Have you heard the one about the Jewish mother?

I can't decide whether my antipathy to this show is because I find it borderline racist - or because it scrapes the barrel as television

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I wish my Jewish mother was still alive so I could ask her what she thought of Channel 4's new reality show, Jewish Mum of the Year. Would she be offended by the shameless peddling of racial stereotypes?

Would she find the premise behind the show so vacuous that it would be beneath her dignity to discuss it? Or would she think it's about time that there was a programme that talked to her cultural interests, and which also had an aspirational flavour?

I'm not sure, however, that she would have had the popular appeal to carry off a title such as this, although if it's the stereotypical behaviour of a Jewish mother you're after, she'd take some beating.

When I became editor of The Independent in 1998, I rang my mother to tell her the exciting news. "What's happened to that nice woman who used to be editor of The Independent?" was her response. "She's become editor of the Daily Express," I said. "Well," came the reply, "she's done well."

In recalling this exchange, I am reminded of the scene from Woody Allen's Manhattan when the lead character says he is writing a short story about his mother called "The Castrating Zionist". Anyway, back to the programme.

As someone who wears his religion lightly, I can't decide whether my antipathy towards this show – the second instalment is tomorrow night – is because I find it borderline racist, or because it embodies the very worst of modern British television. A new reality show? I know, let's extract a little bit of the DNA from everything from Big Fat Gypsy Wedding to The Apprentice via The Only Way is Essex and it's trebles all round. There is something pernicious about this genre of TV series, of which Jewish Mum of the Year is a perfect example.

The unspoken premise is that we are invited to laugh at people who behave in a certain way because their religion

Here, the unspoken premise is that we are invited to laugh at people who behave in a certain way because their religion, their culture or their environment conditions them to do so. Defenders of the show will say that it portrays the Jewish mother as a strong, proud, resourceful character, in keeping with the matriarchal tradition of the faith, but there is no sense in which some of the neurotic and noisome behaviour on display here is put in a historical or religious context.

We know that Jewish blood is passed down the maternal line, so it's hardly surprising that the mother figure should take her responsibility as keeper of the faith seriously. In the modern world, that often translates into a defence of cultural traditions, everything from the health-giving properties of chicken soup to the excesses of barmitzvah parties. My problem with this programme was that it went way beyond stereotypes, and headed off into a world of cliché. So we had big hair, big ideas and, yes, big noses. And to complete the set, we even had a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. The only thing missing was a good Jewish joke.

So, to make up for that... A child comes home and says he's been given a part in the school play as a Jewish husband. "That's terrible," says his mother. "Go back and tell them you want a speaking role."