One of the first stories I ever wrote as a professional journalist was about Unchained At Last, an organisation seeking to help women escape forced marriages. I was working for The Forward, a national publication covering Jewish-American issues, and the woman I profiled for the story, Fraidy Reiss, was a former ultra-Orthodox Jew who had left her community after enduring 15 years of physical and mental abuse from her husband.
So, when I watched One of Us, the new Netflix documentary directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (of Jesus Camp fame), one narrative in particular hit pretty close to home. The film follows the journey of three people — two men, one woman — in the various stages of leaving their Hasidic community in Brooklyn. There's Ari, who is still trying to cope with the trauma of a sexual assault at the hands of a camp councillor; Luzer, who was forced to leave his wife and children behind to pursue a career as an actor; and finally, Etty, a 32-year-old mother of seven who is struggling to retain custody after deciding to leave her abusive husband.
While all three characters are compelling — each story is more heartbreaking than the next — the point that One of Us drives home is that women in the Hasidic community have far less recourse than men. They have two jobs: to be wives and to be mothers. To leave is to forfeit their entire identity. Like Fraidy, Etty was married off at 19 to a man she'd met only a handful of times. And once she was wed, there was no way out.
Ewing and Grady were always looking for a woman's perspective, and got in touch with Footsteps, an organisation devoted to helping former Hasidic Jews navigate secular life, which allowed them to hang out in the lobby and come to events without a camera. Eventually, they found Etty, who at the time — and still today — was embroiled in a legal battle with her former husband who, with the support of community leaders, was trying to prevent her from gaining custody of their seven children.
"There weren't that many women who would talk to us, or even think about participating at all," Grady explained in an interview prior to the film's release."I think it took someone almost in Etty's position, which is to say she felt almost like she had nothing to lose, and maybe something to gain by participating in the project."
Throughout the film, we see Etty struggling against a system that appears rigged against her. New York has what's called "status quo" clause when it comes to children of parents seeking a divorce, which means that the parents must guarantee that nothing will change in the way they are raised. In Etty's case, the ultra-Orthodox community uses this as a pretext to keep her children with their father — if the mother is leaving the community, how can she raise them in its values and traditions?
"If you abdicate your role as a wife, that's one thing," Ewing said. "But for them, that means you're abdicating your role as a Jewish mother, and raising your kids in the proper way. That is not tolerated. A woman with children whose questioning the community? That's the third rail. Etty touched the third rail by just wanting a divorce."
Unlike the two men in the film, Etty can no longer have pleasant interactions with her former neighbours and family. In one scene, she calls a friend from Footsteps crying after her former best friend — "Like a sister!" — testifies against her in court. In another, she calls the cops because her husband's family members are banging on her front door. In the next, she's sobbing alone in her apartment after being hit by a car while walking home.
And yet, for much of the movie, Etty refuses to show her face, either for fear of reprisals, or because of the lingering effect of the stringent modesty laws imposed on women in the Hasidic community. This worried me at first, because it seemed to take away from her narrative — unlike the two men in the film, her story was almost being told for her.
But as her journey into a more secular life progresses, she starts to reveal more of herself, until ultimately, we see her removing her wig — a final act of rebellion against the community that is trying to take everything from her. "We had seen her take her wig off, but if was different to have us film it," Grady said. "It was one of those moments, that you realise that for this woman, there is no turning back. She had literally stepped off a cliff. She can't go back, she has nothing to go back for."
"She was on this journey to try to let go of shame," Ewing said. "Shame of being an individual, shame for wanting an education, fear of repercussions, from her husband and his family, she was losing the case, she was being tortured on every level. I think she had a moment of 'maybe my story matters, maybe my story can help other people, and if not me, then who?' As filmmakers, and as human beings, it was a real gift she gave us to be part of that."
Today, Etty is still struggling to get her children back. She's still adjusting to secular life. But by sharing her own story, she's perhaps made it easier for others to do the same.
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