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Close-Up

Vanessa Engle gets intimate in her three-part documentary on British Jews

by
Hugh Levinson
July 21, 2008

Vanessa Engle is nothing if not persistent in pursuit of a subject. For a 2004 BBC documentary on art in the 1960s, she phoned Marianne Faithfull’s manager every working day for a year until she was finally granted an interview. In Jews, which recently aired on BBC Four, Engle’s doggedness pays off again. The first part chronicles the life of Samuel Leibovitz, a convicted drug dealer, as he reenters the Hasidic world he grew up in after his release from prison. To make the film, Engle slowly but steadily gained extraordinary access to a notoriously insular community.

The second part of the series examines the legacy of the Holocaust for children of survivors (including Engle herself) in the U.K., and the third part profiles Jonathan Faith, a philanthropist of vast wealth who has given himself over to the task of guiding secular Jews toward living a more religious life.

In these intimate portraits, Engle captures the essential qualities of Jewish life in Britain today. She speaks with Nextbook about what drew her to this subject, and about what she learned in the process (including a deeper understanding of the complex dietary laws that inform the making of a Kosher biscuit).

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Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.

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