You Never Call, You Never Watch
U.K. reality show Jewish Mum of the Year hunts for the most unbearable person on Earth
And so it happens: The citizens of a great and powerful nation come together peacefully, with clear eyes and full hearts, to choose who alone among them has the tenacity, the courage, and the wisdom to rise to power. The decision is long in the making, the victory hard-won, and when it’s all over, one can do nothing but hope they have chosen the right leader to guide them fearlessly into the future, while remaining true to the lessons of the past.
I am speaking, of course, of Jewish Mum of the Year, the reality competition series (in the English sense that a series can be, like, four episodes long) that just concluded on the U.K.’s Channel 4. Conceived in part by the editor of London’s The Jewish Week, the show pitted eight Jewish mothers, ranging from the be-turbaned ultra-Orthodox to the spray-tanned, navel-ringed secular, against each other, asking them to participate in Top Chef-like challenges like planning a bar mitzvah luncheon or finding an appropriate date for a single woman by reciting the questionnaire from a matchmaking site to a variety of oddly dressed men. Two “mums” face elimination each episode for sins as varied as choosing gazpacho for a synagogue luncheon (I was puzzled too—it’s tasty! it’s parve!—until I remember that the acidity is bad for anyone on Lipitor) to being generally too laid-back and well-adjusted, the ultimate reality sin. The eventual winner is to be rewarded by the newspaper with her own advice column, as well as the satisfaction of having been officially recognized as the most overbearing, meddlesome, and thoroughly unbearable person on Earth. Mazel tov.
If I were a TV executive, this pitch—America’s Next Top Model meets Portnoy’s Complaint—would be literally impossible for me to not buy. British Jews, however, haven’t been so unambiguously delighted by the blatant offensiveness of the whole proposition. As my British-born relatives have pointed out to me, being Jewish in the United Kingdom is sort of like being Muslim in America—and vice versa. Jews simply don’t have the same kind of cultural ubiquity, not to mention dominance, over there that they do here, which can lead to a certain amount of anxiety about perceptions American Jews might make light of; after all, it’s a lot easier not to feel offended when you’ve spent that past 80-plus years letting everyone in on the joke.
The backlash, when it came, was swift and intense. Maureen Lipman, the acclaimed actress famous for creating the iconic Jewish mother Beattie in a legendary series of ads for British Telecom in the 1980s, pronounced the programme (do you like how I’m spelling it the British way? I do!) “disgusting” and “very damaging, with anti-Semitism being what it is.” Michael Grade, the former chairman of the BBC, attacked the show, claiming “they seemed to cram in every cliché in the book.” A flurry of complaints led Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s broadcasting watchdog organization, to begin a formal investigative review of its relative offensiveness and possible incitement of prejudice.
But from the clips I’ve seen, the problem isn’t that the show has any inherent bias against Jews, or even that—unintentionally or otherwise—it presents us in an especially unflattering light; pretty much everyone in the Western world has an idea about what Jewish mothers are like—some of us even have one (or two—hi, marriage equality!) of our own. But Jewish Mum of the Year suffers from the same problem as genre counterparts like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Jersey Shore, or Shahs of Sunset: It purports to cast a new light on a hidden or misunderstood subculture yet by definition is forced to select its participants from a subculture all its own: people who are willing to appear on reality television.
They are truly a tribe apart, with their own unique rituals and customs. Ruth, the Orthodox single mother from North London, has more in common with Kim Zolciak than she does with you or anyone you know, and it’s not just because they both wear wigs. Whether it’s calling someone a skank in an upscale Georgian strip mall or emitting waterborne bacteria in a hot tub on the Jersey Shore, there’s a certain kind of personality—the entitlement, the unwavering sense of rectitude, the horrible sense that someone, somewhere might be getting attention that should rightfully be yours—that only belongs on the TV screen, and thank God for that. I want my friends and family pleasant and normal, and my reality characters borderline personality disordered and blatantly unhinged. I suppose it’s a little uncomfortable to see the camera swing around to us, but let he who has never watched Honey Boo Boo cast the first stone.
If I’ve got any bone to pick with Jewish Mum, it’s not with the show itself; it’s with the blatant sexism of the Jewish Mother stereotype. If there’s ever a show called Jewish Dad of the Year, maybe I’d feel better—but then again, there’s no such thing as silent television. (Ba dum dum. I’ll be here all night, tip your waiters.) Until then, I’m not sweating it. The Jewish people have survived exile, genocide, and Jill Zarin. Some semi-obnoxious English lady who is really, really intense about wondering why you aren’t married already? It’s a piece of (pound) cake.
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