fri 03/12/2021

Wonderland: The Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Wonderland: The Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride, BBC Two

Wonderland: The Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride, BBC Two

Romance among the folks that live on the (Stamford) Hill

Although in perhaps a less ostentatious manner than is familiar from Louis Theroux's documentaries, BBC Two's Wonderland last night nevertheless took the well-worn path of finding an odd-seeming community and examining its customs, morals and characters. In this case, it was the 20,000 Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill, north-east London, who - we were led to believe - had some pretty funny ideas about love.

The superficial oddities of the culture must have seemed so inviting to the film-maker, Paddy Wivell: pious observance of hundreds of biblical rules of behaviour, from circumcision to toilet etiquette; the uniform of heavy black coat, large black hat, wildly long sideburns; the sequestration from other cultures. As soon as the programme began, however, it became clear that these were wrappings around eminently human behaviour.

There is certainly a gap between what appears to be the great austerity of a rule-bound life and the exuberance expressed at ubiquitous wedding celebrations. (Apparently some Stamford Hill Jews get invited to 100 weddings a year.) The bride and groom cannot touch until the end of the wedding breakfast, and indeed the men and the women are segregated at the party, but it doesn't seem to matter. Judging by the flamboyant, full-hearted cartwheeling, break dancing and klezmer moves, the men were having the time of their lives. Wivell didn't suggest that this was a response to the rules, although it seemed evident.

The film's title suggests that it was trying to explore codes of love among the Hasidim, but its subjects were poorly chosen for that. Wivell concentrated on one couple, Gaby and Tikwah, who had been married for 40 years and cheerfully admitted that their outlook, having married off their children, was different from parents with children as yet unwed, and one separated man, Avi, who was trying to marry off his second son. Neither the couple nor Avi seemed especially representative, but then those who will submit to documentaries (see last week's Made in Chelsea) rarely are.

The verb "to marry off" is indeed appropriate: he was not waiting for his son to meet a girl, settle down for a while then get married, but contacted a matchmaker to arrange a shidduch (a match). The search was complicated by Avi's past - which I won't reveal, in case you haven't seen it - and led to Avi enlisting his mother in Israel. Faithful to the terrier-stereotype of the Jewish mother, she searched until a girl was found.

Is this so astonishingly different from Jews beyond Stamford Hill, and indeed the rest of London at large, that we need a film about it? Hardly. Arranged marriages are common in other cultures, parents often try to interfere, and some people place such importance on parental approval that they may as well have chosen the affianced in the first place.

As if to emphasise the futility of the film-maker's quest for difference, Gaby came out with thoughts on marriage and life that might as well have come from a guest on Oprah's couch or The Guardian's advice column. Marriage is about being less selfish. Growing up means curbing your desires. Absent fathers affect children. This is not to say that his words are any less meaningful: they're as meaningful because they're as universal.

The film takes a strange tangent when it follows Avi to the Ukraine over the Jewish New Year, where he prays at a rabbi's shrine and bunks with some fellow Stamford Hillers. This section seems to have little bearing on the theme of love and marriage. Had Wivell been making a film exclusively about Avi, it would have been revealing; here it is an excursus of little point.

The key difference with Theroux's brand is that while he finds cultures almost incomprehensible to the viewers - the Phelps family, for example - Wivell happened upon a group of people affected by the same desires and problems as the rest of the country, even if that was not what you feel he was hoping for.

Share this article

Comments

This program was disgraceful. It was about the shkotzim and shiksas of Stamford Hill dressed up as chasidim. Has absolutely nothing to do with chasidus. The Jewish laws were also all wrong. One can touch ones wife before the end of the night for instance. Gabby Lock is a well known attention seeker. Shame!

I was brought up in Stamford Hill as an Orthodox Jew, but not a Hassidic Jew. However, with lots of Hassidic neighbours, I got to know the community well, and spent a lot of time with the families, and was often in Hassidic houses. I was deeply embarassed that Avi was selected as a central character in a community where he is clearly barely tolerated. When I grew up, the Hassidic community looked after its own financially, and it was the duty of the community to support the young financially especially with interest free loans, and once a member repaid his loans and was financially stable, he would then be expected to loan to others, in proportion to his means. I can only assume that Avi got into a position where too many owed money to him, and the community cannot afford to exclude him, as would have been the case at one time. This is on top of the numerous factual errors that peppered the commentary. Shame on the BBC for distorting the reality for the sake of a more "entertaining" programme.

Aside from the content, which I'm sure some will say painted the Stamford Hill community in a poor light, I thought the programme as a whole was very poorly researched and produced and considering this was a BBC production, really let the broadcaster down. It honestly felt like Wivell had walked into the situation totally blind, having done no prior research on who or what he was going to be filming. He even admitted to realising his first faux pas, shaking Mrs Lock's hand, almost as soon as he'd done it. Generally the production standards were very poor. The programme seemed to veer all over the place (what was the relevance of the trip to Uman for example) and often it felt as though Wivell was being forcefully put back on track by some unseen producer. There was no rhythm or pacing, nothing felt particularly connected. All in all, I came away feeling as though this was Wivell's first big break out of university and that he had struggled to cobble together a programme from six months of poorly directed footage lacking any kind of real engagement or focus.

