Opinion

5 things Netflix’s ‘One of Us’ won’t teach you about Hasidic Jews

"One of Us" offers a look into the secretive world of Hasidic Judaism and those who wish to leave that community for a life among the nonreligious, whatever the costs. Photo courtesy of Netflix

(RNS) — Hasidic Jews often lead very insular lives, and their strict practices can be confounding even to more assimilated American Jews.

Documentarians’ attempts to shed light on Hasidic groups can reveal their own — sometimes apparently willful — misconceptions about them, as an Oprah Winfrey film crew did when it toured a Hasidic group’s ritual bath, or mikvah, in Brooklyn in 2012.

As the Hasidic woman leading them remembered, Oprah and her team were clad in black, while she — who was interviewed for but asked not to be named in this piece — wore white, and her daughter, burgundy.

Why, one of Oprah’s producers asked the two women, do Hasidic women wear only black?

“It kind of blew my mind,” the mikvah guide said.

A new Netflix documentary, “One of Us,” also falls short in its portrayal of Hasidim, as the different groups of Hasidic Jews are collectively known. In the 95-minute film, Ari, Etty and Luzer allege abuse and discuss their struggles to leave the Hasidic lives into which they were born.

The filmmakers worked with the New York-based nonprofit Footsteps, which helps former Hasidic Jews on their journeys to more secular lives. The organization said it only assists those who ask for help, but Hasidic leaders have accused it of preying on vulnerable community members.

“One of Us” tugs on viewers’ heartstrings from the start, but many of those most familiar with Hasidim say it presents an incomplete and skewed snapshot of Hasidic life.

Estimates place Hasidim at about 350,000 in the U.S., with a 45 percent growth rate every decade. They represent about 6 percent of all self-identifying Jews in the nation, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans.

While “One of Us” tells the stories of three of those 350,000, here’s what the broader communities are about, according to some who have spent much more time with them.

1. Clothing is key.

Hasidic men tend to wear their side curls and beards long, and their headgear — from skullcaps to furry hats called shtreimels. Hasidic women wear long sleeves and dresses or skirts, and married women cover their hair, often with wigs, kerchiefs or both.

Early on in the Netflix documentary, a subtitle states, “To separate themselves from outsiders, [Hasidim] dress like their ancestors and speak mostly Yiddish.” That’s misleading, said the mikvah guide. Hasidic garb is “just traditional” and no more emphasizes difference than do traditional American Indian or African clothing, she said. And Hasidic women shop at stores like Lord & Taylor and Macy’s.

“It’s not like they’re going back to some shtetl dressmaker,” she said.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical college Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, disagrees. Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews model their fashion choices on a religious text, which states that the Israelites in Exodus merited redemption from ancient Egypt because they didn’t change their names, language or clothing.

“That’s become almost the anthem of Orthodoxy,” said Katz, who grew up in the Satmar Hasidic community.

2. Most Hasidic women don’t feel oppressed.

“We all live with restrictions. I can’t park wherever I want to park,” said the mikvah guide. She offered another example: When her daughter started taking karate lessons — yes, some Hasidic women learn karate — that meant she couldn’t study piano at the same time.

“My commitment is to Torah,” the guide said, speaking of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. “I want to live a kind of life with the ideals and principles of Torah living. Part of that is the way I view myself and my body. … I can wear whatever I want. But because I’m committed to Torah, most of my body is covered.”

3. Hasidic spaces aren’t off-limits.

The Netflix documentary frequently shows Hasidim through windows, often barred, suggesting the only way to observe this community is voyeuristically. But Hasidim don’t cloister themselves entirely, according to Katz, who recalls his father — who grew up in South America — chatting in Spanish with the Latino neighbors as he left the house for work. And his grandfather would converse in Spanish with elderly non-Jews at the park.

The two aren’t outliers, Katz said. “The community is flattered when outsiders come.” Some outsiders may feel they will be shunned, “but the community is very proud to show off who they are.”

4. There are many kinds of Hasidim.

Satmar, the Hasidic group in which Katz grew up, is very critical of Zionism, while Chabad is very supportive of the modern state of Israel, according to Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College in New York who has studied Hasidim.

“That’s a huge difference,” said Heilman, author of the recent book “Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America.”

On other issues, too, from the rabbis they follow to the places they settle, “there are tons of gradations,” said Katz.

5. Not all Hasidic communities circle the wagons to blame abuse victims.

“It’s true that abuse exists,” but not as universally as the Netflix documentary seems to suggest, Heilman said.

