At home in Stam­ford Hill-on-sea

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - GABY KOPPEL

Can­vey Is­land is the no­to­ri­ous Ukip strong­hold cho­sen by Nigel Farage as the lo­ca­tion to kick­start his 2015 gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign — in short, a place not nec­es­sar­ily wild about im­mi­grants and for­eign­ers. So when film-maker Ri­ete Oord heard that a group of Charedi Jews were set­ting up an out­post on the is­land, her eyes lit up.

“It seemed ut­terly bonkers. I thought, ‘my good­ness, how are these peo­ple go­ing to sur­vive?’”

Liv­ing on the edge of Stam­ford Hill for 25 years had given Oord am­ple op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve the some­times scratchy in­ter­ac­tion between the Charedi com­mu­nity and their neigh­bours. “A Jewish hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tion wanted to turn a school op­po­site my house into flats, and the home-own­ers round here said: ‘Oh no! It’ll be all over­crowd­ing and naff ar­chi­tec­ture.’ I was quite fas­ci­nated about the class thing and how the Chasids were frowned upon.”

To Oord, there was an ob­vi­ous link between the fre­quent plan­ning dis­putes and the fact that Stam­ford Hill was burst­ing at the seams. Al­ready the largest Charedi com­mu­nity in Europe, the com­bi­na­tion of rock­et­ing house prices and large fam­i­lies made af­ford­able homes scarce on the ground. Past at­tempts to set­tle in Hert­ford­shire and Mil­ton Keynes foundered be­cause of hos­tile re­ac­tions to peo­ple whose dress and life­style are seen as odd.

Can­vey, an is­land in the Thames es­tu­ary known for its large oil and gas de­pots, is home mainly to work­ing-class fam­i­lies priced out of East Lon­don. It was at­trac­tive to the Charedim be­cause there’s plenty of space and hous­ing is cheap, but it’s also just over an hour’s drive from the mother-ship in Stam­ford Hill.

The is­land com­mu­nity, close-knit and de­ter­minedly English, seems happy to ac­cept in­com­ers as long as those new ar­rivals try to fit in — which seemed un­likely from the in­ward-look­ing Charedim.

Says Oord, “This was a com­mu­nity that re­fuses to mix, and there’s so much re­search that says sep­a­ra­tion is a breed­ing ground for mistrust and prej­u­dice. Even­tu­ally, so­cial di­vi­sion be­comes hate and ex­clu­sion, ex­trem­ism is the re­sult. But in com­mu­ni­ties where re­spect is shown on a daily ba­sis — you know, say­ing ‘hello’ in the street, the join­ing in of shared ac­tiv­i­ties — there’s much less racial ten­sion.” Al­ready, though, there were signs of dis­cord. Charedi fam­i­lies scout­ing the area for homes clus­tered near the shul had ruf­fled feath­ers. “The Can­veyites say they are knock­ing on peo­ple’s doors look­ing for houses to buy,” says Oord. “Well, they are, be­cause they all have to live in the same area, so once two fam­i­lies live in a road, oth­ers want to join them. But it gets peo­ple’s backs up.”

The BBC gave its back­ing to the pro­ject — and it’s not dif­fi­cult to see the at­trac­tion of some­thing so fraught with the gold-dust that progamme-mak­ers call “jeop­ardy”. In other words, the risk that it could all go hor­ri­bly wrong. But why would the me­dia-shy Charedi com­mu­nity want to be tele­vi­sion stars?

Up­per­most in the mind of for­mer Hack­ney Coun­cil­lor Joseph Stauber was head­ing off the kind of hos­til­ity that had un­der­mined pre­vi­ous ef­forts to set­tle out­side Stam­ford Hill.

“We un­der­stood that the lo­cal com­mu­nity of Can­vey Is­land should have an in­sight — it is very, very im­por­tant that peo­ple should have the right idea as to who we are, and what we rep­re­sent.” And, he adds, with a de­gree of per­cep­tion that might sur­prise some: “they will re­alise we are not peo­ple com­ing from the moon, we are down-toearth peo­ple. We do look funny, but we be­have quite men­schlich.”

