One of Us

By Tim Winterstein

The title of the documentary One of Us (available on Netflix) has a double meaning. There is the sense in which people belong to the Hasidic community: are you one of us? But throughout the film, it is clear that the three main subjects of the documentary are part of another “us”: the “us” of ex-Hasidic Jews who are struggling to define their relationship with their families, with Judaism, and with the world outside of Hasidism.

I wouldn’t say that the documentary itself is perfect. There are moments when it drags slightly and moments when it seems to wander a little, causing the narrative to loosen a bit too much. But beyond those minor complaints, it brings to light an aspect of a community that is largely unknown to people on the outside—precisely the way the Hasidim want it.

On the one hand, it feels like other similar “exposés” of insular communities. (See Jesus Camp by the same filmmakers or My Scientology Movie.) It has insiders who tell us what “really goes on,” including things that people will find shocking (e.g., the blacking out of female faces in a reading textbook). It has shadowy shots of those within the community going about their shadowy business. It shows suspicion on the parts of those who are still in the community regarding why someone would leave them.

On the other hand—and what strikes me more and more, being in the position that I’m in—there are parts of the stories of those who leave the community that might very well be told by anyone who leaves any well-ordered community. In various corners of the internet, including on social media, it’s not hard to find people who have felt similarly about The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregations in which they were raised and which they left. I have seen more than once the charge against some LCMS school or other that they neglected to tell the ex-Lutheran about Luther’s “anti-Semitism” in On the Jews and Their Lies, for example. Anti-science, anti-progress, anti-women; it’s not far from those charges to some of the things in One of Us.

Clearly, the LCMS (along with most other national church bodies) is not nearly as insular as the Hasidic community. We don’t have distinctly LCMS clothing; we don’t have LCMS delis and bakeries; we don’t have a long list of rules prohibiting the use of the internet or prescribing dress codes. As far as I know, no one in the LCMS has circulated a letter from the International Center in St. Louis asking for people to contribute thousands of dollars to “save from the devil” children of someone who is leaving the LCMS. Nor are there—again, as far as I know—support groups to help those who have left the LCMS. Those are some of the elements, however, that mark the Hasidic community in One of Us.

Even so, whether one watches this documentary purely from an entertainment perspective (the Hasidim as alien specimens to be examined and discussed) or whether one feels slight twinges of discomfort at what those who have left said about their religious group, this film shows the benefits and dangers of having one’s whole life wrapped up in a community bound by its allegiance to a single religion.

And I think there are benefits (otherwise, no one would join or remain): the closely regulated description of a holy life so that one doesn’t have to figure it out on one’s own, the closely knit community to which one can turn at a moment of need, the community insulated from some of the temptations and dangers of popular culture and wider society.

The thing the film does best, I think, is show the double-edged nature of every positive aspect of the Hasidic community. Whatever might work for the betterment of the members of the community is used as a bludgeon against those who leave. The film shows the main subjects, as well as those who listen to what they say, struggling with this reality. The people who leave have trouble leaving, and none of them seems to have left Judaism completely.

According to one statistic in the film, only 2% of the Hasidic community leaves. The film leaves the question unanswered as to whether that is because of the internal pressure to conform or for some other reason. (By contrast, according to this article, people are leaving the Quakers “in droves.” However, the Amish, who practice “shunning,” claim that 90% of people remain within their community.)

Luzer, the former Hasid who is trying to be an actor, says, “The more of a seeker you are, the more of a questioner you are, the more likely you are to leave.” This seems to be a distinctly late modern way of looking at religion, as something that stifles rational inquiry, hiding behind vague claims of “mystery” rather than giving answers to people’s serious questions. I, for one, have never been afraid to entertain any questions about anything. If God is real, if Jesus really is risen from the dead, then what possible human question could threaten that?

All in all, as with any interesting documentary, the questions raised extend beyond the film itself to how religious people of any stripe deal with any number of issues. For that, One of Us is worth watching.