November 20, 2018

Jon Stewart’s version of Judaism

For some Jews it’s perplexing that Jon Stewart, an American Jewish icon, isn’t religious. How could the Jew who makes Jewish ‘cool’ be so indifferent to Judaism?

Buried beneath the laughter from his jokes—that he ritually delights in Big Macs with bacon on Yom Kippur or mocks Israel’s leaders for skipping a U.N. meeting on Sukkot “you mean, the holiday with the huts?”—is a deep and hidden disappointment that he isn’t really doing what we’re doing.

Earlier this week, The Berman Jewish Policy Archive, a research and analysis outfit at NYU, offered their findings on the state of Jewish journalism in the aftermath of a controversy at The Jewish Standard in New Jersey. One critique, from Andrew Silow-Carroll, expressed a wish “that journalists would move beyond their serial habit of assessing the ‘Jewishness’ of various public figures.”

The sentiment seemed shortsighted, because “assessing” the Jewishness of others enables communal connection. For example, knowing Jon Stewart was born Jewish is one thing; hearing him crack self-deprecating Jewish jokes night after night is intimately endearing. A Jew can participate in Stewart’s jokes because there’s a shared reference point; Jews aren’t laughing at Stewart, they’re laughing with him.


BJPA summed up Silow-Carroll’s article, first published by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning, with a more concrete explanation: “[The author] asserts that there seems to be a checklist of vague, stereotypical qualities that seem to create the overall profile of a Jew. Instead of journalists probing their subjects to find out meaningful aspects of Judaism in the individual’s life, they seem to only ask about where they celebrated their Bar-mitzvahs, or whether or not they went to Hebrew school. The author asserts that such checklist questioning undermines the true value and impact that Judaism has on one’s life.”

Fair enough. In fact, what Silow-Carroll is getting at is what makes it possible to consider Stewart—nonpracticing, irreligious Jew that he is— such an important Jewish figure. For Stewart, Hebrew school was boring; but being Jewish is not.

In this week’s Jewish Journal, writer Marty Kaplan tries to apprehend Stewart’s Jewishness with a few background details and excerpts from “The Daily Show”. It’s the title, though, that’s most revealing—“Waiting for Jewman”—because it implies, somehow or another that Jews want more of Stewart’s Jewishness, more of the core values that make him tick, more of the psychology that forms his worldview, more of his pet peeves and passions. And I’m not sure anyone would mind if, you know, Stewart popped by their shul one Shabbes.

Read more Waiting for Jewman:

Jon Stewart did his show, business as usual, on Rosh Hashanah this year. That night, when his interview guest, Meghan McCain, daughter of Senator John McCain, greeted him with “Happy New Year,” Stewart looked uncharacteristically nonplussed for a nanosecond, before replying, “What? Huh? See you in Times Square tonight.”

“Culturally Jewish, but not practicing” is what it’s called on the JDate profile form. Stewart grew up in suburban New Jersey with the name Jon Stewart Liebowitz. When radio host Howard Stern asked him about his real name, Stewart answered, “Actually, it’s ‘Jewy Jewman.’ ”