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Culture Kvetch: Jon Stewart’s Happily Ignorant Jew Routine is Getting Stale

As even the most casual viewer of The Daily Show can glean, Jon Stewart is capable of coupling wit and erudition to corner an interviewee or savage (a video clip of) a graceless politician—though he’s much more comfortable settling into the position of the bemused naif. Ignorance comes in numerous guises, and if one were to create a Donald Rumsfeld-like taxonomy, Stewart would be placed under “cultivated ignorance” (the known unknown). He’s done the reading, but he’s perpetually just a little bit in over his head, and he knows it; hell, he delights in it. That’s part of his charm.

Nowhere is this more clear than in how Stewart—born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz—approaches his Jewishness, or Jewishness writ large. Like a seventh-grade class clown refusing to learn his Torah portion, he’s ignorant of most things Jewish, and he sees no problem with that. But that is a problem when Stewart is perhaps the most famous Jewish television personality working today. He is unavoidably the standard-bearer in the august tradition of Jewish comedy, and his flag is looking tattered.

Great performers always risk falling into shtick; it’s the cost of being so good that you’re asked to do the same thing too many times. (Go watch a popular comedian or singer a few years into a five-days-a-week Vegas residency and you’ll practically see the mold on their clothes.) Stewart hasn’t quite attained this level in his everyday performance—the show is still consistently funny; it still provides an essential service as a media gadfly and Fox News foil—but he’s long run through his Jewish material.

The jokes, usually off-the-cuff (off-script), are the same: he is weak, timid, nebbishy, he’ll never dunk a basketball—the latter a fervent wish for Stewart, who rarely mentions that he was a varsity soccer player in college, a fact that would undermine his persona of a slob-made-good. Throw in a couple Yiddishisms and you’ve got the Stewart toolkit.

Here’s Stewart talking recently to Shaquille O’Neal about his son’s dream to be a pro basketball player: “I don’t know at what age do I break to him that he’s Jewish.” This is funny when you haven’t heard it dozens of times; as it is, it rates a notch or two above the chain emails forwarded by your grandmother. (Shaq’s response was far better: “Well, when you see him tonight, tell him, ‘Uncle Shaq says, Baruch HaShem.’ And then tell him, ‘L’Shana Tovah.’ And then tell him, ‘Mazel tov.’ And then tell him, he can make it.” Loquacious, silly, surprising—this is what makes Shaq so much fun.)

The scripted fare isn’t much better. Last month, a segment pitted Easter and Passover in a “Faith Off.” The message was that Easter is much more marketable—it’s got tasty snacks and a nice mascot, while Passover is just so terribly depressing. Tears of your ancestors and all that. The anxiety about Jewish holidays not “measuring up” to Christian counterparts is an old canard; it’s a feeling that rarely endures past childhood, but here it’s the crux of the joke. What’s more is that the Passover section wasn’t meaningfully different from a segment the show did in 1999, early in Stewart’s tenure, called “Yeast of Burden.”

Stewart is the heir to the Woody Allen archetype—no one is better at playing the shrinking violet—but on matters Jewish, he has none of the underlying thoughtfulness, nor the animating concerns felt by Allen’s generation. Allen, the biggest nebbish of them all, made such fabulous use of the traits that Stewart so wearily invokes because he was dramatizing the particular concerns of his generation—the slide towards secularism and assimilation, which members of Allen’s parents’ generation feared and warned against with God-fearing zeal.

Unlike Allen, Stewart doesn’t seem to even know that much about the subjects he’s lampooning. He’s simply not grounded in the religious education, and religious illiteracy has become an unfortunate badge of honor for secular Jews.

Stewart, over the years, has offered some clues regarding his relationship with Judaism. The most revealing concern the varying explanations for changing his name. He once told 60 Minutes that he changed his name because Leibovitz “sounded too Hollywood.” But Tad Friend’s February 2002 New Yorker profile of Stewart tells the story differently. In that version, Stewart was bothered when a night club host had trouble pronouncing his name. It was 1986 and Stewart’s first time in front of the mic. He decided to change his name before going on for his second night. But Stewart also admitted that “there was slight leftover resentment at the taunting” that he experienced in childhood and “some leftover resentment at my family.”

A Freudian would seize on Stewart’s filial resentment (he is known to be estranged from his father), explaining that it caused him to throw off his father’s exceedingly Jewish name. His Jewish jokes, consequently, have never made it past the New Jersey childhood that helped spawn them; they’re appropriately adolescent and undeveloped.

Ironically, it is Stewart’s very detachment from Judaism that frees him and his writers to make even-handed, and sometimes scathing, critiques about Israeli government policies and American politicians’ sycophant attitude towards all things Israel. (The two-part piece on U.S. opposition to Palestinian UNESCO membership was especially brilliant.) Stewart exhibits little particular concern for Israel—he’s said that he’s glad the country exists—and consequently treats it like one would any other.

Yet it’s irresponsible to see this as some kind of upside. For it signals that criticism of Israel comes easier or more authentically from a place of total divestment—emotional, religious, personal, and otherwise. Instead, many of us Jews on the left, the J Street and Americans for Peace now types, would like to believe that honest critiques of Israeli policy (and American policy toward Israel) are in fact bolstered by a deep engagement with Judaism, even on the secular level. I see no reason why Jon Stewart’s comedy wouldn’t benefit from the same.

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