Congregating with Jon Stewart Leibowitz

By Terry Mattingly

In the beginning, there was the multimedia superstar Glenn Beck summoning his Tea Party congregation to a faith-friendly “Restoring Honor” rally on the National Mall.

And behold, two postmodern prophets witnessed this media storm and decided that it was good. In response, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central organized their pre-election “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”
Colbert, a progressive Catholic Sunday school teacher who pretends to be a right-wing blowhard, provided the fake “fear” factor. In his upside-down catechism, preaching “fear” became the same thing as advocating that nonpartisan virtue — “hope.”
The prophet of sanity was Jon Stewart. With his snarky call for rationality and civility, the Daily Show anchor implied that his critics were preaching insanity, irrationality and incivility. And, for once, he didn’t season his satire with ironic shots at his own Jewish roots.
Truth is, Stewart has become a hero for many Jews and a controversial figure for others, noted Jane Eisner, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward. Nevertheless, Stewart — originally Jon Stewart Leibowitz — has once again been named to the “Forward 50,” the newspaper’s list of those who made a “significant impact on the Jewish story in the past year.”
“This is very impressionistic,” she said. “We try to identify people who are acting in ways that impact the Jewish community. … We are looking for people who are acting in ways that really show the impact of their Jewish values, whether we’re talking about Judaism as a faith or a culture.”
However, many Jews have “real questions about how Jewishly Stewart acts.” Nevertheless, said Eisner, “if we can translate this into Jewish terms, he keeps showing us that he knows his stuff, even as he makes fun of the fine details of Jewish life.”
As his Forward 50 mini-biography notes: “A Democrat in the White House has hardly tempered the irreverent and distinctly Jewish voice of the liberal-leaning fake news anchor. … 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.”
That’s one side of this identity question. However, the Hollywood Jew weblog noted: “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 … is a deep and hidden disappointment that he isn’t really doing what we’re doing.” This is, after all, a man who flaunts his bacon-cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Nevertheless, with his edgy sermons about skepticism and reason, Stewart dwells comfortably with other Jewish progressives who see themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment — standing against blind faith and ancient traditions. The assumption for many on the Jewish left, said Eisner, is that there is always “something worrisome about people who take their faith really seriously.”
These religious tensions were visible on the National Mall during the Stewart-Colbert rally. While organizers insisted their event was non-partisan, and pled with participants to temper their words and deeds, the crowd included flocks of people who clearly were there to mock the views of religious and secular conservatives.
Consider, for example, the inevitable Hitler signs.
When announcing his rally, Stewart said he planned to distribute signs that were both civil and witty. One sign, for example, would say: “I Disagree With You, But I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Hitler.”
Many got the message, but some didn’t. Someone produced signs containing images of prominent conservatives — with Hitler mustaches — and the headline, “Afraid yet?” Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh made the sign, along with Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, almost certainly the next Speaker of the House, and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the likely House majority leader.
Cantor is Jewish and, like Stewart, made the Forward 50 list for 2010.
Stewart remained silent. Still, as his rally ended, the funny man soberly admitted that he could not control “what people think this was.”
“I can only tell you my intentions,” he said. “This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult, and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do.
“But we live now in hard times — not the end times.”
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