Dozens of Jewish mothers around Britain have been followed in recent weeks by television cameras tracking their daily lives. Their cake-making, homemaking and matchmaking skills will be under scrutiny by a team of experts and when the four-part series is screened on Channel Four at the end of the summer, the Best Jewish Mum in the United Kingdom will be crowned. Bashevis Singer meet Simon Cowell.
The classical yidishe mamma, the stuff of song and literature and a recurring theme in Woody Allen movies, is getting its 21st century makeover. And how else, but on reality TV.
The fact that this is happening in Britain, where Jews make up less than half a percent of the population, is testament to the endurance of the myth and to its appeal across demographic and ethnic fault-lines. It also proves just how desperate the television industry worldwide is for new ideas to bring in viewers and boost ratings. And while some people might be preparing to attack the producers for perpetuating the stereotypical image of the domineering and pushy Jewish mother, Channel Four already has a built-in excuse: it was a Jewish idea to begin with.
The project was initially proposed by The Jewish News, a London weekly freesheet, which called upon its readers to propose themselves, or their mothers, as Jewish supermom role models, and when the channel caught wind of the contest, they suggested taking it to the next level, out of the community and on to national television.
Production is proceeding under strict conditions of secrecy. None of the executives at the Jewish News, Channel Four or the production company carrying out the filming were prepared to speak on the record on the details of the upcoming series, not even to reveal the prize that awaits the ultimate Jewish mother. A source close to the production was only willing to say that "the response from mothers and families was very enthusiastic. We had over a hundred mothers who wanted to be contestants and they were from all parts of the community, both from religious and secular families, all social classes and all levels of income."
The most famous Jewish mother in Britain is currently Stacey Solomon, a singer who sprung to stardom on the X-Factor talent show. But it is unlikely that she will be seen as a maternal role model, after she was savaged by the tabloid press for being caught by paparazzi smoking while heavily pregnant.
Unlike most reality shows, the paragon of Jewish motherhood will not have to look good in a bikini and sequined gowns, or if her looks don't confirm to trash-TV standards, at least have a breathtaking voice. She will be judged by her ability to juggle baking challah, simmering chicken soup, tending to her brood's diverse physical, mental and spiritual needs and holding down a challenging job on top of it all. But she will have to face one test no yiddishe mamme from the Shtetl to the East End ever had to worry about: doing all that while bringing in good ratings.
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