Is the New Reality Show 'Jewish Mum of the Year' Good for the Chosen People?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It is impossible for me to judge “Jewish Mum of the Year,” the new reality TV show that premiered Tuesday night on Britain’s Channel 4, simply on its televisual merits.
 “The mother of all contests,” pitting eight Jewish matrons of diverse backgrounds against each other to find the ultimate yiddisher mamma, has to work on so many different levels. A non-tribe-member reviewer can watch and ask himself simply whether it’s good television, but every Jewish viewer will have a tiny Jewish press officer in his head continuously muttering “yes, very funny, but is it good for the Jews?” To judge from most of the comments posted online since the broadcast, this is exactly what was going through their minds, with opinions split down the middle.

Then there is a third scale on which the show should be graded. Not only is it good entertainment, but is it good Jewish entertainment? Did the producers and writers and contestants dig deep enough into the wellsprings of yiddisher humor and neuroses? Have they made us laugh and cry and nod our heads in agreement because we recognize ourselves and our mothers? This is the ultimate test at which writers and directors such as Philip Roth, Woody Allen and Howard Jacobson have exceled time and again: making us smile and grimace knowingly at their inside knowledge.

As reality fodder, it works. Eight women with common traits but very different characteristics are thrown together in challenging situations, typecast into stereotypical roles. In the Anglo-Jewish context, we have the sheitel-wearing frummer, the mother-of-six eshet chayil, the career mother, the Essex mum, the perfectionist, the Jewish MILF and just to take us out of the London ghetto, a representative of the tiny Irish-Jewish community. The judges also conform to the rules of the genre with one minor celebrity and for a touch of the bizarre, the Hagrid lookalike Prof. Dovid Katz.

Like all reality shows, “Jewish Mum of the Year” entertains when it takes its contestants out of their comfort zones, as it does when the eight are tasked with different roles for a bar mitzvah production and the two who have never baked in their lives are assigned to make the festive cake. When they resort to using store-bought sponge-cake mix, they are attacked by the other mothers as being “the lowest of the low,” which is the other essential reality component – knives drawn between the contestants as the end-of-episode judgment draws near.

Here the Jewish mums show their true colors defending their records with the ferociousness of grizzlies protecting their cubs, especially ultra-Orthodox Ruth and stiletto-shod Emma with her skin-tight jeans, who were naturally paired off together so the inevitable sparks between them would light up the screen. All good fun for reality-lovers (and guilty fun for those of us who won’t admit to it) and very good for the Jews.

“Jewish Mum of the Year” succeeds by going where no interfaith initiative could ever go – presenting ordinary British viewers with ordinary Jews living ordinary lives in all their warmth, quirkiness and complexity. At its best, that is what reality TV does. Some Jews may fear that the excesses and bitchiness of the Jewish mothers will turn off their gentile neighbors, but that only makes them more endearingly human. It is the best kind of PR by not being PR, just authentic Jewish life in its infinite variety, warts and all.

To add to the Jewish quotient, the producers have added a whole host of Jewish celebrities and comedians as on-screen commentators offering their insight on the motherhood cult. And this was where they went wrong. Not only were the Jewish jokes feeble and hackneyed, they also highlighted the weakest element of the show – it wasn’t very Jewish. Prof. Katz’s Yiddish aphorisms and homilies were embarrassingly shallow, the bar mitzvah challenges were no more than minor catering tasks (and one mother was scandalously kicked off the show for the sin of serving gazpacho soup as a canapé) and there wasn’t even one in-joke, no moment for a sly look of recognition between Jewish partners-in-crime.

As reality TV goes, “Jewish Mum of the Year” offers an entertaining hour of evening leisure and does a great service for the external image of Britain’s Jews. But for better or worse, judged on its first episode (perhaps the next one in which the mothers will have to make a shidduch will be different), it’s not Jewish culture. It lacks that particular Jewish brand of cynicism and self-deprecation.

This is fair enough, since the show’s target audience is much wider than the Jewish half-percent of Britain’s population and reality TV isn’t meant to be subtle, nuanced or challenging. But a real Jewish reality show (and Israeli television has failed in delivering one as well) would break the limits of the genre and be well worth watching.

Meanwhile, “Jewish Mum of the Year” is the lite-entertainment version of Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a very eloquent and presentable Jewish spokesman who is greatly respected by the goyim, but has little relevance to the lives of British Jews.

A screenshot of Channel 4's website.