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.