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Friday, July 24, 2009

What's in a (Jewish) name?

Ron Rosenbaum at Slate pens an open letter to Jon Stewart, urging him to use his given surname of Leibowitz professionally (Stewart's given name is Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz). Rosenbaum's argument is that Stewart's decision early in his career to change his name reflects the remnants of the now-antiquated, 20th-century belief that Jewish performers needed less-identifiably Jewish names to gain acceptance from the (subtly anti-Semitic) mainstream American society. See, e.g, Bob Dylan, ne Robert Zimmerman, or Kirk Douglas, ne Issur Danielovitch Demsky. Friends and family who are from my parents' generation (late '60s-mid'70s) have told me about being kids and playing the parlor game "Who's a Jew" for a sense of ethnic and religious pride--and the trick was figuring it out from very not-Jewish names.

But, Rosenbaum argues, 21st century America readily accepts "openly Jewish" (I don't know any other way to put that) celebrities--that Gentleman's Agreement anti-Semitism is mostly a thing of the past. And Stewart is pretty explicit about his Yiddishe identity and has parlayed that hamishness into replacing Walter Cronkite as the most trusted newsman in America.* So, Rosenbaum argues, if there is anyone who can get away with flaunting a Jewish name to the U.S. as a whole, it's Jon Leibowitz.

I am not sure what I think of this one. I am not sure the underlying issue that Rosenbaum is trying to engage--performers and celebrities overcoming their ethnic identities and whether that remains necessary in today's society--really is in play here. I never saw Stewart's name change as an attempt to hide his Jewishness. I always assumed he did it just because he had an unwieldy name for show business--the two syllables and seven letters of Stewart roll off the tongue (and take up less billboard and marquee space) than the nine letters and three syllables of Leibowitz. If he had a shorter but still-identifiably Jewish name (Rosenbaum points to Jerry Seinfeld), perhaps Stewart would not have changed it (although no one other than he knows). I can sympathize, actually. I am not sure I would have tried to make it as an actor/singer/comedian/broadcaster with a last name like Wasserman--not because I believed it was too Jewish, but because it is a mouthful. Plus, he settled on Stewart, which still strikes me as a very Jewish name; although we could wonder why, if he were not trying to pass, he did not go with say, Jon Leib.

Rosenbaum points to his own experience and the pride his father took when he became a writer and continued to use the family name. But writers, it seems to me, are different than entertainers and many Jewish writers, even of the last century, used their given, obviously Jewish names--Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Studs Terkel but see Saul Bellow (ne Solomon Bello), although that's still pretty close.

It is an interesting point. And Rosenbaum is working on a biography of Bob Dylan and wonders whether he could have become Dylan had he tried to make it as Zimmerman. Still, I doubt people would see the host as more Jewish or more prideful of his Jewish identity if it were The Daily Show with Jon Leibowitz.

  • I am a huge fan of Stewart's and have been since he first took over The Daily Show in 1999. But his being the most trusted newsman just tells us the low esteem in which the public holds the news media.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 24, 2009 at 04:42 PM in Culture, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 26, 2009 12:01:00 PM


Howard: Look at the vote total - a whopping 9,409 people. Hell, you could ask if people thought Billy Mayes was the most respected man in journalism and you get more than 10,000 votes.

Look, Stewart gets about 1.5 million viewers. The woman who sells Quacker Factory products on QVC has a bigger audience than John Stewart.

We live in a country of 300 million people.

Posted by: anon | Jul 25, 2009 10:08:55 PM

In part, I was being tongue-in-cheek. But, in fact, check the following:


Unscientific, to be sure, but Stewart seems to do well in places with very few "hipsters."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 25, 2009 9:22:40 PM

Regarding Stewart: What, some people may recognize him for his fake news show? In any event, "trusted" is more than a bit overstated.

Posted by: anon | Jul 25, 2009 11:50:49 AM

People from other ethnic backgrounds also changed their names. Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto; Dean Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Jul 25, 2009 9:34:29 AM

I think it's overstated to say most people don't know of Stewart's existence. Most people don't watch the show, but I think he is popular with more than just the "hipsters" (whoever that includes--and I doubt it includes me). And people know who he is and what he does.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 24, 2009 9:04:56 PM

But his being the most trusted newsman just tells us the low esteem in which the public holds the news media.

I agree but I also think that most people have never heard of Stewart. He may be popular with the hipsters but most people don't know of his existence.

Posted by: anon | Jul 24, 2009 6:31:58 PM

Not all people with German family names are Jewish.

Posted by: Garrett Wollman | Jul 24, 2009 5:49:55 PM

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