Everyday people

After 9/11 both Jews and Muslims ceased to be people and became ideas, concepts to be discussed in n

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, both Jews and Muslims ceased to be people and became ideas, concepts to be discussed in newspaper columns, internet chat rooms and blogs. Jews and Muslims as three-dimensional beings, independent of their role in terror or the war on it, separate from their opinions of the Middle East, dropped out of sight. The BBC has sought to rectify this situation by commissioning three films about Jews from the award-winning documentary-maker Vanessa Engle, whose 2006 series Lefties made me laugh out loud. The presence of the name Anthony Wall, a long-time editor of the Arena arts strand, also inspires confidence.

There are far fewer laughs in Jews, but it is the absence of the definite article in the series title that indicates its intentions. It is not the Jews, but a series of individual Jews Engle is showing us. It would have been instructive to have seen three separate stories of three individuals whose Jewishness is intrinsic to their personal story, with the focus on the story itself. To some extent Engle has fulfilled this brief, but she has allowed the portraits to become the way she enters three aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Britain: the Hasidim of Stamford Hill in north London, the children of refugees and Holocaust survivors, and British Jewry's terminal population decline. There is an element of a strong light being shone into closed rooms. Engle, a constant heard if unseen presence in the three films, needles her subjects with questions about their seemingly bonkers religious dictums, such as the division between milk and meat and why an Orthodox man can't shake a woman's hand.

In the first film, Solomon is released from prison after a lengthy sentence for drug trafficking, eight years of which were spent in Israeli jails, and returns home to Stamford Hill, where the exhausted but ever-patient community once again takes him in and tries to rehabilitate him - not because he's family but because he's a Jew. They find him somewhere to live, they get him work, the hard-pressed ladies with their hot wigs and 12 children are kindness itself. Solomon, a Jack the Lad with a very gold-coloured watch and a borrowed Lexus, traces his delinquency back to when he wanted to wear a silver and white shirt and slightly racy slip-on shoes and his mother screamed at him. Solomon likes, he admits, being the centre of attention. He craves excitement. His drug dealing is everything to do with being Solomon in an environment that is profoundly anti-Solomon.

The Hasidic Jews, who from the outside look like 17th-century freaks, when seen trudging along the pavements of 21st-century London, seem both warm and calm when you get inside their houses. Community is everything. They accept and welcome the prison of its conformity as Solomon can't. Only at Purim, the religious festival at which the lords of misrule are allowed to hold sway, do they get themselves up in fancy dress and take a drink. Engle watches all this, adopting the voyeuristic attention of the television documentary. But in the end, as in all the films, it's the people that you are left with, the motility of the faces; they seem bigger than the TV screen. You fear they might step right through it and sit down on the sofa next to you, demanding a cup of tea and are there any animal fats in these McVitie's Digestives.

Once someone comes along to take off Solo mon's electronic tag, he's off. His five months back in Stamford Hill was a halfway house for him. He's a user, but a charming one. He wants to move back into dangerous territory: he longs for the heathen badlands of Golders Green, Hendon, Finchley - where he might bump into Jonathan Faith, son of the founder of the Faith high-street shoe chain, and which Jonathan sold in 2004 so that he could devote himself to being a better Jew and to reviving Jewish religious life in Britain. As a series in search of a story, the film stumbles around looking for one and finds it only in its conclusion: that pouring millions into bringing Jews on the brink of assimilating back into the fold is the pouring of millions down the drain.

Faith pays couples to come and learn about the Torah. He funds trips to Israel for Jewish teenagers who, on the coach to Eilat, reveal that they came along only for the Tel Aviv club scene. When a rabbi from Jerusalem visits London to cheer on the troops at a fundraising dinner, we get a glimpse of his organisation's right-wing political agenda, its paranoid insistence that Jews, and, indeed, the whole world, are in danger from Islam.

In all three films it is the focus on families and their relationships with each other that prevents the series from becoming sociology. Faith's eldest son has just returned from three years at an Israeli yeshiva before going up to university. He has a fiancée in tow, because he has ruled out sex before marriage. His younger brother isn't religious at all. The next brother down is overweight, withdrawn, unhappy. Solomon's long-suffering brother still has hopes of arranging a third marriage for his wayward sibling, despite the fact that he has no contact with the children from his second.

The middle film, The Second Generation, consists of interviews with a number of children of refugees and Holocaust survivors. It is the strongest in the series, and sometimes unbearably difficult to watch. As one daughter points out, an event of this enormity was bound to cast a very long shadow down the generations. The interviews illuminate the profound and special relationship these children have with their parents. By the end of the war, one woman was, at 30, the eldest surviving member of her entire extended family. Children grew up without grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. A mother's six-year-old daughter was gassed at Auschwitz. Coming to Britain and remarrying, she gave her second child, born ten years later, the same name. The two women, one in great old age, one in late middle age, seem unable to suppress frozen smiles, as if a fixed expression of joy would inter the pain and the suffering.

Many of the second generation spoke of having no place, no country, of feeling part of nowhere. Others said that their parents were remote, as if they were always elsewhere, with relatives (their own parents) whose deaths they could not prevent. Two interviewees discovered that they were Jewish only after their parents' deaths; the response of some survivors to attempt to erase the Jewish past, to deny it to their children deliberately, in order that they survive, made for children who were both something and nothing. A man in the Forest of Dean discovers, aged 50, that he is Jewish. He and his non-Jewish, Welsh wife investigate this family heritage and he rejoins the faith, while she converts.

Many of the noisier political responses to 9/11, to Britain and America's policy in the Middle East, and to Israel and Palestine, have been prefaced by the self-important throat-clearing: "As a Jew . . ." A great deal of energy is expended on the enunciation of Jews' opinions, with the consensus that there is some mainstream body of opinion from which the courageous ("as a Jew") may dissent, mainly in the pages of the Guardian and the New Statesman. But what a Jew is (and what a Muslim is) is profoundly more than these questions, however significant.

Engle's series tries to get to grips with Jewish life in Britain. What you are left with are those faces. The crooked smile of the Auschwitz survivor from Salonica. The trapped eyes of the Hasidic drug dealer. The cornered look of the Jewish atheist who doesn't want to hurt his father. They aren't issues. They're what life is, before you start having opinions about it and turning it into an issue.

"Jews" begins on BBC4 on 18 June (9pm)