Inside Europe's biggest Hasidic community
- 18 May 2011
- From the section Magazine
North London's Hasidic Jewish community is an intensely private world, where marriage is an integral rite of passage, strict rules must be adhered to and faith is taken seriously. Film-maker Paddy Wivell spent three months finding out what goes on behind closed doors and how an outsider is received.
"Nobody can become a 10-minute Jew," warns Hasidic scholar and Stamford Hill resident Gaby Lock. "It's so vastly away from your way of life that you would have no understanding of it whatsoever."
In Lock's front room, he talks about just a few of the 613 Commandments that govern the lives of the 20,000 orthodox Hasidic Jews who live here. It's already enough to give you a headache.
Out on the streets, men with beards and ringlets wear black hats and coats and hurry to synagogue while women push buggies into kosher supermarkets wearing wigs to protect their modesty.
The Hasidim see a lot of modern technology as a potential danger, putting at risk the spirit of purity and holiness of the community and threatening the innocent minds of its children.
Television is known as "the Yetzer Hara Box" which roughly translated means the "evil temptation machine". Owning one can be likened to "having an open sewer in the lounge".
The change between Stamford Hill and even a just a mile down the road is like crossing a border into another country.
"[There are] laws concerning charity, laws concerning the salting of meat, rules concerning the eating of meals, laws about how to go the toilet," says Lock, plucking passages at random from just one of his volumes of the Code of Jewish Law.
Along with these rules, the desire for privacy and scepticism about the media makes it difficult to speak to anyone.
"Everyone is very secretive," says Lock's wife Tikwah, who has been married to him for 40 years.
"They're thinking about the children they have to marry off and what will harm their name. Blow it all. We just say what we like, especially my husband."
Lock smiles. He is rare in this community - someone happy to engage with outside media. In fact, he quite enjoys ruffling feathers.
He is considered something of a rebel but in the village-like atmosphere of Stamford Hill, even he doesn't want to be too conspicuous and won't be filmed outside the confines of his home.
A lot of the community is very open and engaging to speak to, but most are unwilling to appear on camera.
In my three months there, the only people willing to speak on camera were those on the outside of the community, the less conventional or traditional Hasidim - and they were few and far between.
Avi Bresler, a 41-year-old father of five, has been living in the community since he moved from Israel as a teenager. His eldest son, Yitzchok Mair, is getting married to a girl called Simcha who moved to Stamford Hill with her family from Yemen.
According to Bresler, the commandment to marry is one of the most important of all.
"You know, I've already been invited to over a hundred weddings this year - it's normal round here," he says.
Most Hasidic people marry young. A normal age for boys and girls in this community - by that point becoming men and women - to get married is around 18 or 19 years old.
Their parents normally hire a shadchan (matchmaker), as there is little chance of meeting a girl any other way. The two genders are kept apart at public events and, in orthodox Jewish law, men and women not related or married to each other are not even supposed to look one another in the eye.
"In my mother and father's generation, they wouldn't even meet for an hour [before agreeing to marriage]," says Bresler.
"They met for maybe one or two minutes, say hello to each other and say yes or no. Now some Hasidim are meeting for an hour or maybe two and then getting engaged."
Bresler's son met his bride-to-be a little less conventionally - when he was working behind the till in one of his dad's grocery shops.
"You must think we are mad in our black hats and coats," he says.
"But I can see the world through your eyes."
Bresler has done something that sets him apart from the rest of the community.
He spent over four years in prison for money laundering. According to the prosecution, just over £6.5m was found, to be used to buy drugs from Colombia.
And though divorce is rare, Bresler is separated from his wife and lives alone on the outskirts of Stamford Hill.
While in most communities, this would mean many would be wary of him, the Hasidic community has welcomed him back despite having "made a bit of a mess of his life", as Lock's wife Tikwah puts it.
It does mean, however, that matchmakers could find it difficult to find partners for his other children.
On arriving at the wedding venue, Bresler points to a group of men putting up a white curtain that will divide the male and female guests.
"If you want, you can film the other side if you use a ladder, but don't go round there," he says.
Bresler is putting on a reception for over 400 guests but, he says, it is not an opulent wedding, quite modest in fact.
The ceremony begins with a solemn service held under an outdoor canopy known as the chuppah. The bride circles the groom seven times and they recite seven blessings.
Bresler's son looks particularly nervous, but that is hardly surprising when you think it was the first night the couple will be permitted to touch each other.
After a meal and blessings, tables and chairs are hastily moved from the centre of the room.
And it is here where things change from the way you might expect.
Men dance in circles and then in lines, then back in circles again. Bresler hands out tumblers of whisky, filling and refilling them. The groom is hoisted in his chair and throws money in the direction of his bride.
The sweating groom is lowered and four men rush towards him with a table and start fanning him with it. Someone starts break-dancing but not very well.
Bresler is charging more glasses. "I cannot stand up," he shouts. "I'm too drunk."
I'd expected something more serious and more sombre from such devoutly religious people.
But as one guest put it, "you can feel it in the air, how much people are loving". At the celebration filled with people I had little in common with and barely knew, I had that feeling as well.