Did you see the great interview with Judd Apatow on The Daily Show last night? Did you catch the not-so oblique reference to Ron Rosenbaum’s piece in Slate suggesting that Jon Stewart change his name back to Leibowitz? I guess because he needs to make his Jewishness more obvious. You know, to inspire more young Jews to go into comedy and the entertainment business and remedy the enormous stigma of being Jewish in that industry. I detected a certain disdain on Stewart’s part to Rosenbaum’s suggestion when Apatow raised the topic of Jews who change their names (at around the 3 minute mark) and Jon replied in mock horror:
Whoever does something like that should stand up, because the only thing that matters in this world is that what you do personally is okayed by other people of your same ethnic pursuasion.
Which one could paraphrase as “Fuck you Ron Rosenbaum, I don’t need yours or any other Jew’s approval.” To which I say, right answer, wrong reason.
The first thing that needs to go is that there is anything “authentically Jewish” about the name Leibowitz. It, like most Jewish surnames are a fairly recent phenomenon. Jews traditionally have used patronymics (in Stweart’s case it would be: Jonathan ben Donald) and only beginning in the 11th Century began using what are still sometimes called, “Christian names.” In fact, Jews in the Austrian Empire weren’t required to have surnames until 1787. Jews in France, who received emancipation in 1791, weren’t forced to abandon patronymics and take surnames until 1808.
Then there’s the surname itself: Leibowitz, which is the vestige of a patronymic meaning “son of Leib.” Who was Leib? Well, best case scenario it comes from the Yiddish “leyb” meaning ”lion” which was often a stand-in for the Hebrew ”Yehuda” because lions and Yehudas go together. Less poetic, is the derivation from German, in which case the name roughly translates as “son of a peasant.” Three cheers for Jewish pride on that one.
In my own family, my grandfather not only changed his name, but changed it to match that of the country’s most prominent and respected anti-Semite. Despite this he belonged to a conservative synagogue, kept a kosher home, circumcised his son and his children all married other Jews. And today his grandson with the goyishe last name is a professional Jew. Even if I weren’t, just like Judd Apatow observed of the genteel-monikered Jon Stewart, I’m not fooling anybody.
It’s not our names that make us Jewish, but our behavior. Jon Stewart doesn’t need to change his name back to Leibowitz anymore than he needs to grow peyos and wear tefillin on camera. It would be ridiculous to suggest that by embracing a new name Jon Stewart rejected his Jewish-self anymore than Samuel Clemens rejected his Southern roots by becoming Mark Twain or Norma Jean Baker rejected her shiksa-goddessness by becoming Marilyn Monroe (or Mrs. Arthur Miller for that matter). The very essence of America is the freedom to reinvent yourself, and while Jon Stewart may have reinvented himself with a less-obviously Jewish name, no one could argue that his is a less Jewish character.