Anyone paying the slightest attention to the angst, even anger, that greeted the arrival of Channel 4’s Apprentice-style competition Jewish Mum of the Year would be forgiven for thinking my people had finally – after 3,000 years – managed to speak with one voice: Jewish Mum of the Year was bad for the Jews.
The tirades were trending on Twitter before the first episode ended. “These aren’t typical Jewish mums!”… “This sets back Jewish life in Britain 50 years”… and even: “I’m ashamed to be Jewish!”.
The anger wasn’t just contained to the hash-tag #jewishmums. Some of the country’s top Jewish commentators joined the inquisition. Michael Grade called the show “clichéd” and Maureen Lipman branded it “disgusting”. Simon Kelner even took exception to the “big noses” on display. (It’s not like anyone wore strap-ons, Simon. They were real people’s real noses).
Most of the haters weren’t entirely sure why they hated it so much, but were no less certain that they damn well did.
By episode two the mums could have been tasked with curing cancer and we’d still have been accused of stereotyping. (Jewish doctors, such a cliché!)
Vast numbers of viewers also sung the show’s praises. My inbox is full of emails praising its “boldness”, “warmth” and “originality”. My favourite came from a Sussex University student who threw a weekly “Jewish mums party” to celebrate her culture with non-Jewish friends on campus.
The contestants have certainly cashed in on their 15 minutes, with Irish mum Lesley Berber meeting the mayor of Dublin and appearing on the country’s most popular radio show to discuss Jewish life in Ireland.
Other Jewish viewers were amazed, even moved, to see the likes of Heston Blumenthal, Elliott Gould and Stacey Solomon proudly opening up about their Jewish identity on the show and its More4 spin off, Jews At Ten.
As the series ended and our winner was crowned, a conveyor-belt of questions ran through my mind: how and why had a frivolous TV show, inspired by a Mother’s Day competition in the Jewish News and made with love and affection, so fiercely divided opinion within the Jewish community?
How did the sight of eight mums organising a barmitzvah party and a blind date, taking pensioners to the seaside and cooking Friday night dinner make some Jews “ashamed” of being Jewish?
Had the producers and I got it horribly wrong? Or did the hysteria of some viewers say more about them than the show? Rather than asking what we were thinking when we made the show, should the real question be: what where Jewish viewers thinking when they watched it?
The show’s eight mums came from a diverse cross section of Jewish life, from secular to strictly Orthodox and from across Britain and Ireland.
So the scene that anecdotally seemed to most embarrass viewers – a bitter row about Judaism between Orthodox Ruth and secular Emma – was for me a “eureka!” moment. Finally, Jews were on prime-time TV as individuals rather than a homogenous group. One Jew did not fit all.
So claims that the mums were “eight stereotypes” and “not recognisably Jewish” left me bemused. Why not celebrate, rather than squirm, at the obvious breadth of British Jewish life? If these are the wrong sort of Jewish mums for TV, who are the right sort – and who decides?
I sympathise with those for whom Jewish Mum of the Year was a shock to the system. I share their uniquely Jewish neurosis – that compunction to scamper like rabbits into a burrow when confronted by the limelight. I shuddered a little as I drove past a giant neon orange sign on London’s Finchley Road advertising a new Jewish community centre. I shuddered again when my wife told the plumber we were Jewish.
It’s an affliction proportionate to the size of the community. When I edited a Jewish newspaper in America, I was thrilled by how loud and proud American Jews were about their religion. What would we give for a little cross-pollination over here.
Of course, it’s hard to open our culture up to the judgment of others without feeling vulnerable. But what’s the alternative? Sickening attacks on people and property prove the Jewish community has every reason to stay alert. But where does a misplaced fear of anti-Semitism over a programme like this get us?
Virtually all of the 1.6million people who watched Jewish Mum of the Year are decent and tolerant and respect and recognise decency and tolerance in others. They are not racist. Those that are tend to be shown up through programmes like this.
The Jewish community must embrace this multimedia age. Ghettoization is not an option. We have much to offer in terms of education, ethics, culture, morals and family values. We have a great product and should have the courage of our convictions to sell it to the rest of Britain.
I’m not suggesting Jewish Mum of the Year had any nobler aim than to entertain and amuse. If nothing else, it simply got us all talking. Two Jews, three opinions.
But without programmes like it, proving that minorities are just the same as everyone else, we’ll all keep scampering like rabbits towards the nearest burrow.
Jewish Mum of the Year might not only help change the way Britain sees us, but how we see ourselves in Britain. It’s time to get our heads out of the ground.
So, who wants to audition for the second series?
Richard is editor of the Jewish News. Follow him on Twitter @richferrer