This Chasid is strictly unorthodox

By Simon Round, May 19, 2011
Convicted money launderer Avi Bresler (centre), self-styled leading light of “the Stamford Hill posse”

Convicted money launderer Avi Bresler (centre), self-styled leading light of “the Stamford Hill posse”

Wonderland: A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride
BBC2, 2/5

Dolphin Boy
More4, 3/5

This documentary in the Wonderland strand was advertised by the BBC as a glimpse into the secretive world of North London's Chasidic community. Actually it was nothing of the sort. Rather it was a glimpse into the rather chaotic life of one Stamford Hill individual - Avi Bresler, who had served four-and-a-half years in prison for money laundering, had separated from his wife, and, he intimated, had a rather un-Chasidic predilection for the ladies.

We met Avi at the wedding of one of his five sons. He was ecstatic, glassy-eyed with drink and generally having a riot of a time. But he did have a problem. He still had at least one more son to marry off, and how could he possibly make a shidduch with his reputation so badly tarnished.

Avi, now reformed and repentant, was totally upfront about his misdemeanours to Paddy Wivell, who doubled as the programme's director and its Louis Theroux-style wide-eyed reporter, and to the rather shocked matchmaker who came to meet him at his home.

If Avi was worried, he did not show it, preferring rather to jet away to the Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah at the shrine of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Chasidic movement. This was an 18-30 holiday, Chasidic style. Avi and his single chums, "the Stamford Hill posse", prayed, drank, ate and bounced up and down to Chasidic pop. Maybe, pondered Wivell, these Chasids were not quite as different from himself as he had imagined.

Of course, he was wrong. Avi is no more representative of the Chasidic community than Amy Winehouse is of young Jewish women. Had the programme been sold as the personal journey of a renegade Chasid it would have been fine, but a Chasidic guide to love and marriage this was not.

Wivell has form in this regard. In 2004 his documentary portrayed some of the more feckless inhabitants of the remote Scottish port of Campbeltown in a way that outraged the community. He seems to have done a similar job on the Jews of Stamford Hill.

There were some entertaining moments. Another, remarkably open interviewee, a Talmudic scholar called Gabi Lock, told Wivell that he was terrified about "the going to bed bit" of getting married and put it off as long a possible. His wife, Tikwah, confirmed that when he did ultimately get around to it, he made "a holy mess of it". For all the charm of Wivell's subjects, the same could be said of this film.

It is always welcome to come across a film about Israel which has nothing to do with the conflict. And Dolphin Boy was a heart-warming story about Morad, a 17-year-old Arab-Israeli boy, savagely attacked after thugs took exception to an innocent text message he sent to a girl in his class at school.

Morad was so traumatised that he was unable even to communicate with his family. His psychiatrist, Dr Ilan Katz, prescribed dolphin therapy in the desperate hope that the aquatic mammals of Eilat might succeed where the medical profession had failed. And miraculously it worked. Morad bonded almost immediately with the dolphins, connecting with them in a way he found it impossible to do with humans. Slowly he began to respond to those around him. But a problem remained - he had blocked out the attack so comprehensively that he now lived in a dolphin bubble. He believed that he had been born and raised in Eilat. He refused to see his mother or return to his town. But over the course of four years he finally came to terms with his trauma and ultimately returned home to testify against his attackers.

Yonatan Nir's film had the feeling of an American made-for-TV movie, and will probably be made into one at some point. However, despite the syrupy soundtrack, Morad's recovery was truly remarkable and the emotions it generated genuinely felt.

Last updated: 11:06am, May 19 2011