage and keep custody of her children, in a prolonged, messy court battle.
Leaving hassidic life presents a particular set of challenges, beyond just starting over. Departing the community often means completely cutting ties with friends or family.
And many hassidim, especially the men, have little to no secular education.
“I didn’t know anything,” said Ari. “I didn’t know the basics of math, I had to learn English.” He said he didn’t even know how to Google things.
Luzer said he learned everything he knows about the secular world from movies, but it wasn’t real.
“You realize, actually, if I leave, I might have to work at McDonald’s,” he said. “‘Cause you don’t have any skills, what are you going to do?” And that, he said, is the whole point.
“They have designed a society where you’re unable to make it in the outside world,” said Luzer.
“They have designed a world, that if you leave it, the only way you can survive is being a criminal.”
From the very start of the movie there is sinister and ominous music accompanying their stories. It is easy to understand why. Even in their optimistic moments, the three are facing dark, haunting pasts.
Luzer attempted suicide at his lowest point. When he left, he walked away from his two children, his parents, his siblings. He didn’t speak to any of them for seven years.
Ari was raped and beaten by an adult at summer camp when he was eight years old. The other staff told him it didn’t really happen – “he slipped and fell on top of you I guess.” He became addicted to cocaine, overdosed, and landed in rehab.
Etty was beaten by her husband throughout their 12-year marriage.
She filed for divorce and got a restraining order, but her family turned against her. They testified against her receiving custody, and members of the community stalked her and threatened her life.
Make no mistake, these are terrible, and exceptional, stories. And terrible behavior has a tendency to be covered up in insular communities.
The self-appointed modesty police and civilian patrols in hassidic communities can make life miserable for those who seek to challenge things.
But even Luzer notes that he knows many hassidic people who are very happy. That cannot be found in any portion of the film.
The world of hassidic life, according to Ewing and Grady, is malevolent and perverse.
There are a few tiny glimmers of hope. Ari reveals that his parents paid for his expensive rehab facility in Florida. Luzer encounters an old friend in Monsey, New York, who wishes him luck in whatever life path he chooses.
The three figures, who all received some help from Footsteps, the organization which seeks to aid people who leave haredi lifestyles explore the outside world.
Ari visits a church out of curiosity.
Etty attends services at an egalitarian synagogue. Luzer takes roles in Yiddish theater.
The film is powerfully shot, and tells compelling, disturbing tales.
It is a dark, engrossing and incomplete story of hassidic life.