As his star has risen, Stewart, born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, has also become an ambassador of Jewishness. Dispensing Jewish humor like a tic, Stewart's impish grin, self-deprecating punch lines, and jokey cultural references are a staple of the show. He has referred to himself as "Jewey Von Jewstein" and cracked wise on Jewish noses, circumcision, anti-Semites, Jews who play baseball (a short list), Israel as "Heebie Land," and his grandma at Passover.
When it comes to Jewish and Israeli politics, he stomps where WASPier comedians fear to tread. But although he regularly brings up the fact that he is Jewish, he rarely speaks earnestly about his Jewish upbringing or what being Jewish means to him.
In 1960, Don and Marian Leibowitz moved to New Jersey from New York City so that Don, a physicist, could be closer to his workplace at RCA Labs in Princeton. They settled in Lawrenceville, just down Route 206 from Princeton. The couple had two boys -- Larry (who attended Princeton University and now, as group executive vice president of the New York Stock Exchange's Euronext, is a big player on Wall Street) and Jon, two years Larry's junior, born in a New York City hospital on November 28, 1962.
The Leibowitzes were a typical well-educated middle class Jewish family of the time. Marian, a teacher turned creative educational consultant, was the daughter of Nathan Laskin, a struggling immigrant who owned a series of small businesses in New York. Laskin came to the United States from Tianjin, China, where his family was in the fur business. Don's father was a cab driver in New York City and his grandfather owned a shoe store on Irvington Street on the Lower East Side. "My father's father was very religious, Orthodox, perhaps to an extreme," recalls Don Leibowitz, now an adjunct professor of physics and liberal learning at The College of New Jersey, where he is the faculty advisor to the Secular Student Alliance. "When we visited his store, he would pinch my cheek and make me recite prayers."
Lawrenceville wasn't exactly a hotbed of Jewish life. Jon attended a yeshiva kindergarten in nearby Trenton, then joined his brother at the local public school. Stewart has recalled being punched in seventh grade and taunted as "Leibotits" and "Leiboshits." "I didn't grow up in Warsaw, but it's not like it wasn't duly noted by my peers that's who I was -- there were some minor slurs," he said in a 2002 interview with The New Yorker's Tad Friend.
Stewart's comedic streak and verbal agility was evident at an early age. "I was very little, so being funny helped me have big friends," Stewart explained in a 1994 People interview. "Jon is most like my father," Marian Leibowitz told the Trenton Times in 2006. "[My father] was very funny and, when he was young, he made extra money entertaining in nightclubs in China." Stewart and Nathan Laskin were especially close.
The family attended high holiday services at the Princeton Jewish Center, affiliated with the Conservative movement. While Larry's bar mitzvah was held at an upscale hotel in Somerville, Jon's was not. When he was 11, family circumstances had changed: Don Leibowitz moved out of the family home. "We had separated and the bar mitzvah, to keep the costs down, was at the Jewish Center," says Leibowitz, who is remarried and has two sons from his second marriage. He and Stewart are estranged.
At Lawrence High School, Stewart played on the varsity soccer team and gained a reputation as a funny guy. Not everyone on the staff appreciated his humor, but Selma Litowitz, his Jewish English teacher, who died in 2005, got it. "He has said that she was the first who recognized that his humor was something that he could make a living at," says Debra Frank, the teacher's daughter. The Litowitzes lived on the same street -- Glenn Avenue -- as the Leibowitzes. In 2001, Stewart came back to his high school to emcee a benefit concert in Selma Litowitz's honor to raise funds for Parkinson's disease research. "His opening joke," says Frank, "was that, for many years, he thought that Jews had to live alphabetically."
By high school, Stewart was already conversant in politics. He has recalled that he was "left-leaning" and "very into Eugene Debs," the perennial Socialist Party candidate for U.S. president in the early 20th century. For a mock debate, Stewart was assigned to play another presidential candidate whose politics were light years away from those of Debs': Ronald Reagan. "I had to defend increased military spending," Stewart told George magazine in 2000.
Stewart graduated in 1980, reportedly third in his class, and was voted "best sense of humor." "He was very funny, not funny in the sense that he would tell funny stories, more quick, witty," says Larry Nichol, Stewart's 12th grade English teacher. "He'd always be saying something on the way out the door as the bell was ringing."