24 June, 2008

Kith and Kin

I got back from a gig to flop in front of the rather wonderful documentary The Prisoner, part of the BBC Four series, Jews. Samuel Leibowitz has just finished a spell in prison for drug smuggling. On his release he has returned to his childhood community of ultra-orthodox hasidic jews in north London.

(Unfortunately a small failing of the film is it didn't really explain to me what a hasidic Jew is. There's always the danger we might conclude that all Jews live in this way, but I'm relatively sure they do not.)

The extraordinarily devoted and restricted lives of the ~20,000 members of this community are completely at odds with the lifestyle of most modern britons, most especially those Samuel has been meeting in a prison environment. Even the term 'kosher', which we will have at least heard of, proves very difficult to really explain. Over the course of the hour, Vanessa Engle explores these rules and conflictions, and attempts to find the nature of Samuel's rebellion.

It's a fascinating insight into an extremely insular community. The temptation is clearly there for Engle to reach conclusions about this society, especially about the role of women and the effect on adolescents, but her restraint is crucial; after all we can easily decide for ourselves.

The main question we must ask is whether Samuel reacts like very many people would, or is he simply as strange an individual as he seems, somehow dysfunctional? Are the extremities of his rebellion therefore the result of the overbearing culture in which he was brought up?

As enjoyable as the current trend of "religious freak" documentaries are, it's refreshing to see this film, although clearly not quite embracing the hasidic jewish lifestyle, at least engaging with a totally alien culture and teasing out a fair

Episode 1 of 'Jews' is available to stream on the BBC iPlayer service for at least 6 more days HERE. 2 more episodes will be aired in the next week.

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