I know next to nothing of the Hassidic jews and was looking forward to learning about them. I was deeply disappointed in this program. It was badly researched, asked banal, trivial questions and offered us no insights into the community it claimed in the title it would show us. Instead we saw only the views and attitudes of 2 men who, clearly, were not representative of the community. I'm surprised that the BBC bothered to show it. I hope that in the future a more sensitive, insightful program may be made which will offer us who are outside the chance to better understand the Hassidic community.

Chaim - I'm not familiar with the words you're using so I'm not getting your meaning. Please, what do 'shkotzim', 'shiksas' and 'chasidim/us' mean? Thanks

Most people are familiar with the derogatory terms I mentioned. These people on the show (Asher Shapiro chasidim) are men who have left their wives, and boys who indulge in sexual practices totally foreign to Jewish people and frequent the Stamford Hill brothels. They went to Uman in the Ukraine where thousands of Israeli men go every year alone and the shiksas there are awaiting them. For them its a gold mine. The israeli goverment have to send their own policemen with to control them. These are all outcasts from the Stamford Hill community and you cant get further than them than from real chassidus. As they say on the show no one wants to marry them and its not because he has been inside. The wedding I understand was in Manchester not in London because no real rabbi would get involved with them.

I must add Gabby Lock is no rabbi and has no idea of Jewish law. For more information about him read http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2011/05/inside-europe... All most every law he mentioned is totally false. One may usually touch and even kiss ones bride straight after the ceremony. Not like the program said.

I actually thought that this was a very sensitive and well made programme. Perhaps because I am Jewish the hassidic elements were not bizarre to me, but for somebody with little contact or knowlege of orthodox Jews I can see that it would be fascinating. But Mr Wivell is to be commended in concentrating on the human aspects rather than the voyeurism. This programme was mainly about Avi, a very likeable guy, but who, perhaps more than most, has struggled to live up to the standards that he and his community set themselves. It was also about his several of his peers whom although not ostracising him clearly were somewhat embarrassed by his past (and present) behavour, and although perhaps understanding him do not approve. The social interplay was fascinating due mainly to Avi's candour in front of the camera, and yet tempered by his discretion about his failed marriage. I wish Avi best of luck in keeping (more or less) on the staight and narrow whilst being true to himself. And at the end of the day Paddy Wivell's conclusion that folk are folk and this film should help to do its part in combatting intolerance. The only thing that I really disliked was the title. This was a breath of fresh air after the blatanty anti-semitic nonsense of programmes like Channel 4's The Promise, which set out to portray Jews as so callous as to be inhuman.

I watched the documentary and enjoyed every minute of this fascinating and very human insight into Hassidim 'everyday life'. I am a british muslim and found this to be greatly beneficial for me to understand better some aspects of Jewish life within Hassidic community. Im sure most non jewish people watching would be clever enough to appreciate the fact that their are different interpretations, commitment and so on, to make sense of the characters who were interviewed. The most important thing that stood out was the humanity and warmth that the fim maker brought to the documentary. 10out of 10. I hope we see more follow up programs of Jewish life and religion.

I'm a Hasid living in Stamford Hill, and I found the documentary entertaining and amusing. It obviously didn't show the whole picture but it accurately portrayed a small but significant part of the community - the only ones who would ever agree to be filmed by the BBC, the ones who are not that conformist to begin with. So you are bound to see only this part of Stamford Hill in any documentary that relies on people speaking to the camera. The others can be seen at the beginning of the episode peering out from behind the Walls of the Satmar synagogue to see what was happening and quickly ducking back inside to hide from the camera. This is an accurate representation of that part of the community, and about as much as you'll ever see of them.

Shame on the BBC, all they could find were some poor unfortunates who were willing to sell their soul (so to speak) to the BBC for a financial reward. Ask anybody in the S/Hill community about any of the characters, Gabi, Avi, Ginger, Bradley, etc and you will get a common theme. They are all either dropouts or persons who failed to make their mark in the community. As a born and bred Hasidic Jew who also is involved in the mainstream community I heard much criticism from many of my Gentile acquaintances who each told me that this is not the Jew that they know. Apart from all this many of the laws and interpretations mentioned were factually incorrect, as has already been mentioned by many other commentators. To coin a well known phrase “ with friends like that who needs enemies” .

Avi is an embarrassment to authentic Judaism in general and Hasidim in particular. His knowledge and practise of rites and rituals are superficial at best and somewhat contemptuous at worst. Take the example when Paddy Wivell asks him why he is washing his hands upon awakening, he replies “That’s what is says in the book” and then goes on to say that “you brainwashed as a little kid from when you are two years old…”. Well any child knows that the ritual hand washing is called “Negel Vasser” literally – [finger]nail water, and there are many explanations and reason for this hallowed practise. Just Google the term. Later on in Uman he is being interviewed on the Festival day of Rosh Hashona which is in itself incorrect as he is activating the recording equipment in that his voice and image is being recorded. All this whilst also making an issue of not lighting his cigarette with a match but taking a light from another already lit cigarette. So you can see the obvious contradictions and ignorance in place. In summary, a completely distorted viewpoint, and a mockery of authentic Judaism.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters