The recently released documentary One of Us, by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, follows the stories of three ex-Hasidim as they navigate the hardships and uncertainties of a foreign world, each battling their own demons. Etty, a mother of eight children, is up against a loosing battle to retain custody of her children. Ari, a young ex-Hasidic boy, is in recovery from drug addiction. Luzer, a father of two who has left his family over a decade ago, is struggling to make a living as an aspiring actor in LA.
The film has elicited strong emotional responses both from within the community and from people in the secular world. While critics praised the film and highly applauded its artistic and creative aspects, others have criticized it as an incomplete picture of the Hasidic world and as overly sensationalized. Yet others have seen the film as an attempt to smear the community at large by offering a skewed perspective on the large and flourishing Hasidic community.
Veker spoke with Rachel Grady, Co-director of One of Us, to discuss some of the concerns that have been brought up in response to the film. Founded by current members of the Hasidic community, Veker does not shy away from controversial topics and discussing challenges that the community currently faces.
We hope you enjoy the exclusive and exceptionally candid interview.
Q First I want to thank you for doing the movie. I live in the community and I know people who have left the community and have had similar experiences, so this is a story that needed to be told.
A Thank you.
Q From the interviews you gave I gathered that you set out to do a documentary on Hasidim in general and you ended up choosing a very specific topic, which is people who have left the Hasidic community and are struggling to fit into the outside world. Do you feel that your end-product was different from the original plan?
A It's not so much that the plan changed, as much as it became clear to us that as outsiders this was one of the only stories that we felt we could do as good as we would like. So it wasn’t so much that the direction changed. When we first started filming we didn’t know whose point of view exactly this is going to be. We knew we were going to find some people through Footsteps, and they were definitely people that were leaving or who were trying to have one foot in and one foot out. but after a while it became clear that this was the only story Heidi and I could do as outsiders.
Q Why was that?
A Because it’s a very closed community and we don’t speak Yiddish. Although I’m Jewish I’m not from a Hasidic background.
Q So you felt that the only people that could relate to you are those who have left the community?
A Not even relate to us, but willing to talk to us. I’m sure there are plenty of people in the community that I could relate to very well one on one. But we ended up with a group of people that were willing to tell their story.
Q Luzer says in the film that if you’re going to leave you’re either going to end up a drug addict or on the streets. And the film corroborates this impression because one subject becomes a drug addict and goes through recovery, another subject lives on the street and yet another subject loses custody of her children. But I do know quite a few people who’ve left the community and have jobs and careers and maintain a meaningful relationship with their children. Why did you choose these three people as your subjects?
A I have to say that I’m very hopeful that this was just a snapshot of all of their lives, and in their future they’ll have everything you just described. I feel quite confident that Ari and Etty and Luzer are going to have families, jobs; things that fulfill them, and hopefully they will find ways to have some sort of relationship with their family who they either have no contact with or have strained relationships with. The thing is, you film someone for a year, a year and a half – it’s one little window into their lives. They’re going to be around for many, many years. So the film captures a moment in time. It’s from their point of view. It’s their experience. So I sincerely believe that all of them are going to have ups and downs.
"I would love to do a whole hour on the charities… the incredible nurturing and care that everyone has for each other – I think this is absolutely astonishing, and for secular people it would blow their minds."
Q This is important because it’s a stereotype many people perpetuate that if you’ll leave you’ll end up having a miserable and disastrous life. And it’s true that it’s difficult to leave. But my question is, why you didn’t make an effort to include at least one story in which a person successfully integrated into secular society, when there are many who have?
A When we start filming someone we don’t know what their lives are going to be like in 16 or 18 months. So we didn’t know what was going to happen with Ari. He was at the very beginning of his journey. As was Etty. I think in her case – even though she has seen what happens to people when there’s children involved and there’s a divorce involved and that the reaction could be quite severe – she was still shocked that it was as severe as it ended up being. So we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. And what’s really interesting about Luzer – when we first met him we thought he was an interesting, charismatic guy, that he had something interesting about him, but we didn’t know what the story really was. We kind of felt like, ‘eh, he’s just a struggling actor’. There’s plenty of secular struggling actors, what’s special about him? And then it ended up being a story that’s not necessarily a success or failure. I would make an argument that he’s not a failure. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do, and he’s doing something that’s very difficult and hard for everybody, let alone for someone that grew up without any access to that world, the world of theaters and movies etc. and what happened in the arc of his story was that we saw how hard it is to leave and that it never gets easy. So I think it would be disingenuous to say that leaving the community is all roses and that some people come out of it unscathed; I don’t think anybody does. But I agree with you that there are definitely happy endings and some good outcomes. And in fact I feel strongly about the three people that I highlighted that two out of three were hopefully having the worst year of their lives when I happened to meet them, and it will improve greatly.
Q How many people did you film?
A We filmed probably eight people. To be honest, some of the people we filmed we stopped filming because we felt like their stories were too sad and they were too fragile. And we really wanted people that were relatable; that secular people could say, “Oh yeah, I know someone like that”; that you couldn’t dismiss as being just a weirdo. We wanted people that anyone could relate to.
