There are less than 300 Jews in British prisons, and Samuel is almost certainly the only convicted (former) international drug trafficker amongst the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill in north London. “The Prisoner,” episode one of Jews, a three-part BBC4 documentary which starts on Wednesday 18th June, charts Samuel’s mission to reassimilate into a community which is in many ways more challenging than his previous nine years of hard time in Brazilian, Israeli and English prisons.
“A yiddische, haddische boy, with the curls and everything, what did I know about drugs?” Samuel, 38, muses, whilst allowing that Hasidic garb is a good drug smuggling disguise only up to a point, since it led to 12 years in jail. “He’s obviously unique: there isn’t another such case” his brother explains, adding that returning to a “very disciplined lifestyle” in a closed community with strict rules, severe dress code and segregation of the sexes will be very different from prison. Samuel must wear an electronic tag for five months following release, but this is almost unnecessary: everybody knows each others’ business in an enclave where people live according to rules fashioned in 18th-century eastern European villages.
The 20,000 Stamford Hill Hasidim have rarely been documented, much less filmed, by outsiders. Televisions are not encouraged in private homes. The internet is anathema. Women must not look men in the eye, and wear wigs and hats—in case the wigs are too realistic. One pious soul spends her days sewing up slits in skirts. Children wear tights from the age of three. People sway and mutter in constant prayer, including before and after using the toilet. While forgiveness and charity are part of the community ethic, Samuel himself must now choose between his former outlaw life and religious conformity. Having lived among criminals, not to mention non-Jews, he will never recover the carefree innocence of the young people scurrying about in black hats and coats, staring at the ground.
There are signs that the road ahead may be rocky. “It doesn’t say in the Bible one should not have a television,” says Samuel, who moves from subsistence digs to a spacious flat with kosher kitchen (two sinks, separate work surfaces) within five weeks of release. His marriage prospects are not rosy: twice-married Samuel is not necessarily an ideal catch for a new wife, although his brother hints that this could be arranged. He reminisces about his former cellmate, who had tried to poison his wife: “good luck to him, if that’s what he wanted to do.” Shortly after the removal of his tag he acquires a Lexus, listens to gangsta rap, pushes weights at the gym and hints at Brazilian liaisons. He embarks upon a new career in property management, helping people with rent problems vacate the premises with the aid of Alsatian dogs (no violence, mind).
The prisoner’s tale bathes the Stamford Hill Hasidic community and their undeniably odd ways in a positive light. They selflessly welcome back the prodigal, even allowing for the long odds against rehabilitation. There is huge merit in their generosity and community spirit, even if it turns inward. Samuel in turn has repaid his debt by allowing his tale to be told. Vanessa Engle, a (very) secular Jew, has opened a window to a parallel world that illustrates the thesis that multiculturalism need not be inclusive and that different is not threatening.