Jon Stewart, the King of Jewiness in Mainstream American Culture, Hangs Up His Crown

Stewart’s 'Daily Show' brought the inflections, outrage, and sarcasm of Jewish dinner table conversation to our TV screens. He will be missed.

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Jon Stewart on 'The Daily Show,' Tues. February 24 2015. Screenshot from Comedy Central
Jon Stewart on 'The Daily Show,' Tues. February 24 2015. Screenshot from Comedy Central

Has there ever been an influential television figure as Jewy as Jon Stewart - who broadcasts his last “Daily Show” on Comedy Central tonight? Will there ever be one again?

The answer to the first question is “absolutely not” - and to the second, “it’s highly unlikely.”

Think about it: Despite the substantial number of Jews involved in the news and talk-show culture in the U.S. - which today, is an international television culture - it has been shaped and dominated by the Walter Cronkites and Peter Jennings of the news, and the Johnny Carsons and Jay Lenos of the late-night talk shows.

While plenty of these shows have had text and jokes written by Jews - there have been no shortage of Jews on the Hollywood assembly line, from studio heads to the writers who pen the jokes - it’s not the same.

For the past sixteen years, however, Jon Stewart - nee Jonathan Stuart Liebowitz - not only wrote, but delivered his lines with the kind of inflections, outrage, and sarcasm that is intimately familiar to the dynamics of American Jewish dinner tables, unapologetically laden with ethnic references both flattering and unflattering to his tribe. It wasn’t just that he was proud to be Jewish. He was also clearly unashamed to be Jewy.

He acknowledged it himself in a special four-minute video segment on July 23, during the countdown to the end in his segment “A Look Back: Let His People Laugh.” In the segment, the Jewiest member of the Senate - Charles Schumer – appeared, a day after he was ridiculed by Stewart for displaying his “old Jewish man” obsession with diner food on cable television. Schumer introduced the piece by informing “Stu Liebowitz” that any attempt to hide their “shared heritage” has “failed spectacularly” and a montage was run featuring Yiddish words from kvetch to schmutz to spilkes - words Stewart enjoyed translating to his celebrity guests. Jerry Seinfeld may have introduced the world to babka - but Jon Stewart brought insider Jewish culture on mainstream television to a whole new level, and without cloaking it in wacky sitcom plots.

“You took one day’s worth of schtick and kept it going for 16 years,” said Schumer. “Mazel Tov!”

Others have been busy celebrating Stewart’s Jewiness as well. The Forward honored him with his 18 most Jewish moments last February when he announced his upcoming retirements, followed up by an even longer “epic list” of Jewy moments this week including his legendary “faith-off” where he unfavorably contrasted Passover and Easter “I can’t help but feel that we Jews are getting our asses kicked,” Stewart said, pulling out an Easter basket and a seder plate and contrasting chocolate bunnies and candy eggs with “horseradish still in root form” and asking sarcastically which one the Jews think that Stewart’s interfaith children would prefer.

The 52-year-old Stewart became the poster boy for a generation of American Jews so comfortable in their skin that not only did Stewart feel no need to hide who he was (despite the show-biz name change), he was happy to flaunt it and use it for comic fodder. When critics charged that he was a “self-hating Jew” Stewart shot back easily: “I have many reasons to hate myself and being Jewish isn’t one of them. So when someone starts throwing that around, or throwing around 'you’re pro-terrorist,' it’s more just disappointing than anything else. I’ve made a living for 16 years criticizing certain policies that I think are not good for America. That doesn’t make me anti-American. And if I do the same with Israel, that doesn’t make me anti-Israel."

The self-hatred accusation has surfaced frequently when Stewart skewered Israel and its policies as sharply as he attacked other targets. Among the minority of Jewish households that won’t be mourning the disappearance of Stewart is likely that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the frequent target of Stewart’s ridicule and criticism, which reached a boiling point during last summer’s conflict in Gaza.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, Stewart’s disappearance from the screen couldn’t be more perfectly timed, as the debate over the nuclear deal with Iran reaches its apex - with Stewart having already gotten in some punches, in which it is quite clear that he endorses the Obama pro-deal point of view. One can only imagine the Israeli leader reading the recent revelations about Stewart’s visits to the White House for confidential chats with President Obama.

The Israeli leader’s pleasure at Stewart’s departure can probably only be matched by that of Donald Trump and the other Republican presidential candidates, who also won’t miss Stewart’s scathing zingers this fall and into the next year.

That can’t be said of Stewart’s heartbroken fans, or anyone else who enjoys a seeing a Yiddish in-joke on their television screens, which will be missing after Thursday night.

Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, has pretty much confirmed that this will be the case, saying in an interview. "The way you look at comedy depends on your point of view. So, Jon is a white, 52-year-old Jewish guy who grew up in New Jersey. I am a 31-year-old, half-black-half-white South African who's lived in America for a few years on and off. So the way we'd look at the same story will be completely different.”

One will hardly be able to blame Noah for steering clear of Jewish topics, particularly after he was accused of anti-Semitism on the basis of old tweets that were unearthed after he was announced as the new “Daily Show” host.

As brilliant as the young South African may be - and fans of the Daily Show certainly hope he will be - members of the tribe are going to miss the middle-aged Jewish guy from New Jersey and his point of view. From now on, they’ll have to watch the news - and simply try to imagine what Jon Stewart would have had to say about it.

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