Ever since Big Fat Gypsy Weddings became such a big hit for Channel 4 it seems that all of the other channels are clamouring to make documentaries focused on other close communities in Britain. Take ITV1’s Strictly Kosher, which focuses on the Jewish community in Manchester, which for me has many similarities with the Channel 4 show, namely its soft female narration courtesy of Miriam Margolyes as well as its very overpowering backing music.
Where this differs though is that it never tries to make fun of its subjects or present them as old-fashioned but rather gives us a cross-section of this community. Take Joel Lever who when we first meet him is his hosting an end of Yom Kippur party where his Jewish friends are allowed to eat after a day’s fast however he freely admits that he isn’t a religious man and that he doesn’t observe every holiday. Joel’s blasé attitude towards his faith as caused him trouble and has had a negative impact on his business, a fashion outlet named Mon Ami, as he decided to open his shop every day even choosing not to observe the religious day of Shabbat. This had caused some of the local rabbis to dissuade people from shopping at his store which I thought was wrong however it seemed that Joel took it in his stride and got on at what he did best.
A complete opposite to Joel were Bernette and Michael Clarke who after Yom Kippur were already starting their preparations for Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, an element of which is the purchase of a citrus fruit known as the etrog which can be very expensive to source. In one scene we see Michael trying to haggle down the price of the etrog, as well as several other elements that are vital during Sukkot, after which we directly flick to Joel who tells us that he’d rather spend £500 on a leather jacket than a piece of fruit. The Clarke family also spend Sukkot living outside in a Sukkah, essentially a self-made shed, for a total of eight days where they forgo all modern pleasures which, in the words of Bernette, even includes watching X-Factor.
The documentary also takes Bernette out of Manchester sending her to Israel to care for her daughter and grandchildren, who due to religious beliefs are never shown on screen, however her adventures abroad just go to show how wide-reaching the Manchester connection is. Having a night off from the kids, Bernette goes for dinner at a friends’ house pointing out to the camera how many of the families she originally met in England with one of the women saying she loves being in Israel but she does miss Marks and Spencers. Back in England, Bernette also shows us how much of the Jewish social calendar is built around weddings and engagement parties with one of the latter happening between a young rabbi and his American girlfriend, who he finally wore down after stalking her through various websites for single Jews.
The final participant in Strictly Kosher seems like a completely different kettle of salted fish with the only connection to the others involved in the documentary being his faith and the fact that he lives in Manchester. Though Jack Aizenberg actually lost his faith after being holed him in a concentration camp in his native Poland during World War 2 when he was only 19. Jack’s story, told throughout the show, was a rather harrowing one which involved his father telling him to split off from the rest of the family which meant that he was the only one to survive the holocaust. At the beginning of the programme he sums up his philosophy on the religion namely that God made food for us to eat so who cares if it is Kosher? For me Jack came across as the most genuine character here and there were some truly heart-breaking scenes where he journeyed back to Poland to relive his war time experiences and to hopefully once and for all move on from them.
Though Jack’s story was the most engaging it was also the one that seemed the most out of place during Strictly Kosher which otherwise resembled a good humoured docusoap. I’m assuming his story was meant to add some gravitas to the overall documentary but for me it felt a little out of place though it did show a first-hand account of what it was like for young Jews during the holocaust. The fact is that there could’ve been a whole programme dedicated to Jack’s story alone but here it is just one of many looks at the Jewish life and therefore I felt it was a little disrespectful going from him weeping looking at some of the fences in the concentration camp to a scene in which Joel was celebrating the 80th birthday of one of his shop assistants.
With the exception of Jack’s story, the over-riding theme of Strictly Kosher is that Jews are a quirky bunch who often have to spend a lot of money to celebrate their various holidays. Through the character of Joel the documentary was looking at how modern Jews look at their faith, which is that they celebrate certain festivals but aren’t as ardently religious as their elders were, which in some respects can still get him into trouble. It also looks at how new couples meet, as with the rabbi and his new fiancée on the dating site, which obviously differs vastly from the travellers on the Channel 4 show.
Overall as a programme I found Strictly Kosher to be fairly scattershot with its subjects not really focusing on one particular aspect of the Jewish life but rather giving us a bit of everything from lapse clothes shop owners, to Israel-bound mothers to holocaust survivors who have lost their faith it was all here. The problem I had was that there was no clear focus and while I enjoyed certain aspects of the show, such as Joel’s outlook on life and the appreciation of what Jack had to go through in his youth, there was just too much information being thrown my way to really sit back and take it in.
Did you watch Strictly Kosher? If so what did you think? Leave your comments below.