The mere thought of eight mums battling it out on television to become Jewish mother of the year is enough to put most Jews in the grip of a collective Woody Allen-sized neurosis. So let me assure everyone right from the start that no Jews were spiritually harmed in the making of this programme.
Channel 4’s four-part series, Jewish Mum of the Year, which aired in October 2012, set out to celebrate – not stereotype – Jewish mums. It rejoiced in modern Jewish life and reminds Britain – at a time when it perhaps needs it most – of what strong family values are all about.
Having been let down time and again by their identikit portrayal on British TV, the Jewish community was entitled to be wary. The last thing it needed was another box-ticking exercise that lazily lumped us all together (Men with beards and women in wigs… check. Arcane religious custom… check. Holocaust survivor… check. Klezmer soundtrack…check.)
But it was obvious from the opening scenes that these eight mums did not share a collective identity beyond their religion. Coming from a diverse cross-section of British-Jewish life – from secular to strictly Orthodox – they delivered what 99.6 percent of the UK who aren’t Jewish have never before seen – a TV show that finally proves how completely different we all are.
Because the mums were communally poles apart, conflicts surfaced over kosher food, modesty, raising children and love and marriage. Being a prime-time TV show (rather than another po-faced documentary nobody will watch), these scenes provided the show’s “Oy My God!” moments as tempers and chicken soup regularly boil over.
While other shows about Jews seem content to peddle lazy clichés, this one dug deeper by exploring how most British Jews – like other immigrant populations – share a burning desire to observe age-old traditions in modern times. The humour stems from the very different ways the mums go about achieving this.
The simplest way to make sure viewers don’t get the wrong end of the schtick is to explain how the show came about.
When I’m not desperately trying to be more like “that nice Cohen boy next door”, I’m editor of the Jewish News. Barely a month passes without the newspaper launching a campaign or competition to engage with the community.
In early 2012, we decided to hold a Jewish mother of the year contest. We’d invite readers, charities, synagogues, community centres and schools to nominate someone who displays all the required traits.
No strudel would been left unturned, no chicken soup untasted, no cheek unpinched, no guilt untripped, no fish ungefiltered (you get the idea) in our quest for the woman uniquely qualified to be crowned the greatest Jewish mum of all.
TV company Princess Productions found out about our cosy little quest and quickly turned it into the mother of all television shows.
We scoured the UK and Ireland and interviewed hundreds of mums. We met mums who’ve raised dozens of children, millions for charity and bravely overcome illness and tragedy. We met single mums, yummy mums, grand mums, great-grand mums, mumzillas, religious mums and really religious mums before whittling down a shortlist of 80 into the magnificent eight seen in the opening episode.
These women weren’t fame-hungry wannabes. They weren’t competing for a chance to start a business or have a Christmas number one. Most of them were probably just after a little recognition for the love and devotion they instinctively provide every day of their lives. After all, being a mum is surely the most personal skill anyone can be judged on, so they have a lot invested in the programme. The stakes could not be higher.
Like any mum worth the name, all eight were wonderfully inflexible – knowing full well that a) their way is best and b) all the other mums could learn a thing or two if they’d only shut up and listen.
Of course, overbearing and overprotective Jewish mums have long been a natural source of comedy – using maternal love as an excuse to meddle. Thanks to the likes of Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Maureen Lipman’s iconic turn as Beattie in the 1980s British Telecom ads (“you got an ‘ology!”), her punchlines are part of popular culture. She’s forever anxious her children might be cold, hungry or single (the first two being the least concerning) and routinely refers to them by their job titles… “My son the lawyer/doctor/accountant.”
It’s clear why Channel 4 wanted them to star in a TV show.
As this is the Jewish News’ search for its Jewish mum, I was on hand throughout to keep an eye on proceedings and report back to my judges, actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, Yiddish scholar Professor Dovid Katz and a smattering of celebrities.
Any Jewish son who values his sanity knows trying to keep one mum happy is impossible, let alone eight at once. Sigmund Freud would’ve had a field day.
After four fun and fascinating tasks, our winner – Sandi Firth from Leeds – was someone the entire community can be proud of. She is now my newspaper’s first ever agony aunt.
As for the unique qualities my own darling mother thinks our winner should possess – well, I recall asking her that question the night before the final. Instead of offering me any useful insights she simply asked if I was wearing a jumper.
Which sort of perfectly answered my question.
Richard is editor of the Jewish News. Follow him on Twitter @richferrer