Q So you specifically chose people who could be considered run-of-the-mill secular people.
A Yes. People who have their struggles, but you wouldn’t necessarily make a movie about them. You know, it’s a balance. You want people who are interesting and are fun to watch, and that’s what all the filmmakers want for all their movies, not just for movies about this community.
Q There is a theme, though, that runs through the film, in that every subject went through some sort of abuse, which was somewhat independent of their religious upbringing. So what I felt was – leaving the community is already difficult, and having an abusive experience is also difficult, and combine the two and it’s really tough.
A Sure. Let me put it to you this way, I did not go and look for the worst story I could find. There were much worse stories that we decided to dismiss because, I agree with you, we didn’t want it to be some horrible cautionary tale. We did end up filming, especially in the case of Etty, a story that ended up significantly more heart-wrenching and dramatic than we anticipated, and that was out of our control.
Q Some people claimed that you didn’t emphasize the positive aspects of the community enough. Do you feel that’s a legitimate charge?
A I was very sensitive to that because I do know that this is a community built out of thousands and thousands of individuals. And I was able to meet many individuals over the course of the three years that I was making this film. So I was sensitive to the fact that I didn’t want to dismiss outright all the wonderful things the community has to offer. But we only have a movie that is seen through the point of view of our characters; which is what it is. It’s very much not a survey; it’s not an extensive analysis of the community. It’s a story through the view of these people. But I feel like we were able to convey the warmth and the longing and the beauty of the religion and the community, through them, as best as we could. There’s the Shabbos dinner where they’re singing. And there are the warm exchanges that Ari has with people on the street, where they are asking him how he is and are concerned for him. And there’s this conversation Luzer has with his old boss in Monsey. There’s Yossi Rappaport who Ari goes to to seek advice from. So you see how a tight-knit community is beneficial.
Q If you could produce a film of three hours or five hours, what would you add?
A Oh, there’s so many things. Positive or negative?
A If I felt I could really get access into some organizations, and it wasn’t just, as they say, a dog and pony show – like people bringing out their best to show off for you – if I felt I could get the real story, I would love to do a whole hour on the charities. The auxiliaries, the Shomrim, the Chaverim, the food that’s going to the hospitals, the incredible nurturing and care that everyone has for each other – I think this is absolutely astonishing, and for secular people it would blow their minds; We have nothing like that. So for me that is something I’d love people to know that this can exist; that there is a society where this can exist successfully; that kind of taking care of one another. I think that would be an amazing thing to do. But again, like I said, I would only want to do it if I felt like it was in a real way.
Q You feel like if you would film one of the charities it wouldn’t be the real way?
A Well, certainly now I don’t feel I would get it the real way, because I made this film (chuckle). I’m not saying it wouldn’t be real, it’s just something that I care about. If I felt like those organizations, or any organization that I was interested in, generally, was not giving me everything, as they say, warts and all, I wouldn’t want to do it. Because I think people can tell when something is not authentic.
On the other side I think it would be fascinating to see how local politicians…
Q This is a very fascinating issue.
A It’s fascinating and we don’t get into this at all. And as a New Yorker, it’s incredible. I could just dive into that.
Q I would like to add that there’s so many interesting parts of the community that nobody gets to know. Like we have our own interesting ways of earning money. Like there’s a company that sells accessories for candle lighting on Shabbos and Hanukkah…
A Yeah, cottage industries. I didn’t know about the kosher cellphones. There are whole businesses that are created and sustained because of that need. So there’s all these little cottage industries that, like you’re saying, would give you so much information about the community that we wouldn’t even think of because no one else has it.
I’m thankful that we’ve not gotten any kind of response that singles out the Hasidic community as bad or evil – none of it.
Q Are you concerned that a person that doesn’t know anything about Hasidim and watches this film gets away with an inaccurate view on Hasidim because, like you said, we only have one and a half hours and you don’t get to show everything you wanted to show.
A That’s a risk when we do any kind of film about anything. It’s never going to be a complete picture. It’s always going to be a reduction. That’s why we carefully and thoughtfully edit the film through months and months, because we understand that every single shot, every single second on the screen, means something, and we are as careful as possible and we try to give context. And we try to go out of our way to make sure and hold on to the moments that we captured that were warm and genuine between people that are still very much within the community and our subjects that are struggling.
Q There is a sense of drama throughout the film and we get almost no background information, because everything is conveyed through dialogue. I came away with the impression that this style is more suitable for a Hollywood film than for a documentary.
A There’s so many different styles of documentaries. This is a wonderful time to make these kind of films because, creatively, you could do whatever you want. So that was a creative decision that we made. And I don’t think there’s any rules from a creative point of view.
Q Are you concerned that the viewers don’t get enough background information. Like the opening scene where Etty calls the police that people are knocking at her door – what happened there? Why were they knocking on the door? We don’t find out.
