Who’s the bigger Jew? Ben Stiller versus Jon Stewart

Two weeks ago, just hours before the first seder, Jon Stewart hosted Ben Stiller on The Daily Show to talk about his new movie, “Greenberg.” Instead, the two entertainers went the way of ancestral bonding, trading facetious quips about the Passover holiday.

Stewart began by protecting his Jewish comrade and assuring the audience that, despite the segment airing during the first seder, Stiller was not breaking Jewish law because the show is taped before sundown.

What ensued was a casual but revealing conversation in which Stiller and Stewart inquired about each other’s Passover practices: Stiller observes Pesach with his family, Stewart said he planned to eat a bacon sandwich (his usual wisecrack on significant Jewish holidays—he said as much last year on the day of Yom Kippur).

Despite the fact that by Orthodox standards, both men would likely be labeled secular, Stiller’s honesty and earnestness regarding his Jewish background (he grew up on the Upper West side of Manhattan where his school “provided” Matzah) was a marked contrast to Stewart’s condescending cluelessness. In fact, there was something naive and even sad about Stewart’s attitude toward the holiday—namely, that it didn’t matter much. And it showed when he explained that he did not grow up in a Jewish area, and that as a young boy, he was surrounded by “Italians and Polish and Irish—and they would wonder why I was eating crackers.”

From the outside, Stiller and Stewart might look like the same kind of Jew, but on a closer look, it becomes clear that Stewart was an outsider in a mixed ethnic community, whereas Stiller, who grew up in a close-knit Jewish community is the one celebrating seder and sending his daughter to Hebrew school.

Read my rough transcript of the (pretty hilarious) March 29 interview on “The Daily Show”:

Jon Stewart: Before we go on, we should clarify, this show is taped before sundown; this man is breaking no Passover law by appearing tonight.

Ben Stiller: That’s right, I am attending a seder after the show. (Turns to Stewart) Are you?

(Stewart looks like a dear caught in headlights. Stiller nods encouragingly)

JS: Uh, yes.

BS: There’s always room at our table…

JS: Do you do the big..

BS: My parents are doing it which is great.

JS: They do the big thing? How many people are gonna be there?

BS: It’s not gonna be big. There’ll be like 6 or 7 people. My daughter just got all excited about Passover. She learned the Ten Plagues, which was fun, so she’s going around and acting you know, blood, lice, cattle flies…

JS: That doesn’t make her nervous? Does she now fear the plagues?

BS: No, no she enjoys them. Especially death of the firstborn ‘cause her… her brother. It’s intense when she starts rattling off.. she’s into it.

JS: How old is she?

BS: She’s gonna be 8.

JS: Did you have to do the Passover… You grew up in New York or Los Angeles? When you were in like second grade, did you go with the matzah to school?

BS: I didn’t bring my own matzah to school. Our school provided matzah for us—it being on the upper west side of Manhattan. It was always exciting; we had to hide the afikomen (turns towards audience) and you had to find this afikomen… This is not the big Jewish audience I got from earlier. You see there’s a piece of matzah that’s hidden and you find it as the kid and then you get a little surprise.

JS: You get like a dollar. See, I did not grow up in necessarily a Jewish area so Passover was more of a…

BS: An idea?

JS: There were Italians and Polish and Irish and they would wonder why I was eating crackers.

BS: Right. And you told them it was..

JS: I had stomach cancer. (laughs) What am I gonna say? My people were slaves in the land of Egypt? And then boom. I do remember it being nice, everybody got together at the thing..

BS: Yeah it’s nice

JS: Would you get in trouble if you did not attend?

BS: Would I tonight? My mother would not be happy. And my mother is a convert. She was raised Irish catholic and then she converted so she knows more about Judaism than our entire family combined.

JS: The converts always care more.

BS: Yes. They’re much stricter.

JS: They studied it.. the rest of us…

BS: She made the choice.

JS: We did the Bar Mitzvah, got the money..

BS: Exactly. And we’d done our duty and moved on in life.

JS: I do have a tradition; a Passover tradition. I’m gonna share it with my audience tonight. I’m gonna share it with you. I get a bacon and egg croissanwich.

BS: It’s hard on the unleavened croissant. It gets messy and crumbly.

JS: Just 8 days man.. there’s so many holidays!