It's cool to be kosher: The first series shone a light on Orthodox Jews – now Strictly Kosher is back, revealing how the younger generation live
21:35 GMT, 22 June 2012
Who – except the Andrex puppy, would have thought TV fame could come about because of loo roll Bernette Clarke laughs as she admits people recognise her in the street as ‘the toilet roll lady’. She isn’t in the least offended.
‘They usually go on to congratulate me and tell me they learned a lot about my religion from the programme,’ she says. ‘The best thing is when people say, “You are completely normal. Mad, obviously, but normal.” Of course I am! I’m glad I got the chance to show that to a wider audience.’
Bernette, 47, was one of the stars of Strictly Kosher, ITV’s documentary series about Manchester’s Jewish community. Far from being a Big Fat Gypsy Weddings-style programme, it offered an insightful, and often moving, glimpse into a community and its rituals – some of which can seem a little odd.
ITV1's documentary follows the lives, passions and pursuits of the Jewish community in Manchester
Hence the toilet roll. Mother-of-three Bernette was filmed doing her weekly preparations for the Sabbath, a day of rest devoted to worship and family. Strict observers refrain from many everyday actions on the day, including using electricity, driving, cooking and separating things that are attached, thus creating something anew. She was even filmed tearing the pieces off the family toilet roll, so they did not have to be ripped on the day itself.
‘It seems like madness to people who don’t understand Judaism. But they are things I’ve always done on the Sabbath. We even tape up the light inside the fridge so that it doesn’t show.’ Now Bernette and her family are back for a second series, one that may well put her in the running to be the most famous Jewish mother since Maureen Lipman brought us Beattie in the BT ads. Bubbly and loud, Bernette challenges stereotypes of the Orthodox Jewish mother (though her chicken soup is famous across Manchester).
She works, for one, and even organises Christmas parties at the hospital where she is a waiting-list co-ordinator. ‘Last year I decorated the tree, which would horrify some in my community. I don’t cover my head, I don’t like to stay in the background,’ she admits. ‘People say to me, “You don’t seem like an Orthodox Jew.” Maybe I have a different mindset because I deal with non-Jewish people every day.’
During a Jewish wedding men and women are separated for the duration
It was her frustration at ignorance over Jewish traditions that led Bernette to sign up for the show in the first place. ‘I think it’s important to explain to others why we do things, or why we look a certain way. But too often people are afraid to ask, maybe because they feel intimidated. Even I can feel intimated by some of the more orthodox men.’
Today, she’s quite happy to chat away about aspects of Jewish life that outsiders find curious. Yes, she says, she refrains from sex with her husband for two weeks every month. Yes she can attend a wedding and not see her husband for the entire duration, because men and women are separated. ‘These are all things that non-Jews find peculiar, but I wanted to show how they are just a way of life.’
Among the other contributors to Strictly
Kosher are Joel Lever, a straight-talking and somewhat flamboyant
fashion boutique owner, who talks about cherry-picking which rituals he
wants to observe. He laughs about the fact that his first job, in a
department store, saw him positioned on the bacon counter.
I think it’s important to explain to
others why we do things, or why we look a certain way. But too often
people are afraid to ask…
Then there’s a rabbi who’s filmed preparing for his wedding to a woman he met on the internet. And there’s Polish-born Jack Aisenberg, who makes a heartbreaking journey to his homeland, where he was the only member of his family to escape the Nazis.
He has the most horrific stories to tell of his time there. His beloved little brother Shmelke died, with his parents, in the Belzec extermination camp, aged just nine. ‘Gassed. What sort of a world is that’ Jack asks in bewilderment.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the examination of how Manchester’s Jewish community is evolving. Bernette’s view is that the next generation is becoming ‘more extreme’ in terms of their religious observance. ‘My daughter and all her friends cover their hair. There’s a growing trend for Jewish boys to go to Israel to a Yeshiva college, where they take religious instruction, before university. Some never return.’
Her youngest boy, Gaby, 17, is preparing to do exactly that. ‘It’s a worry. He’s already rejecting things his brothers embraced, like football and pop music. That bothers me. I want him to have a well-rounded life. It’s not healthy to go to extremes.’
While such issues are broached in the programme, it isn’t heavy-handed. Bernette thinks this is a good thing. ‘I’m quite happy that when people stop me in the supermarket it will be to ask me how to make my chicken soup. That I can handle. Actually, I’m thinking of printing out the recipe and carrying it around with me.’
Strictly Kosher, Monday and Tuesday, 9pm, ITV1.