Unexpected TV stardom has British Jews cringing, kvelling and just plain confused

Suddenly everywhere on the small screen, UK Jewry debates its portrayal in popular culture — and finds it hard to stop watching

"Strictly Kosher" star Bernette Clarke, who joked affectionately on TV about her sons' circumcisions, has earned mostly warm reviews from other British Jews, who see her as a positive representative of the community. (Photo credit: Courtesy of ITV)
"Strictly Kosher" star Bernette Clarke, who joked affectionately on TV about her sons' circumcisions, has earned mostly warm reviews from other British Jews, who see her as a positive representative of the community. (Photo credit: Courtesy of ITV)

Late for a blind date and stuck in traffic on the wrong side of London, Jamie starts changing clothes in the back of his car, climbing onto a seat and twisting to squeeze into a pair of pants. Watching him struggle in his underwear are two Orthodox women in their 30s or 40s: his matchmakers.

“I never thought I’d be getting naked with a frummer [religious person],” he quips.

“You’re not naked!” scoffs the bubbly redhead, a mother of four.

It’s the second installment of “Jewish Mum of the Year,” Channel 4’s latest reality television show in Britain. Eight women from across the spectrum of Jewish observance are competing for the title by completing tasks such as organizing a bar mitzva, cooking Friday night dinner and — in this episode — finding the perfect partner for Nicola, a 29-year-old brand-licensing manager. They are a feisty bunch; the previous week, a divorced mother in a black wig and a wealthy, secular beautician got into a shouting match over who was the prouder Jew, and made each other cry.

Is such media attention harmless, perhaps even a fun way to expose the British public to one of the country’s smallest minorities? Or is it bad for the Jews, particularly in a media environment that is often perceived as hostile to Israel and thus already uncomfortable for many local Jews?

The question is inescapable for Anglo Jewry, which has been a constant presence on the nation’s television screens this year. In June, a reality series about the Orthodox Jews of Manchester, “Strictly Kosher,” returned for its second season on ITV, featuring a socially awkward rabbi, a flamboyant dress-shop owner and an excitable grandmother. Viewing figures reached more than 8 million at its peak.

Several months earlier, BBC2 featured “Two Jews on a Cruise,” which followed a bickering Yiddish-accented couple from London’s ultra-Orthodox enclave, Stamford Hill, as they took their first ever vacation, on a down-market Israeli ship. They had already appeared in a previous show about Hasidic weddings, which also featured a convicted criminal trying to marry off a son.

There have also been several comedies, such as “Grandma’s House” and “Friday Night Dinner,” which premiered in 2010 and 2011, respectively, and returned this year for their second seasons. In the latter, the family is not actually identified as Jewish, although they have challah on the table.

Judging by the chatter on Twitter and Facebook, the Jewish community has greeted these programs with a collective cringe — although its members have not been able to stop themselves watching and commenting. Several of the characters, such as Bernette Clarke, the talkative matriarch of “Strictly Kosher,” who was filmed tearing toilet paper before Shabbat and discussing her sons’ circumcisions (“I cried buckets when they did my first, but by the second I was fine. And you get a lovely Jewish baby at the end!”), were popular with some Jewish viewers, who found her warm. Others seemed to perceive her as an airhead and were embarrassed.

Only one character, Holocaust survivor Jack Aisenberg, on the same program, was universally admired. He was shown celebrating his grandson’s bar mitzva and making an emotional return to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he had been incarcerated.

In general, the programs are “all sort of, ‘Aren’t the Jews a bit weird and wacko?,'” says cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht, a frequent presenter on BBC Radio 3.

For those who squirm at the new shows, one radio commentator has a blunt piece of advice: ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it’

The television critics have been a lot less kind. While most of the programs attracted mixed reviews, the latest offering, “Jewish Mum of the Year,” has been savaged in the press, with Jewish writer Simon Kelner, the former editor of the Independent, writing that he couldn’t decide whether his “antipathy to this show is because I find it borderline racist — or because it scrapes the barrel as television.”

According to A.A. Gill in the Sunday Times, the mothers “ticked every single cartoon prejudice and racial truism . . . Television is packed with cultural and religious national stereotypes — it’s the currency. But it’s one thing to mock the Americans or the English upper classes . . . and quite another to hold up confirming stereotypes of gypsies and Jews. There is already a poisonous undercurrent of racism against them.

“This was laughing at, not with. I don’t know if Jewish communities will mind this, or if women feel it was only a harmless lark. I mind, and I don’t want to be implicated in this sort of lark, not ever again.”

Lebrecht does not take such criticism — or such programs — too seriously. He says it is unlikely that television executives deliberately tried to single out Jews and mock them, and rejects the suggestion that the portrayal of Jews is any worse than the depiction of other minorities, whether on British or American television.

“Is it any more pernicious than the way Italian-Americans were portrayed in ‘The Sopranos’?” he asks. “Discrete communities are always going to be observed by the generality, and what the generality see in them might not be comfortable. There have been several shows about the Amish recently as well, and the programs made about them were probably no more reflective.”

Lebrecht suggests that Jews have been chosen as subjects so often recently because the community is “ripe for the plucking for this kind of moving wallpaper that is reality television.”

“Jews have developed a tendency to self-mockery — it’s a defense mechanism. Jews mock themselves before others can,” he says. “It makes it easy for the media to pick up on this and turn self-mockery into general mockery.

