Palatable: One of Us

One of Us (2017)
Directed by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Produced by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Alex Takats, Liz F. Mason
Starring Etty, Ari Hershkowitz, Luzer Twersky, Chani Getter, Yosef Rapaport
Ostracism and contingent harassment await whoever dares to leave Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, as explicitly related by a trio of such deserters in extensive interviews and observations. Pseudonymous Etty struggles to retain custody of her seven children after forsaking a routinely ill-arranged marriage to an abusive and unloving husband, and finds some comfort in a support group organized for therapeutic congregation of other whilom Hasidim. Still reeling from the harrowing humiliation of his public pedication and shunned by former friends, Hershkowitz revels in newfound freedom before and after his recovery from an addiction to cocaine. Aspiring actor Twersky ekes emolument as a driver for Uber where he’s resettled in Los Angeles, residing in a parked RV and willingly typecast in Hasidic roles to assert his individuality and distance himself from the ex-wife and offspring he’s left behind. Ewing’s and Grady’s prior feature on religious extremists was the amusive, hyperbolically marketed Jesus Camp, which presented a laughable evangelical summer camp and its silly, sanctimonious attendees as unduly significant, and was strategically edited either by the filmmakers or their co-producers to nearly omit extensive evidence of their subjects’ unrequited fealty to Israel. Slickly shot, scored, cut and titled, this dour documentary finds them in better form, exploring how the cultish Hasidic tribe sustains its traditions, security and continuity by means both kind and cruel, commanding private schools, ambulances and a police force to support one another and enforce their precepts while domiciled in Brooklyn’s best subsidized housing. Both the mistreatment they’ve suffered and curiosity concerning the outside world fortify the resolve of these three anathemas, who pine for past fellowship while basking in the United States’ secular liberty. None of them were at all prepared for life beyond Brooklyn, all speaking English second to Yiddish, nearly innumerate for the calculatedly selective deficiencies of their education, and as ignorant of the Internet for its proscription — a bitter irony in light of the Ashkenazic affinities for mathematics and online entrepreneurialism. Geller (who organizes the aforementioned support group) expounds how the uncompromising stringency of Hasidic piety and insularity is as much a reaction to the sect’s decimation during the Holocaust as devoted abidance by its tenets. Reactions of Hasidim to those who’ve abandoned their fold vary depending on their circumstances. Etty’s persistently terrorized by her husband and his family, and threatened with the loss of her parity because nomistic Hasidim can collectively afford the lawyers she can’t. All but isolated for his abandonment, Hershkowitz is advised by one of his community’s friendly yet firm elders (Rapaport), who voices compunction for his adversity and disapproval that it wasn’t redressed, but also admonition for his relatively liberal lifestyle and existential and theological inquisitiveness. Those few acquaintances from whom Twersky isn’t estranged only treat him with stilted civility. Outside the Islamic world, tergiversation is seldom met with such alienation, but these are not apostates: notwithstanding Hershkowitz’s doubts of divinity, they’re all practicing Jews more dedicated to dogma than most. This picture’s portrayal of Hasidim discloses of them qualities seemingly paradoxic: they’re at once scholarly and stagnant, loyal yet parasitic, neurotically fanatical in their crusade to resist modern, godless progress in a manner less extreme but far more aggressively adamant than that of the Amish. Ewing, Grady and their interviewees impart that this enclave needs to change — not to neglect or degrade their customs or consecration, nor to intromit outsiders or their culture, but to mend and forfend ingrained cycles of domestic and institutional abuse. If a stable society requires accountability, then a fortiori is it indispensable for any so closed.