A We expect our audiences to connect the dots on their own, because there’s so many details that we could fill in. As I was saying before, we have ninety minutes, we have very little real estate, and we’re trying to make things as clear as possible without wasting a lot of real estate. So, for instance, in that scene, you can understand that her husband’s family wasn’t happy.
Q Were they trying to kidnap the children?
A They were trying to rattle her; to harass her. Your guess is as good as mine, that’s why I can’t get into it. I wouldn’t want to say. I’d have to ask them.
Q So you let the viewer experience it.
A Yes, that is exactly the right word. Experiential. That’s what we were going for.
Q Did you try to reach out to people within the community to get them to appear in the film?
A: We reached out to a lot of people that work with troubled youth and to some political figures to see if they could help us get into the community, and we didn’t have any luck. It took us a long time to even get the gentleman that we were able to film Ari with. It took us a couple years. It wasn’t easy.
Q: You’ve done films on other insular fundamentalist communities. How would you compare and contrast our community to other insular communities?
A: I could only contrast it to Jesus Camp, which is about fundamentalist Christians. First of all, Jewish people are not evangelizing, except for [the Hasidic sect of] Chabad, who are not necessarily evangelizing, but they are reaching out to all kinds of different Jews, so they are exposing themselves to more outside influences, whereas in Satmar or Belz, they are just not interacting with anyone outside their community.
Q: You mean on a religious level? Because we do interact. We do business with secular people…
A: Yes. And you go the bank, of course. But I’m talking on an intimate level. We can define intimate in all sorts of ways, but as a close friend, you’ll go home with them and know their whole family. That’s very unusual to happen between a Chasidic and secular person. Yeah?
Q: That's correct.
A: But I would say the thing that they do have in common, and I would say this on fundamentalists in general, that there’s this kind of ironclad belief that it’s ‘their way or no way’. I saw that at the evangelicals; there’s a quality of being so certain and not having a lot of room for doubt. And I saw that with fundamentalist Muslims as well, when I went to Saudi Arabia.
Q: Is there anything positive that’s unique to Hasidim and does not exist in other fundamentalist communities?
A: Their whole history, where they come from, where its roots are from, why they ended up in the United States, why they haven’t assimilated in the United States, how they’re like this huge group of New Yorkers – I think all this is very unique. For me that was a thing that as a Jewish person I find very special and fascinating.
Q: Footsteps counselor Chani Getter says in the film that the reason we try to “save” the children from parents who have left the community is because of the community’s traumatic experiences during the Holocaust. I live in this community and I’ve never heard that explanation. What I’ve heard is that we want the children to be religious, just like we are, because that’s important to us. That Holocaust thing adds a different dimension to it and I don’t think that’s accurate.
A: So you didn’t buy it.
Q: Is this her own theory? On the film it sounds like this is the official explanation.
A: It is her opinion. It’s not something that we studied. It’s her opinion and it’s something that we felt could give some people some context to this. Because it’s very mysterious to most people how a religious community ends up being so isolated in such a public place. So I think we’re just kind of grasping and trying to understand.
Q: What fascinates you the most about our community?
A: There are so many things. I’ll tell you that from a selfish interest I feel like it could have been me. If my great grandfather had gone to this village… you know… that this kind of fate and destiny….
Q: You wouldn’t be a filmmaker, that’s for sure (chuckle).
A: No, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. And I would have a lot of really nice children.
Q: You bet!
A: And now I have one nice kid.
Q: What has the response to the film been like?
A: We got such an incredible, overwhelming reaction from the secular world. The film is on Netflix so it’s in a hundred million homes. It’s not like a hundred million people are watching it at the same time, but a lot are watching it every day and they reach out. There’s a lot of empathy, especially for Etty. I’m thankful that we’ve not gotten any kind of response that singles out the Hasidic community as bad or evil – none of it. I would have to address that very aggressively if that would happen, but it hasn’t happened. I would say it was overwhelmingly empathy. Also people were very puzzled how secular laws could be manipulated in secular courts and taken to a degree that they weren’t designed to do. So I think those have been the biggest reactions.
Q: Did you get any reactions to the film from within the community?
A: Let me just talk about the response from the ultra-orthodox community rather than just Hasidic. For me, it’s been meaningful to watch the dialogue among themselves. I have been pleasantly surprised that even if they didn’t like the movie and even if they didn’t like the filmmakers for making the movie, that they at least are taking the time to say, “You know, maybe we should do a little bit better by these kids. Why would this kid, Ari, want to be on this film? We did something wrong. We lost him.” And for me – that’s a victory. I can live with the fact that they don’t like the movie and they don’t like Heidi and me. But to start a dialogue about how people who are either lost or unhappy or feeling ignored or unloved, and how to reach out to them – I think that’s fantastic, that’s great.
Q Thank you so much for doing this and I wish you the best of luck on future endeavors.
A Thank you.
A Yiddish translation of the interview has been published in the recently released Winter 2018 issue of Veker, which can be purchased here.
Veker is a quarterly Yiddish journal, published by members of the Hasidic community. For questions and comments please email email@example.com.