The stories we, as Ex-Hasidim, tell after leaving the Hasidic community are often of extreme importance to us. They provide a narrative through which we can articulate the contradictions making up our self-identity—New Yorkers, yet very much like immigrants; curious, yet with deep gaps in our knowledge; free spirited, yet often very young parents with children to care of and take responsibility for. But more importantly, our stories help us make sense of the difficult paths we’ve chosen to tread. To tell stories is to carefully organize and select from thousands of personal experiences, so that a concise overarching theme emerges that makes it all feel significant. Like all humans, the tales we tell provides meaning to the life we live.
One of Us, the movie recently released to Netflix, bills itself as another opportunity for our experiences to be heard. It tells of three ex-Hasidic individuals as they struggle to leave, against demonic forces, both internal and external. Against rabbis and the courts, against addiction and family members—some even wielding hammers outsider a woman’s door. The results of the documentary are uneven: Sometimes it felt like the genuine story of the teller, more often it felt like the sensationalist pop-culture version of the genre.
The movie opens when we hear a young woman named Etty speak with a police dispatcher while her husband’s family and friends are banging at her door. It isn’t quite clear what they want, but it viscerally and painfully portrays Etty’s fear and helplessness as forces outside her control are trying to destroy her life, with nobody in a position to help. As the movie progresses things deteriorate. Ultimately Etty losses custody and has only nominal supervised visitation with her seven children.
Etty is clearly caught in a very vulnerable and incredibly sad spot. She comes to the scene knowing that her plight, of an abused wife and mother of seven children who suffered much in her journey, will find a sympathetic audience in secular society. She found an ear in Footsteps, the organization seen as the lifeline for those who leave. Etty finds hope in Footsteps, and begins to make trips to its support groups. She cries as she speaks. It’s catharsis. But she seemingly does not yet know the limitations of that catharsis.
That intoxicating catharsis reminded me of my own baby steps away from Satmar Hasidism, when I just started to toy with possibilities beyond my village and was threatened by do-gooders and family with a war over custody. Every day came with the terror that someone collect my baby from his Hasidic day care before I was done with work, and that I would inevitably morph into the label of the crazy lady who left; tomorrow it might happen, tomorrow I might go mad! The isolation of living like this month after month is like a slow withering death; the paranoia that builds as loved ones and neighbors grow distant and suspicious could convince anyone that they are indeed a terrible person.
Occasionally there was a sip of water in this forty-year desert, when someone from the outside—a lawyer, or even just a stranger on the bus—heard you out and cried with you. One day, someone asked me to speak to a producer from a television network. I was told my plight was so outrageous that the network wanted to do a special about my experiences. The producer and I arranged for a covert meeting. I took a taxi to the McDonalds in Middletown, New York, where, ironically, the woman came with her child and bagged whole-wheat sandwiches for her child, while I was presumably to feast on the McDonalds cheeseburgers. The producer said that she’d like to give me a video camera and have me film myself regularly throughout my ordeal. For instance, I would record myself as my hair grew in and as I start wearing secular clothes for the first time.
The idea of speaking to thousands of people who would sympathize with me was intoxicating. It was my chance to be famous! It was the opportunity for the castaway nerd to suddenly be cool; it felt overwhelmingly transformative. But I also felt cheap, even used; I would have no editorial control or opportunity to provide nuance. The network already had a story in mind and I was to just fill in the imagery. But more than that, this was very risky. If the camera was found, things could get messy fast. Custody hearings might go downhill. Those were fallouts I would suffer, not the network. It was a risk the television network was willing to take, but I couldn’t afford to. And so, after some thought, I declined. I left some years later, and luckily my son stayed primarily in my care.
What good would a sensational television expose have brought? Do these simplistic storylines, meant for consumption by a culture which, in the main, rejects nuance and true insight for pro-forma narratives with good and evil, tell us something truly meaningful about life? Do these stories help the people they are about? Are they even meant to help those most in need of help? Or are they simply just another vehicle for outrage, giving us an opportunity to feel good about ourselves while fuming at another group of people we don’t truly understand or care to know?
Sensationalism has the power to make a lot of noise and a lot of mess which might not have the effect hoped for, because sensationalism is inherently filled with fleeting emotion instead of useful understanding. Cameras and simplistic storylines force a lack of nuance; custody situations in general benefit from nuance, and all the more so in situations where the children are juggled between two incompatible worlds with close relationships and friendships in both.
In Etty’s case, things unravel before the viewers eyes. Etty does risky things before the camera like allow her children to be filmed and go to the Footsteps office. These then wind up in the court transcripts, which is shown in the movie. Could no one foresee that these things, while entirely in Etty’s right to do both morally and ethically, might nevertheless hurt her in an ugly custody battle? Surely the people around her must have known that she’s dealing with monsters and bullies, and that some of the worse monsters and bullies are those who do what they do out of religious and ideological conviction? Was she allowed, and maybe even unconsciously encouraged, to put herself in a most-vulnerable position just to fit the narrative the story-tellers have decided on beforehand?
No woman should lose custody over going to any organization, but in a messy divorce, people who care about you shouldn’t let you do high-minded, brazen things that may lose you your children. I’ve been where Etty is, and, watching the documentary, I often wished I could pause the film and tell her that she is taking tremendous risks under the illusion that these exposes have altruistic motives. Because in a world where sensationalism sells, the line between giving someone a voice and exploiting them is very thin.
I believe strongly in giving marginalized voices a platform. But to do so honestly means to admit to the more problematic reasons we tell or devour these stories. Because each time the black and white narrative gets louder, our quest to find meaning in our experiences gets ever more muddled.