“It’s lighthearted, not pernicious,” he adds. “Editorially, you say that these people are mocking themselves already.”

For those who squirm at the result, he has a blunt piece of advice: “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Nathan Abrams, a senior lecturer in film studies at Bangor University in Wales who has written widely on Jews in popular culture, agrees that the shows are unlikely to have a lasting impact on the image of Jews in Britain. “Someone will watch this, think, ‘I’ll tweet about it,’ and then move on to ‘The X Factor’ while we’re still wringing our hands,” he says.

Holocaust survivor Jack Aisenberg took "Strictly Kosher" viewers along when he made an emotional return to the Buchenwald concentration camp. (Photo credit: Courtesy of ITV)
Holocaust survivor Jack Aisenberg took “Strictly Kosher” viewers along when he made an emotional return to the Buchenwald concentration camp. (Photo credit: Courtesy of ITV)

He credits the boom in Jewish-themed programs to the increasing confidence of younger British Jews, who, unlike their elders, are not “shy or timid” about being Jewish in the public arena. And once one program about Jews is successful, he adds, other channels rush to emulate its success. The question for him is why television executives seem unable to portray Jews in a sophisticated manner.

Echoing Lebrecht, he says that “with the exception of ‘Grandma’s House,’ the others fit into a pattern of tending towards cliche. It’s as if, to make it Jewishly interesting, they have to dilute it and reduce it to a cliched minimum. They make it so obvious, you can’t miss it.”

He suggests that television executives are still afraid that audiences will not understand a show’s Jewish aspects unless they are blunt and exaggerated. But another factor, he says, is simply the novelty of making television about Jews. “The audience is not so familiar with Jews, so [producers] have to make it cartoon-like to get it across. It’s a direct result of not having given these images before,” he says.

He draws a parallel with movies about the Holocaust. Initially, he says, they were serious and didactic, “telling you what happened. The high point was ‘Schindler’s List.’ After ‘Schindler’s List,’ the facts were established, and it was possible to produce stories that were more nuanced and interesting. The notion of the monolithic Nazi killers versus the saintly Jewish martyrs breaks down with movies like ‘The Grey Zone,’ ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ and ‘The Pianist.’

“One can only hope that after the slow trickle in television to this point, we will start to get something more interesting.”

For the editor of London’s Jewish News, Richard Ferrer, that moment is already here. He offers a staunch defense of “Jewish Mum of the Year,” which started out as a competition in his free publication, with the winner to become the paper’s new advice columnist. Channel 4 decided to adapt the concept for national television, and Ferrer now supervises the mothers’ tasks onscreen.

He denies that the show is cliched, arguing rather that it shows Jews as modern and diverse by showcasing women with different levels of religious observance who come from different areas of the country — not just London, where most British Jews are concentrated.

“Here is finally a show that is not about black hats, beards, lulavs and etrogs, but about women getting on with life, figuring out how to raise their families,” he says. “Underpinning it is the epicenter of their lives, Judaism.”

British television, one observer says, is not suddenly obsessed with Jews, but is showing a broader interest in the challenges of multiculturalism

The scene in which two women battled over who was a better Jew — which, anecdotally, seemed to embarrass so many viewers — was for him a source of pride.

“They were chalk and cheese — as different culturally as two women can be, yet they were both Jewish. That is the crux of the program.”

The episode was watched by 1.5 million people, and Ferrer says that the response from non-Jews has been “unbelievable,” with dozens of positive letters from viewers and a request from the mayor of Dublin to meet the Irish single Jewish mother who was ejected at the end of the first episode for baking a bar mitzva cake out of a packet.

“At the end of the day, people in their heart of hearts are good, decent, tolerant people, and they recognize good, and family values, in others. They don’t judge, and are not racist. Those that are are shown up through programs like this.”

The Jewish response, he admits, has been “polarized,” with negative comments generally coming from more Orthodox parts of the community.

“I have had to develop thick skin very rapidly,” he says.

While he has some sympathy for the program’s opponents — who are motivated, he says, by a misplaced fear of anti-Semitism — he ultimately believes that they are out of touch with the zeitgeist. British television, he says, is not suddenly obsessed with Jews, but is showing a broader interest in all minorities as the country grapples with the challenges of multiculturalism.

“We are trying to figure out who we are as a country, post-riots and with all our immigration issues,” he says, referring to the widespread disturbances in London in the summer of 2011. “We are trying to see who we are as a culture, which influences are at hand.”

Channel 4, which broadcast “Jewish Mum of the Year,” has a particular established interest in “demystifying communities,” having run two seasons of a very successful, flamboyant series about the Roma in Britain, called “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” The Jews, argues Ferrer, must accept that openness to the media is essential nowadays.

“We all know what we’ve gone through in the 20th century. We are now in the 21st century, and the media is bonkers. Everyone wants to know everything. Jews need to adapt and change in a way that makes us part of the culture. Ghettoization is not an option.

“Jewish culture has so much to offer in terms of family culture, working hard, Friday night dinner. We need to convey this.”

He may soon get his wish. Even before the “Jewish Mum of the Year” winner is crowned, at least one more Jewish reality television show is in the works, with Bernette Clarke and Joel Lever from “Strictly Kosher” teaming up to run a party-planning business for weddings and bar mitzvas. A pilot has already been filmed, and if all goes well, could be coming to British TV within months.

Jewish-British television clearly has a way to run.

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