Katz acknowledged that some Hasidic leaders blame victims and protect abusers. “There’s a small and minor elite, which is deeply invested in preserving the status quo, because that’s where they get their power, their money and their control.” But among lay Hasidim, many are “far more loving, far more accepting” toward victims.

The Hasidic woman who guided Oprah through the ritual bath, and is also involved in raising sexual abuse awareness in the Hasidic community, said attitudes are changing.

“One of Us” doesn’t show counterexamples, such as the case in which a young Hasidic girl accused a very powerful rabbi of abuse, she said.

“It didn’t tell you about that courtroom being packed with the supporters of the victim, and not a single supporter for the molester from his own community,” she said.

(Menachem Wecker is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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Menachem Wecker

10 Comments

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  • And the fact that there was no Abraham or Moses and that the Book of Exodus is all myth makes this entire discussion moot.

  • We do not know that! It is highly unlikely that any of the “stories” in ancient texts are factual historical documents, but you and I do not know what their real stories were about, just like Jesus.

  • Ultra Orthodox Jews are an embarrassment to the community as they are a pain in the asp in Israel as well.. They under educate their children to the modern world, and still put the idea that the planet is only a few thousand years old. They still practice washing their private parts in community ritual baths in non-moving water, which spread much disease in ancient times. At least they allow them to use chlorine today.

  • Try driving through Kiryas Joel. You will be followed by security and harassed until you leave. If you drive through their community on the sabbath, they will throw stones at your car. They have a huge sign at the entrance telling visitors how they must dress and warning you the genders must be separated. They will not sell to non-Hasidics. They work the system to receive Medicaid and food stamps. They bloc vote and get politicians to turn a blind eye to their reindeer games. They will not talk to you, because if you’re not Hasidic, you are not considered human. They will block bust, forcing you to sell, and if you don’t, your home becomes worthless.

  • “Alleged abuse” sounds a lot like you don’t believe the victims. Shameful. And I can guarantee you there is no statistical information on “most” hasidic people being happy. If I’m wrong, please link a reputable source, I’d be happy to be corrected. The film said it best, the Hasidic community is built on trauma, people in survival mode. There’s nothing healthy about that.

  • Awful article – weakly researched, lacking informative content and one-sided.

    You quote the same three people throughout this article to prove your point that the Netflix documentary only “tells the stories of THREE of those 350,000”, claiming that the broader community is about something different according to your sources: “who have spent much more time with them.”

    First of all, the three people in the documentary all grew up and spent most of their life in that community – how can you spend more time in a community than that?

    Secondly, you say three people aren’t sufficient to speak for an entire community, but somehow your three sources are?

    Lastly, you, as a man writing this article and claiming in point 2 that hasidic women don’t feel oppressed (based on one woman) and then downplaying abuse in point 5- I find that plain offensive!

  • As an Australian Secular Jew and having watched this documentary, the crux of the matter is really in the despicable nature of manipulative control in these communities. This is a common factor in all small ultra-religious communities, including some in Australia. The idea of ‘moyser’, a Jew that reports something to the secular authorities, is rampant leading abuse and other crimes being covered up. From the start, the children are brought up in a constructed reality, a bubble that is Hasidism, and outside the rest of the world. Those inside the bubble have little to no information about the outside, and every aspect of their lives is controlled (their marriage, their education, etc.) . It really is akin to a prison, because it denies people expression of their ideas and beliefs, and having a mechanism in place, which mobilises the whole community to punitively punish a person who is perceived to have crossed the line. Unfortunately, some people try to leave, but it is very difficult with no money, family, or education. It is very much a loop which is very hard to escape from. There is nothing wrong with living a Hadisic lifestyle, but it is not one size fits all, and people must be free to choose for themselves, rather than due to pressure.

  • 02/24/2019: I live near Lakewood, NJ where there is a large Orthodox Community. Also shop at the Shop Rite on Rt70 where there are many Orthodox shoppers. During today’s shopping trip, i knocked over a plastic box of cherry tomatoes onto the floor: cherry tomatoes everywhere. Stooping to pick them up before a bigger mess happened, a young Orthodox woman and her young daughter came over without asking and helped me. Frankly, i didn’t think Orthodox women were allowed to go near gentile men – who knew. Regardless, a mess was averted and all tomatoes were collected. The young woman smiled, said “Have an easy day” and continued her shopping. POINT: One size does not fit all. Whoever you are – you taught me a valuable lesson. Shalom.

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