Last Night's TV: Wonderland: A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride/BBC2
Poms in Paradise/ITV1
Thursday 19 May 2011
Paddy Wivell's film about the Hasidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill began by indulging an outsider's prejudice. What would most viewers' working assumptions be, after all? A world of arcane religious prescription, with every detail of life dictated by ancient texts? So... no establishing shot of beaver-hatted Hasids in a London street but a close-up of a book of rules, one from which no detail of life appeared too negligible to be excluded: "Finger and toenails should not be cut on the same day," read the text, "nor should the nails and the hair be cut on Rosh Chodesh, even when it occurs on a Friday." An additional note, which I think was supposed to be optional, said that sequential cutting of the fingernails was avoided by some and offered a mnemonic for the correct order in which to do your clipping (I'm not making this up for comic effect). But then, just as your scorn was peaking, it was undercut by a winningly human detail. "I bite my nails, I don't cut them," admitted Gaby, who spends large parts of his days devotedly studying such absurdities. "It's disgusting," confirmed his chuckling wife, Tikwah, "He bites his nails." Which inevitably raised a question. What's the rule about that? It seemed implausible that it wouldn't be covered somewhere since – as Gaby explained – "everything is controlled... for instance... excuse my English... you're not allowed to fart with tefillin on your head." One would love to know the circumstances in which a relieving gust is regarded as entirely kosher, but Gaby didn't elaborate.
Wonderland: A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride was, notionally at least, an attempt to portray a unique community, a little patch of north London that appears to be twinned with medieval Lublin. In truth, there was always going to be a problem with delivering a representative picture of this subculture, given that one of distinctive characteristics of Hasidic Jews is an inclination to tell men with film cameras to go away. As a result, Wivell's film depended on two rather uncharacteristic families – Gaby and Tikwah, who seem to be the closest you get to wild free spirits in a Hasidic community, and Avi Bresler, a local businessman whose CV features a spell in jail for money-laundering and who now lives apart from his wife (which is almost as unusual in Hasidic circles). Gaby and Tikvah were on hand to explain and deliver a running commentary. Avi was in the film, one guesses, because he didn't mind Wivell filming his oldest son's wedding, or tagging along as he tried to find a bride for a younger one.
Wivell was a bit edgy to begin with, anxious that virtually anything he did might break some religious taboo. He stammered apologetically after instinctively shaking Tikwah's hand when he was first introduced, though she didn't seem to feel she'd been irretrievably polluted. "I'll forgive you," she said laughing, "How should you know?" After a while, though, Wivell began to relax, gratified to discover that Hasids could have fun (the all-male wedding disco seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by all) and that observance was an odd hybrid of rigour and human circumvention. Attending a wild Hasid knees-up in the Ukrainian town of Uman, Wivell was on hand when Bradley – an adoptive Hasid – accidentally flicked a light switch on the sabbath, but explained that he was in the clear because he hadn't intended to break the rules. Wivell also noted the useful work-around for devout cigarette smokers, who aren't allowed to light or extinguish a cigarette on the sabbath but can transfer the flame from someone else's already-lit gasper. Presumably, they work out some kind of rota system to get them through the day.
Avi had some problems with the matchmaking side of things, a spell inside not being high on the tick-list of desirable qualities in a father-in-law. Visiting a professional matchmaker in Stamford Hill, he commendably put this awkward detail on the table right away, confident that it needn't be a deal breaker. "The good side will cover it," he said hopefully, explaining that money wasn't going to be a problem and that his son was a real catch. The matchmaker's face told you that the good side wouldn't cover it, and in the end, Avi had to head off to Israel, where he enlisted his own mother in the task of finding a suitable bride. After some false starts, Toli got a promising lead and Avi – who talked with some feeling about his own father's early death – looked a little less fretful. Since even the easy-going Gaby didn't approve of all of the film ("an extreme way of life is not the religious way of life," he said sternly, after Wivell had been on the Ukrainian pilgrimage), one imagines less camera-friendly Hasids would absolutely hate it. In fact, for all its bemusement at the small print of Talmudic law, it was a sympathetic study of lives that were simultaneously alien and familiar – a reminder that even the most strenuous attempts to separate yourself from the world at large can't mask the universals of parenthood and marriage.
Poms in Paradise, a documentary series about expatriate Brits in Australia, looks as if it's been sponsored by the Australian government, consisting of an almost unbroken hymn of praise to the climate, the lifestyle and the opportunities of God's Own Country. Its combination of optimism, material gratification and casualness is perfectly summed up, one contributor explained, by the phrase "She'll be right, mate." I don't think Hasids would feel entirely at home.
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