I think had things gone a little differently, I might have grown up to be Jon Stewart. Not Jon Stewart the comedian, writer, and inimitable ringleader of his own late night “fake news” universe. I mean Jon Stewart the Jew.
Stewart and I are about the same age, and grew up in similar metropolitan area suburbs — he in New Jersey, me on Long Island. I’m guessing our Jewish upbringings were pretty much the same — Hebrew school and a bar mitzva; a raucous, irreverent annual seder; a new suit for the High Holy Days.
I went on, for various reasons, to become a fairly observant Jew, to work at Jewish organizations and publications, to live a total of three years in Israel, and to send my kids to a Jewish day school. I also write jokes, but they tend to be about narrow Jewish topics. (Did you hear the one about the YU grad who plays baseball for the Milwaukee team? They call him the Mishna Brewer.) Mainstream, I ain’t.
Stewart remains a proud Jew, who, to the dismay of traditionalists and Jewish grandmothers everywhere, talks regularly about raising his kids in an interfaith marriage. On a show taped on Yom Kippur, he’ll joke about eating a “Baconnaise and lobster omelet with a side of Jesus toast” that morning. Observant, he ain’t. But mainstream? Stewart is a major force in comedy, media, and politics. The announcement that he’ll be stepping down after 17 years as the host of The Daily Show was greeted with the kind of media outpouring that usually appears only in obituaries.
But he is mainstream in another way — as a sort of historical distillation of American Jewry, both distinctive and assimilated. I am the anomaly; Jon Stewart is the more typical American Jew.
The distinctiveness is apparent. Stewart embraces his Jewishness to portray himself as an outsider or nudzh, in self-deprecating jokes about his height, shticky riffs on Jewish folkways, or ironic retorts to classic anti-Semitic tropes. “Don’t you think,” he once asked an Egyptian comedian, “that if the Jews controlled the media, we wouldn’t be on basic cable?”
And occasionally he’ll present himself as a voice of Jewish authenticity. When President Obama visited Israel in 2013, a clip showed the president taking a bite of matza and then telling Benjamin Netanyahu, “Mmm, that’s good matza.” That, said Stewart, is known as a “goy tell” — that is, something only a non-Jew would say.
The assimilationist aspects come through in Stewart’s jokes about Jews and Judaism. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, say, Stewart never seems to be distancing himself from his Jewishness, but rather reminding viewers that the religious aspects of Judaism are not for him. In one bit about the differences between Easter and Passover, Stewart complained that Jews are losing out in the “marketing department.” To attract kids to their solemn holidays, Christians offer baskets of candy, while Jews display a plate with a knot of horseradish and a “bone from a dead baby lamb.” “Mishpocha,” he says into the camera. “We have to take it up a notch.” What Judaism needs is a “slight nod toward recruitment.”
This is the wise guy version of what I call the “Pew Jew” — the mainstream American Jew who, according to Pew, is proud of his or her Judaism and finds comfort in its jokes and folkways, but is unlikely to join a synagogue or put much truck in the ritual aspects of the religion. They relate, often warmly, to Judaism on a Hebrew school level, but make it clear that their engagement with Judaism — emphasis on ism — is not as important to them as their intellectual and professional pursuits, and does not inform their choice of a romantic partner.
Some Jewish viewers have held this against Stewart, especially when it comes to Israel. They’ll toss around that odious term “self-hating” when Stewart appears to blame both the Israelis and the Palestinians for their simmering conflict. For many Jewish critics, “even-handedness” is the ultimate betrayal.
Stewart had fun with his Jewish critics last week. In a bit about Netanyahu’s pending speech before Congress, Stewart sat next to a prop labeled “Middle East Policy Discussion Switchboard.” It lit up, presumably with angry callers, as soon as he mentioned Israel.
Stewart addressed the “self-hating” charge in an interview last year:
Look, there’s a lot of reasons why I hate myself — being Jewish isn’t one of them. So when someone starts throwing that around, or throwing around you’re pro-terrorist, it’s more just disappointing than anything else. I’ve made a living for 16 years criticizing certain policies that I think are not good for America. That doesn’t make me anti-American. And if I do the same with Israel, that doesn’t make me anti-Israel. You cannot outsmart dogma, no matter what you do. If there is something constructive in what they’re saying, hopefully I’m still open enough…to take it in and let it further inform my position. But I’m pretty impermeable to yelling. As soon as they go to, ‘Your real name is Leibowitz!’ that’s when I change the channel.
Stewart’s stance on Israel, I imagine, also puts him squarely within an American-Jewish plurality. Jews like him are confused and anxious about the direction Israel is headed. They are baffled that Israelis don’t see it in their immediate best interest to work toward a separation with the Palestinians. As liberal Democrats, they lack affinity with Israel’s hawkish, pro-Republican leaders. You can call them naïve, which they might be, or misinformed, which many are. You might even count them out of the Jewish people, as an editor for Breitbart.com recently did in ridiculing liberal Jews’ “watered-down and perverted ‘tikun olam’ sensibilities.”
But if you expel the Stewarts among us, you undermine our claims to Jewish peoplehood. You turn pro-Israel activism into a vocation for a slim elite of hawkish or reticent Jews, joined by a perhaps larger cohort of evangelical Christians. You drive away listeners who may be open to hearing Israel’s side, but are repelled by demands that they think or act a certain away, lest they be labeled “self-hating.”
Instead, we should be asking why Israel is losing support — or earning indifference — among mainstream, media-savvy, highly educated young people. And it’s not because they are “Jewish in name only,” because I know plenty of people in my own observant bubble who feel the same way.
VIDEO: Jon Stewart hears from his Mideast critics