On my first day at university, I had a shock: many of my new classmates had never met a Jew before. The thought of them seeing any of the recent documentaries about Britain’s Jewish community before actually meeting a Jew fills me with horror. Were the shows entertaining? Certainly. Were they embarrassing? Probably. Did they accurately illustrate the complex world of British Jewry? Definitely not.
First there was the BBC’s misleading A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride, which claimed to dig deep into the lives of ultra-Orthodox Stamford Hill residents, then Two Jews on a Cruise, where an eccentric couple squabbled aboard a kosher Mediterranean cruise. These unenlightening shows were quickly followed by the embarrassing Strictly Kosher, the awkward Strictly Soulmates and the amusing but predictable Jews at Ten, which featured the likes of David Baddiel and Oona King sharing Yiddish tips while sitting on oversized couches and having their makeup constantly touched up.
The latest offering, a weird mash-up of The Apprentice and Fiddler on the Roof, came in the form of Jewish Mum of the Year, in which eight caricatures of a Jewish mother competed to be crowned the platonic ideal of an archaic stereotype. It was impossible to watch without wincing, covering your eyes or groaning as bickering, rivalry and tactlessness appeared faster than food at a Jewish function. Pitching egocentric middle-aged mothers from opposite ends of the religious, social and economic spectrum against each other made for entertaining TV, there’s no denying it. But entertaining, more often than not, means offensive, outdated and obscene.
Of all the modern Jewish scholars available to shed light on strange-seeming practices, the producers cruelly picked an unfortunate typecast of a rabbi to be Jewish Mum’s Lord Sugar, a folkloric stereotype in every way, from his shaggy black beard to his unpredictable voice, which descended—or ascended—into undulating Yiddish every few sentences. The excesses of barmitzvah ceremonies were highlighted, but not really explained. Neither were the complex reasons why there is a strong emphasis on Jews marrying “in” the community. Without the necessary elucidation, this appeared ignorant at best, and racist at worst.
Like other documentaries that purport to “expose” lesser-known lifestyles—ridiculing Tourette’s sufferers, deriding teenage transsexuals and mocking gypsy weddings—these programmes trivialised Jewish customs and traditions while relying on age-old stereotypes to avoid actual effort or research. Time, sensitivity and expertise are needed to explain the rich history behind Jewish traditions that initially seemed so peculiar to my non-Jewish friends. They must appear even more bizarre to secular viewers who rely on such programmes as sources of education, but are left only with inanity.