Dear Jon Stewart,
You probably don’t recall, but I was one of your earliest, most enthusiastic media admirers. I wrote a column nearly a decade ago, shortly after you took over The Daily Show, when you were still struggling for recognition of your genius, before the massive media love-in that took a while to develop. My column then took the form of an open letter to David Letterman, about how his show was getting tired and how he ought to get Jon Stewart to replace him. (I like open letters.) I talked about how much I loved the perfect pitch of your TV “newsmagazine” parodies but most of all how I was blown away by your astonishing quickness of wit, most evident in the unscripted interviews. I called you “an idiot savant” of comedy. (That was a compliment—ignore the idiot part, focus on the savant.)
So please know I’m writing as an admirer, someone who thinks you have the courage as well as comedic smarts to take the simple but radical step I’m going to suggest.
I want you to change your name. Back to Leibowitz. Stewart is just so 20th-century, a relic of that dark age when Jews in show biz changed their names because they feared “real Americans” wouldn’t accept the originals.
It’s not as if you’re trying to hide your Jewishness in your TV persona. As the Jewish magazine Moment put it:
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 … and his grandma at Passover.
It’s almost as if the Leibowitz in you is trying desperately to escape from behind the mask of the Stewart. So why not set it free? Change the name back?
At this point, it wouldn’t hurt you. It would only help you: Most of your fans would see it as a touching gesture. And you’d no doubt get lots of comedic mileage out of it. I’m sure that you could milk the buildup and get a good-natured laugh out of the audience every time you used Leibowitz or pretended to get confused.
And, on a more serious note, it would represent the end of a shabby, antiquated era, pronouncing that aspect of anti-Semitism now (hopefully) dead and gone. It might even make it easier for young comedians, actors, and rock stars to resist the temptation to try to “pass.” (Although, frankly, I hope that Gene Simmons of Kiss keeps his origins hidden from those who don’t know about them.) It could be an important cultural moment.
Don’t you think it’s about time for Jews to reject the rejection of their ancestry and the WASP-ification of their names? Not just you, but all Jews in show business, indeed all Jews in business business. The practice might once have served a purpose, back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when it was insisted upon by powerful but fearful Hollywood movie moguls who wanted Jewish talent but were afraid of Jewish names seeming un-American to the mass of the populace who, it’s probably true at that time, suffered from a low-grade case of anti-Semitism. Or nativist hostility to foreign names in general. So Issur Danielovitch Demsky became Kirk Douglas. (You could have gone with Kirk Leibowitz.)
It’s strange, isn’t it? Shouldn’t that era be long over? And yet it persists, diminished somewhat. In fact, you’re one of the last to feel the need to do it. I mean, it pains me to say this, given how I feel about the man, but … Jerry Seinfeld. It hurts me, anyway, as the nation’s leading anti-Seinfeldian, that he gets credit for exploiting a watered-down version of his ethnicity by retaining his identifiable Jewish last name. TheJerry Stone Show? Would sink like one. (Although, come to think of it: George playing an “Italian”? With those parents? What’s up with that?A kind of retro “quota”? Would making him a Jew, too, have been one Jew too many?)
You might ask: Why do I bring this whole thing up now? I was wondering that myself. I thought it might have something to do with Bob Dylan changing his name from Zimmerman back in the early ‘60s, since I’m working on a book for Yale University Press’ “Jewish Lives” series on Dylan and religion and one crux of the Dylan mystery is whether Dylan would have become Dylan—despite all that talent—if he’d remained Zimmerman.
But, actually, I think I started thinking about your last name because of Michael Jackson. Because since his death, I’ve been focusing for the first time—staring in amazement, really—at images of his whiter-than-white face.
I guess you could make the case that Michael just happened to think he looked better that way, that there’s no need to introduce theories about racial pathology, or the oppressed internalizing the aesthetic values of the oppressor, into the discussion. He had every right to make himself look white if he felt like it.
But it’s hard to believe that his decision to change his skin from black to white wasn’t a reaction to racism, to seeing the ugly way people with dark skin were treated even by members of his own race with lighter skin. Well, you can say that feeling, that attitude, belongs to a sad time that has thankfully passed.
At this point, wouldn’t changing your name be just an honorable thing to do as well as a long-overdue symbolic celebration of the passing of the age of “passing”? I will admit I have a personal interest in this matter since I have a recognizably Jewish name. I want to tell you two quick stories about my mother and father. My mother couldn’t get a teaching job during the Depression, and in order to get any regular secretarial work, she felt she had to change her name in Morgenstern-to-Morningstar fashion. No, it wasn’t Dachau-style anti-Semitism she was reacting to; it was more “gentleman’s agreement”-style, country-club anti-Semitism, but there was something ugly about the necessity of the change, nonetheless.
I also have a very touching memory of my father, who, when I first started getting published in national magazines, made a point of telling me that it meant a lot to him that I didn’t change my name. I have to admit I was a little shocked, because the possibility hadn’t occurred to me, but he was in the product of an era in which Jews regularly changed or modified their names to make them less obtrusively Jewish, and he was glad I didn’t feel his name was a burden of some kind.
In fact, I did modify my name slightly: My given name is Ronald, not Ron. (My mother for some reason was a fan of the British actor Ronald Colman, who as I dimly recall played stuffy aristos. *) Never feeling like a “Ronald,” I called myself Ron from my very first byline.
My father’s attitude contained elements of pride and protectiveness reflective of another era, right?
And yet there it still is: Jon Stewart. A faint but unnecessary relic of anti-Semitism. You know, Jon, the treatment of Jewish names is often a barometer of that social disease. I consulted one of the foremost scholars of anti-Semitism, Robert Wistrich, the author of a forthcoming history of it called A Lethal Obsession. He pointed out that “[i]n 1938 the Nazi government obliged all German Jews to add an additional name (Israel for men and Sarah for women) to mark them off from the rest of the population. It was one more way of signaling the end of Jewish emancipation.” And, Wistrich added, even now in very different circumstances, name changing of a different sort “reflects a latent Jewish insecurity and sense of vulnerability which is far from having disappeared.” So you shouldn’t feel bad about having done it, Jon. But it is a good time to change it.
So I think you should take your old name back. And then I think you could start a movement, asking other name-changers in show business to join you in getting back to their roots.
Now, you have every right to wonder why I’m singling you out like this. I think it has something to do with what I like most about your show, which is that you, like the best satirists, focus on making fun of those who put up a false front. Not that Stewart is false in any malign sense of the word. (It was your middle name—well, Stuart was!) But that it’s a kind of mask, and you spend most of your time making fun of the pretentious masks that politicians, celebrities, and big shots adopt.
You’re all three now—a politician, a celebrity, and a big shot—in the sense that you have remarkable influence politically. In fact, pols and political writers often establish their identities in their appearances on your show because you have a way of exposing their authentic selves however inauthentic the “authenticity” is. They either pass or fail the Jon Stewart authenticity test. And now we learn from a new poll that you’re the new Cronkite, the nation’s most trusted news source. All the more reason not to use a name that doesn’t completely pass the Jon Stewart authenticity test, does it right?
I think you know what I’m talking about, and I think it would be great on so many levels if you changed your name, officially, on your show. Or tell us why you’ve chosen not to. (I bet Slate would give you a slot to do so as well.) But I have a feeling that deep down inside you want to do it.
In fact, you’ve inspired me. I’m going to change my name to make it more authentic.
Correction, July 27, 2009: This article originally misspelled the name of actor Ronald Colman. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)