I too have a problem with The Jews

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 3, 2008

A documentary about Stamford Hill Chasidim took too many answers at face value

I was fascinated to learn of Chanoch Kesselman’s complaint to the BBC about the recently-screened documentary focusing on the life and ethos of the sectarian-Orthodox Jewish community of Stamford Hill.  Or rather, I was surprised to learn that his complaints addressed not so much the detailed content of the programme, as the fact that the documentary had been made without prior consultation with “community representatives”.

For those of you who have no prior knowledge of him, Chanoch Kesselman is one of this country’s foremost authorities on shechitah. Together with his brother, Neville, he established the highly effective Campaign for the Protection of Shechita, now a parent body of  Shechita UK. Chanoch Kesselman is also executive co-ordinator of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC), and it is in that capacity that he has taken issue with the BBC over its documentary.

This film, one of a trilogy — The Jews — made by Vanessa Engle, the acclaimed creator of incisive documentaries, approached its subject-matter through the story of Samuel Leibovitz, a 38-year-old Chasid and international drug smuggler who has spent a total of  nine years in prison in three different countries. As she followed him back from prison to his Stamford Hill roots, she encountered his friends, his family, and the milieu in which he was born and brought up.

In so doing, Ms Engle — a self-confessed “secular Jew” — asked many questions about a lifestyle of which she previously knew, I suspect, next to nothing. She has, indeed, admitted that it was precisely her ignorance of such matters that impelled her to investigate the Chasidic, and other religiously Jewish, existences.

This certainly showed through in her encounter with ex-convict Leibovitz and his circle. To be blunt, I found the documentary disappointing. Ms Engle — whether through ignorance or shyness I know not — simply failed to follow through on the issues that she came upon as she filmed.

For instance, she was clearly intrigued by the reason given for the extreme severity of Chasidic female dress code, which, we were told, has as its aim the wish to avoid (or at least minimise) sexual arousal on the part of Chasidic men. Married women, therefore, wear sheitels — wigs — and hats, and clothes that are meant to conceal the body-line. But what about minimising sexual desire amongst the womenfolk? How do they cope with erotic thoughts provoked by — say — the long side-curls sported by the men, not to mention their brightly coloured stockings? The question was, apparently, never asked.

Ms Engle naturally inquired about the absence of TV sets in Chasidic homes. A female interviewee explained that this was to preserve the “innocence” of the young and protect them from exposure to depictions of violence. I expected Ms Engle to ask how, in that case, Chasidic children coped with descriptions of rape, murder and massacre set down in the Torah. But the question was never asked.

Neither did the documentary seriously confront this much larger question: if these Jewish brethren of ours live such a cloistered lifestyle in order to insulate themselves from the wicked world outside their self-created ghetto, how come that Samuel Leibovitz ended up as a drug-trafficker, and that he is by no means the only Stamford Hill Chasid to have acquired an acutely criminal record?

These, in brief, were my concerns as the documentary drew to a close.  But they were evidently not shared by the leadership of the UOHC. What appears to have angered the Union was that the film (to quote Chanoch Kesselman) impinged on “the privacy of the Charedi community” and that it “failed to consider the sensibilities of a community who prefer not to be put in the limelight of television”. To make matters worse, the Union was not afforded the opportunity “to review the film or make editorial input”.

I’m afraid I cannot agree that these accusations carry substance. Everyone who was interviewed for the documentary agreed to be filmed. There was much filming in public places but there was no invasion of anyone’s privacy.  The UOHC might wish to be regarded as the community’s gatekeeper, or “minder”, but such a wish is, frankly, fantastic and incredible.

I understand that the Union met with Ms Engle last year and attempted, while acknowledging her artistic freedom, to exercise some form of editorial control over the documentary’s content. 

Why is the Union surprised that this attempt was comprehensively rebuffed?

Last updated: 11:17am, July 7 2008