Last Night's TV: Jews, BBC4
Tribal Wives, BBC2

At first glance, Samuel Leibowitz seems like a strange choice to begin a series about the lives of modern British Jews. It's not as if his experience is typical. He's Hasidic (big black hats, big black coats, Volvo estates to carry all the children), which places him in a small minority, but he's also a convicted drug-smuggler, which makes him a minority within the minority – a minority of one, in fact. Jonathan Goldberg, his lawyer, said that, in all the dozens of drugs cases he'd been involved in, he'd never had an orthodox Jewish client before. Then again, if you're wanting to talk about the tension between tradition and modernity, about the strains of living in a community based on rigid adherence to rules – well, who better could you ask for?

Vanessa Engle's new series, Jews, opened with Samuel being picked up outside the prison gates by his brother, Isaac, to be taken back home to Stamford Hill in north London, where the Hasidic community was waiting to welcome him with, well, not open arms, because he didn't do their reputation any good, but kindness, setting him up with a small flat and a job in an old people's day centre. Samuel acknowledged the kindness but chafed against the community's rules, the sense of being under observation. At one point, Engle asked him if it was easier living in prison, which I thought was a daft question, but he said yes, it was. Mind you, he'd been lucky enough to have a good cellmate. What was he in for, Engle wondered. He'd tried to blow up his wife. Didn't Samuel find that upsetting? "No. If that's what he wants, good luck to him." You could see Samuel was going to have trouble fitting in.

Much of Engle's time was spent wandering about Stamford Hill talking to the local Jews, finding out about their lives, asking the obvious questions: what do you learn at school? Why do the women wear wigs? (It's to cover their heads.) And if you're already wearing a wig, why the hat? (It's so people know you're covering your head, and it's not real hair.) Dov Berry, who owns a kosher food store, tried to sort out for her the kosher rules on biscuits. You couldn't have any non-Jewish biscuits, he explained, because they might contain the wrong kind of animal fat. What, Engle said, eagerly grasping the wrong end of the stick, like pig's milk? Do people drink pig's milk? Can you milk a pig? Sure, said Mr Berry, confidently, but aware that this was getting silly. Some women consented to be filmed, but only if their faces were blotted out, so as not to "compromise their spirituality" (whatever that means).

One woman mentioned an "innocence" in Hasidic youngsters, which Samuel had given up for good. They don't go in much for TV, because of the danger of seeing the wrong things; ditto computers. Mr Goldberg, not himself Hasidic, by the way, noted the enthusiasm for books, study and self-improvement: "Really, we could learn a lot from them." And the way the community pulls together, running its own ambulances, helping out those in troubles, is marvellous; but you couldn't help feeling, too, how quaint these lives were, how the texture of them sometimes seemed so shabby.

Samuel's life, meanwhile, came out in bits and pieces. How he'd got into drug-smuggling because he wanted to see Brazil (he saw the inside of a Brazilian jail for four years; then an Israeli one for eight). He used to wear the big fur hat, which he said put the customs officers off the scent, and carried cocaine by swallowing condoms-full, 90 or a hundred at one go. Engle was stunned. How did he get them down? Easy, he said, and demonstrated by swallowing a whole pickled cucumber without chewing. Isaac talked about his brother maybe settling down, finding a wife (his third, that would be). But Samuel seemed to be drifting back towards a shadier life. Now he was working for a friend collecting rent, and he told an unsettling story about getting out a non-paying tenant, using dogs. And as the song goes, how you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paree? At the end, he thought he might not stay in England, certainly not in Stamford Hill. "Maybe Golders Green, Hendon, Finchley, even Edgware." Nothing like having broad horizons.

Tribal Wives also explored the experience of life in an enclosed, old-fashioned community, but with none of Engle's wit, insight or irony. In this series, modern British women with something "missing" from their lives try to find it by living among people with no money or technology (ha: wait till you find out that what's really missing from your life is dentistry). First up was unhappy, unmarried thirtysomething Sass, off to spend a month with the Kuna on Niadup, an island off the coast of Panama. "A very spiritual people," said the voiceover (in this case, what that means is they carve wooden statues to ward off the spirits who bring bad dreams, because bad dreams can kill you). A month on a tropical island, being mothered by a kindly old lady, cheered Sass up no end; but I'm not sure we needed an hour of TV to tell us this. Offhand, I can't think of anybody who wasn't patronised by this – the Kuna, Sass, the viewers... Nope, pretty much a full house.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker