Is the Satmar Hasidic Documentary “One of Us” All of Us?
I recently watched the Netflix documentary “One of Us,” which follows three people who have chosen to leave the Satmar community in New York.
There’s Etty, a mother of seven who was married for 12 years to a man who abused her and the children. She broke communal standards by filing for divorce and is embroiled in a heated custody battle that has the whole community on her ex-husband’s side – especially because she’s considering leaving the fold.
There’s Ari, a teenager who’s questioning the virtues of his community. He was raped by the head of his summer camp when he was a child and is recovering from a drug addiction.
Then there’s Luzer, who moved to LA to become an actor. He suffered from abuse as a child, got married young, and fathered two children, but ultimately left his family because he couldn’t handle being observant anymore.
The film, directed and produced by the team behind the Oscar-nominated “Jesus Camp” has a clear thesis: The Satmar community (referred to by the filmmakers with blanket term “Hasidic”), is rife with sexual and domestic abuse, entraps its members, and doesn’t give them a lifeline should they choose a different path. If I didn’t know Hasidic Judaism, I’d think it was akin to Scientology.
It’s curious to watch this film amid the sex scandals racking up headlines in the news. I work in Hollywood and part of my job is to read the trades daily to see what new projects have been announced or are moving forward.
For the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to do my job without being inundated by story after story of sexual harassment. And given that many of my friends and social network work in the industry, I get a Facebook feed filled with stories before the news breaks them.
The filmmakers of “One of Us” started filming this documentary long before sex abuse was on the frontlines of our national discourse. But I can’t help but wonder how their thesis may have changed or been challenged if it was shot today. Certainly, the kind of abuse Etty, Ari, and Luzer experienced is still, unfortunately, occurring in the Satmar community. It’s also occurring everywhere else. And the consequences are eerily similar.
For the subjects of the documentary, reporting their abuse is near impossible. People don’t believe them or tell them they deserved it or feel sad that it happened but not angry enough to take action.
They have an impossible choice: stay within an abusive relationship or atmosphere but keep their families, friends, and way of life or speak up, move forward, and lose the lives they’ve built. They’ve chosen the latter; many choose the former.
It’s not that different in Hollywood. Until the Harvey Weinstein news became widespread, reporting sexual abuse or harassment was career suicide.
Before I moved to LA, I heard from many female writers that to “make it” I’d have to prove to the boys in the writers’ room that I was edgy and dirty and not afraid of a sex joke. I heard things like, “You won’t get hired if they think you’ll whine about sexual harassment because they make a dirty joke, so you have to make an even dirtier one.”
I’ve actually never been afraid of a sex joke –or any joke – because I think humor allows us to engage with taboos and comfortably own our humanity, but I did understand the underlying message: This is not a town where you can speak up if you’re uncomfortable and expect to still work. And it’s certainly harder for actresses, whose bodies can be seen as part of their resumes, even though we know their bodies are their own.
“One of Us” tries to make the case that the Satmar community is problematic. And perhaps it would have been, in a different time.
But in the current climate, it’s just one more example of an oppressive power structure. The rabbis leading the community are like the bigwigs of Hollywood. Both want to protect what they’ve built and the people who’ve helped them build it. And both know that women and children don’t hold the keys to the castle, so it’s easier to dismiss them. Or it was, at least in Hollywood.
Knowing this problem is rampant was actually, in a way, a comfort as I cringed through the harder scenes of the movie. For every moment that was a chilul Hashem, I remembered: It’s not one of us.
It’s not religious Jews who cause these issues, or Catholic priests, or even Hollywood honchos. Our communities have nothing to be ashamed of – our world has everything to be ashamed of, and when we recognize that, we can make real change.
Change within Hollywood. Change within politics. Within religious circles. Change within strangers on buses.
Maybe the wave of #metoo will find its way behind the walls of the Satmar community and empower the good, pious people there to stand alongside the new movement and say, “Not us. Not here. Not anymore.”
Cindy Kaplan is a writer and entrepreneur living in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured on Yahoo!, Defy Media, VEVO, and other digital outlets and film festivals. She co-founded Hollywood Resumes, a resume-writing service that focuses on job applicants trying to break into the entertainment industry. She loves all animals, from puppies to okapis.