Religious voices: Beck, Colbert & Leibowitz

This morning, I received my annual email from The Jewish Daily Forward, announcing the “Forward 50,” the newspaper’s list of the year’s 50 women and men who have made a “significant impact on the Jewish story in the past year.”

Sure enough, there was the smiling face of the man of the hour here in the desperate city of Washington, D.C., a city in which the ruling Democrats are crying out for a symbol of sanity, humor, hope and chutzpah, a man who is brave enough to serve as a voice of moderation, which, of course, means criticizing President Barack Obama from the cultural and political left.

That man, of course, is Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz.

To tell you the truth, I was stunned that he was not listed in the Forward Top 5, overall. His Forward 50 biography states the case this way:

A Democrat in the White House has hardly tempered the irreverent and distinctly Jewish voice of the liberal-leaning fake news anchor Jon Stewart. The 47-year-old funnyman has entered his 11th year as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” which has grown into a popular nightly platform to skewer politics and government. …

Stewart is quick to play the Jewish card, drop a Zabar’s reference or cozy up to bubbes and zaydes at the 92nd Street Y. Young Jews identify with Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz (his given name) and admired his tact after former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez made anti-Semitic comments about him and then was fired. Stewart recently came out with a new book, “Earth: A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race,” which is filled with squishy science and funny one-liners. …

The problem, of course, can we stated in a simple, yet eternal, question: What does the word “Jewish” mean?

This is an important, yet ultimately almost meaningless question, in this postmodern age. As the Hollywood Jew weblog puts it:

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.”

However, in this case, journalists really do not need to pull back from asking some variation on that question as they trek to the National Mall to cover our nation’s latest festival of semi-political hero worship.

However, that is exactly what the principalities and powers at the Washington Post did the other day in the massive Style section look at Stewart and that thing that he keeps doing. This is the opening salvo of “Just who does Jon Stewart think he is?“, which captures the spirit of the whole:

These days, he can claim to be many things: political satirist, pseudo-anchorman, media critic, author, successful businessman, philanthropist, Emmy Award magnet. On Monday he arrives in Washington in a new, self-anointed role: as our national voice of reason, moderation and rationality — a uniter, you might say, not a divider.

Jon Stewart’s Saturday afternoon “Rally to Restore Sanity” (merged with partner-in-satire Stephen Colbert’s concurrent “March to Keep Fear Alive”) may become the largest “nonpartisan” event to hit the national Mall since … well, since a couple of months ago, when another basic-cable TV star, Glenn Beck, hosted his “Restoring Honor” rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Beck claimed his event was nonpartisan, too.

With less than a week to go, it’s still not exactly clear how Stewart will be using this new platform. No guests or musical acts have been announced, Stewart has done only a couple media interviews, and he’s offered few details about the rally on his nightly program.

Nevertheless, the similarities to Beck’s rally are just the sort of thing Stewart himself would satirize on his show if, of course, it weren’t his rally and his TV show in the first place. In his few pre-rally comments, Stewart has reached for some of the broad values and high-minded themes that Beck’s did — civility, decency, making America better — though admittedly with fewer religious allusions and more comic panache.

And, of course, he has chosen to work with those notable moderates Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey. There are no political, or religious, overtones in the work of that dynamic duo. Nope.

Thus, I think it is very strange that if one reads the rest of the Style piece, one finds absolutely zero references to how the religious or not-so religious worldview of this Leibowitz fellow — OK, Stewart — affects his work or how he views words such as “sanity,” “reason,” “civility,” “moderation” and even “patriotism.” On this front the article is completely silent or, one might even say, haunted.

Yet do the following equation in your mind.

Beck equals, what? The mainstream media coverage stressed that he is a Mormon, yet with a large (and most journalists incorrectly assume united) conservative Christian base. That was part of the story, no way around it.

Colbert equals, what? The media is beginning to catch on (RNS here, my Scripps piece here) that he is a Catholic who is quite progressive on basic political issues, yet has done a good job of offering a mixture of statements on social issues that take the doctrines of his church quite seriously. He tries to show respect for Catholicism, in other words. It’s his faith and it is the faith that he is teaching to his children and to others. That is part of the Colbert story, no way around it.

Leibowitz (that would be Stewart) equals, what? Is he a cultural-secular Jew, a worldview that would shape how he views a wide variety of religious traditionalists, from Orthodox Jews to orthodox (small “o”) Christians to who knows who? A cultural-vaguely religious Jew, not secular, but with dashes of postmodern “spirituality” that blends with all of those snickers and smirks? A secret religious Jew who is pretending to be a secular Jew?

None of this matters, as long as he’s funny?

Yet, that Style piece accurately noted that, “Stewart has reached for some of the broad values and high-minded themes that Beck’s did — civility, decency, making America better — though admittedly with fewer religious allusions and more comic panache.”

The key word? That would be “fewer.” After all, his worldview — whatever it is — is shaping his humor on issues that are clearly touched by debates about religion, culture, ethics and morality.

The faith element should be in the story, since it is in Stewart’s humor and his public image. On top of that, religion was a major part of the Beck rally that Stewart will be dissecting, if not mocking.

That is part of the Leibowitz (that would be Stewart) story, no way around it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Maureen

    So… you’re saying that Jon Stewart is Jewish, and not just a New Yorker making jokes about New York stuff like Judaism? I thought vaguely that he was a Canadian expatriate or something. “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!”

    Huh. I suppose this opens a field for jokes about St. Leibowitz, for us sf fans, but I guess we won’t be seeing his legs at the Highland Games any time soon. Though anybody can wear the Stewart tartan, of course; it’s open to all comers.

  • Maureen

    Don’t really watch the Daily Show, though. Or pay attention to celebrity news.

  • Eric

    Why such fascination with the name “Leibowitz” that some journalists refuse to use his real, legally-changed name “Jon Stewart”? Is there an ulterior motive like when right-wingers insist on spitting out Barack HUSSEIN Obama with emphasis on the middle name?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ERIC:

    Fascinating. You must hang out with right-wingers much more than I do. I think that I have only used Hussein in President Obama’s name once and that was in a column about his boyhood in Indonesia and the mindless charges that he never converted to Christianity.

    Then I didn’t even know Stewart’s last name WAS Leibowitz until I did a Google search linked to his faith tradition and its role in his work and ran into that fact on a bunch of liberal Jewish websites. No references at all in conservative media.

    So, on the second issue, I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

    Then again, I tend to hang out with Orthodox Christians, pro-life Democrats and a bunch of left-of-center Evangelicals.

  • GhaleonQ

    And yet I wonder if, because of the way he leans into his Yiddish, he simply likes “funny words?” It may be that innocuous. There’s no indication that he takes Jewish THOUGHT seriously, just culture, so I’d wager that it’s a combination of “foreign humor,” “funny word humor,” and residual “my Jewish mutha” humor left over from older comedic traditions.

    I can’t think of anything religious that would affect the “moderate” posturing, so it’s probably just the American tradition of claiming persecution and opponent extremism. Nevertheless, it’s a good question. I could see his Hebrew family affecting his views of what qualifies as reasonable. Let’s also not forget that he allowed for This Week In God to exist and to make some pretty intelligent jokes.

  • bob

    GhaleonQ, you might look for a few Youtube items. There’s a talkshow appearance with Dennis Miller that is pretty disgusting.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FFPsb_49cE

    Oh how INTENSELY clever this man is, how glad I am I don’t pay for cable TV. This is what passes for thought. And it was 2002! I can only guess he’s even more profound now with age.


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