When the world of faith meets the world of reality TV
Reality TV documentaries can provide an appreciation into previously little known worlds, and last week ITV’s Strictly Kosher was no exception.
A two-part documentary following the lives of individuals from Manchester’s thriving Jewish community, the series depicts Jewish traditions, beliefs and practices and attempts to offer a unique insight into the culture and character of a community linked by faith. The style is similar to Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and follows the community’s more colourful characters with an effort to reveal some of the complexities and intricacies of Jewish rituals and community life.
This show was the second instalment of the original Strictly Kosher documentary, which aired last year, and received criticism for displaying fun entertainment but little show of depth into the UK’s largest Jewish community. This time round, emotional and sombre themes are blended with spirited festival celebrations and communal events.
The series attempts to portray the diversity within the Jewish community. The characters range from Bernette Clarke, a lively and animated modern-orthodox mother and wife; Jack Aizenberg, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who lost his faith after the war; Joel Lever, a clothing store owner who claims that “we live in a modern era” and that simply being a good person is good enough for him; and Rabbi Zevi Saunders, an entertaining young internet-dating Rabbi.
Although thoroughly entertaining and at times insightful, the problem with documentaries of this type is that they tend to portray a very limited and sometimes unrepresentative picture of an entire community. One such example was Joel Lever’s comment: “there are two things Jewish people love – food, and clothes”. I had to try my best not to cringe when the clothes store owner commented that “the ‘kerching’ of the cash register is like music”.
Ultimately made for the viewer’s entertainment, such shows often fall into the trap of representing a rather crude depiction of religion as no more than a set of restrictions. This is the case when the central character Bernette is shown walking through the handful of gender-segregated streets of Jerusalem, which could be taken to depict the norm for religious Jewish communities.
A lot was made of Jewish rituals and festivals, with the emphasis on family and communal life. Often the characters were filmed in the family home, sitting around the Sabbath table, or involved in a religious ritual or activity. Although these events are an accurate representation of the elements that make up religious Jewish life, to the average viewer, the impression might be that sitting around a table, eating, praying and observing rituals is pretty much all that Jewish people do.
Having discussed the topic with fellow young members of the Jewish community, the consensus was that the voice and perspective of the younger generation was missing from the programme. Faith was described by many of them as a very personal experience, one which is fluid and not necessarily a one-size-fits-all belief system which can be accurately portrayed in a two-hour documentary. It would have been interesting to have had representation from the different denominations within Judaism, such as the Reform, Liberal and Masorti sectors, which might have presented the different ways in which the faith is interpreted and practised.
But Strictly Kosher did have some entertaining moments. When asked if he would be undertaking any sex education in advance of his upcoming nuptials, 27-year-old Rabbi Zevi Saunders replied that he supposed he was expected to “learn on the job”.
Perhaps the strongest element of the programme was the moving story of the Holocaust survivor, Jack Aizenberg, who lost his family during World War Two at the hands of the Nazis and arrived in Manchester as an empty-handed refugee. In Part Two of the documentary he revisits his hometown of Poland and ventures back into the death camps in which he suffered incomprehensibly as a young boy. It was impossible not to be moved by the tragic tale of Jack’s suffering and loss. An incredibly likable character, we watched as Jack wept, describing the horror of his little brother being murdered: “My brother was only nine years old… gassed. What had he done wrong? What was his crime? He was a Jew.” Jack has since built up a successful luggage business in Manchester and practises little of his faith. When asked about keeping kosher, he reflects on his experiences of living in hunger and responds: “Food was created by God…so where does being kosher come into it?”
We also see Jack finally undergoing his Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the age of 85, 72 years later than the traditional Bar Mitzvah age of 13. It was a touching ceremony, one that he had missed out on as a persecuted teenager all those years ago.
Possibly my favourite line of the documentary was when Jack claimed that he would like his nationality to be described, not as part of the chosen people, but as part of the human race. He described himself as “happy”; he reflects at how he had lived through hell (during the war), but had spent the past 70 years in paradise.
Realistically, a two-hour slot and a handful of characters could never equate to an accurate and representative portrayal of Jewish life in its entirety. While the series may not have avoided clichés and stereotypes, it did provide an entertaining mini-observation into a minority of characters within the Jewish community. But anyone wishing for a more meaningful and in-depth understanding would be better off expanding their horizons.
Image from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jul/09/strictly-kosher-grace-dent
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