Feel­ing that pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­taries had poked fun at their com­mu­nity, they thought hard be­fore plac­ing their trust in Oord. An ex­pe­ri­enced film-maker, she spent years work­ing with Nick Broom­field, then Bri­tain’s most talked-about

We do look funny but we be­have quite men­schlich

doc­u­men­tary di­rec­tor, on provoca­tive sub­jects like far-right Afrikaner Eu­gene Ter­re­blanche, and se­rial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Peel­ing off to di­rect in her own right, she’s made many doc­u­men­taries and se­ries for BBC TV and Chan­nel 4 in­clud­ing Who do You think you Are? and the RTS-nom­i­nated Lu­ton Ac­tu­ally. The theme she seems to re­turn to con­stantly is that of the out­sider.

It is not hard to see why. The child of Dutch par­ents, she was brought up in Pak­istan where her fa­ther was work­ing for Shell and the dom­i­nant ex­pat com­mu­nity was Bri­tish.

“They re­peat­edly re­fused to let me into their school, so I be­came very com­pet­i­tive in sports — I started sail­ing and swim­ming and started to win, so fi­nally they let me in.”

Sent off to board­ing school in Eng­land at the age of 12, she found her­self the ob­ject of cu­rios­ity once more: “and I just had to work re­ally hard to fit in.”

It cer­tainly paid off — nowa­days, Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated Oord speaks English with­out a trace of ac­cent. And though no­body would la­bel her an im­mi­grant, she re­tains an al­most an­thro­po­log­i­cal fas­ci­na­tion with as­sim­i­la­tion.

The Jews of Can­vey Is­land is about the kind of fall­out you get from one group be­ing trans­planted into an­other.

In the film, the Jewish side of the story is rep­re­sented by Naf­tali Noe, a young fa­ther who wants a bet­ter life for his fam­ily, and his Stam­ford Hill neigh­bour Steve Brown, whose role in the film is to ex­plain the mys­te­ri­ous Charedi life­style (dec­la­ra­tion of in­ter­est: he’s my hus­band!)

The Can­veyites are shown as be­ing cu­ri­ous and cau­tiously wel­com­ing to their strange new neigh­bours. One of the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters is Chris Fen­wick, man­ager of lo­cal ’70s rock band Dr Feel­good and owner of the is­land’s main ho­tel. De­ter­mined to fa­cil­i­tate smooth in­te­gra­tion and of­fer the hand of friendship, he hosts a meal to break the ice between the two com­mu­ni­ties. The event emerges as an odd as­sem­bly of black hats on one side and tat­toos on the other. For a mo­ment, one feels, things could go ei­ther way.

In Oord’s view, the Can­vey is­landers are ac­tu­ally far more wel­com­ing to the Charedim than her mid­dle­class neigh­bours in Lon­don’s in­creas­ingly de­sir­able Hack­ney. “They don’t have the same prej­u­dices. You’ve got these peo­ple who are in a way more out­wardly racist, but ac­tu­ally it turns out they are more open. They don’t bull­shit, they say: well, these peo­ple are dif­fer­ent and who knows what’s go­ing to hap­pen? But let’s give it a go.”

She re­flects, “Mak­ing this film was fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause it’s about race, class and re­li­gion. But, as Steve says, it is also about hats — about how you look dif­fer­ent. It’s about a com­mu­nity that sep­a­rates it­self vis­ually.”

The mo­ment of truth ar­rives on a Sun­day morn­ing in Au­gust. Joseph Stauber has come to view an early cut of the film. His endorsement is pretty vi­tal to main­tain cor­dial re­la­tions with the Charedi com­mu­nity, but this film will be broad­cast by the BBC, which has a strict code of con­duct about how much con­trib­u­tors are al­lowed to in­ter­fere with editorial con­tent. If Stauber re­ally ob­jects to a par­tic­u­lar scene or line of com­men­tary, things could get sticky.

He watches the film thought­fully then pro­nounces his verdict, “Very good, it’s beau­ti­ful. Well done!”

Ri­ete Oord breathes a sigh of relief and sets off to ap­ply the fin­ish­ing touches.

The Jews of Can­vey Is­land is on BBC 1 on Jan­uary 9. 10.45pm


A scene from the BBC doc­u­men­tary The Jews of Can­vey Is­land, look­ing at the new Charedi com­mu­nity there, and due to be broad­cast next week

Naf­tali and Miriam Noe and chil­dren get to know their new home. Be­low: Can­vey res­i­dent Gary gives Is­rael Rosen­berger a hug

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