“It’s a boy,” Marian and Donald Leibowitz likely screamed in joy on November 28, 1962, when blue-eyed baby Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz arrived in the world at a New York City maternity ward.
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Marian, daughter of a Jewish fur-making immigrant from China, was a teacher and educational consultant. Donald, son of a religious Orthodox cab driver, was a physics professor with a lab at Princeton.
Jonathan Leibowitz’s only sibling, Larry, was to become a powerful Wall Street executive. He himself took a radical detour from the Jewish mother’s stereotypical dream – yet, brandishing a scathing sense of satire, he rose to become one of the world's highest-earning late-night hosts, making up to $30 million a year.
Raised mostly in the New Jersey town of Lawrenceville, Stewart graduated from high school in 1978 and from college with a psychology major in 1984 before moving back to the Big Apple to climb the comedic ladder. It was during this time that he Anglicized his name, dropping the Leibowitz and changing "Stuart" to "Stewart" to make it more pronounceable for the non-Jewish American masses, or, as he quipped, because his original name “sounded too Hollywood.”
In 1993 he launched The Jon Stewart Show, before landing the gig that would become his magnum opus in 1999. The rest is taboo-busting history: Comedy Central’s late-night Daily Show with Jon Stewart – the self-described "most trusted name in fake news” – is now in its 20th season and averages 1.5 million viewers an episode.
No cow left sacred
For the unfamiliar, the Peabody- and Grammy-winning Daily Show serves up a nightly stew of mockery, parody and scathing critique of the contemporary state of U.S. politics, news media and world affairs. Stewart’s punch lines are legendary, darts coated in humor, with doozies like, “Fatherhood is great because you can ruin someone from scratch” (perhaps a shout out to his estranged late father?)
Stewart’s also no stranger to self-deprecation: “I am a tiny, neurotic man, standing in the back of the room throwing tomatoes at the chalk board. And that’s really it.”
His reliably acerbic and hilarious welding of popular culture with the day’s most consequential policy debates has earned him legions of fans, particularly among the younger demographic. Fight power with humor, Stewart’s body of jokes seems to scream, as he relentlessly bangs away at his targets – chief among them Republicans. Not that the Dems get spared his lash.
As for national and foreign leaders who don’t find him funny: “If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don't have a regime.” He doesn’t shy away from race either: “Race is there. You're tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.”
Nor has religion escaped Stewart’s comedic claws. “Religion: it’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” And of ultra-orthodox Jews? They “got all Jewier-than-thou when they discovered that a handful of Reform Jews who actually allow their women to do something other than breed and cook also had the chutzpah to be praying nearby.” Ouch.
And then there's race with religion: "We've come from the same history - 2000 years of persecution - we've just expressed our sufferings differently. Blacks developed the blues. Jews complained, we just never thought of putting it to music."
What kind of Jew are you?
But what type of Jew is the comedian formerly known as Leibowitz himself, other than by birth? Though his humor is rich with references to Jewish holidays and stereotypes like big noses (even once calling himself “Jewey Von Jewstein”), Stewart’s not observant, and when it comes to his personal religious beliefs, he’s circumspect.
Intermarry, though, he did, wedding Tracey McShane in 2000, with whom he has two children, Nathan (named after his cabbie grandfather), and Maggie. “My wife is Catholic. I’m Jewish. It’s very interesting; we’re raising the children to be sad.”
On Israel, and while expressing support for its existence, Stewart has nevertheless proven himself unafraid to criticize his co-religionists at home or across the Atlantic. Most recently, he took aim at Israel’s conduct in the recent Gaza War and the power of the pro-Israel lobby in U.S. politics, and just the other week called Jews who lambast him and others as ‘self-hating Jews’ for daring to criticize Israel as “fascistic.”
But let’s end on a funny note, as Stewart would most likely want. Well, funny, timely and sacrilegious at the same time: “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
May he live until 120!