Dear Jon Stewart, Don’t Go Changin’

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.

On a scale of 1 to Cool, we’re pretty tight

Pandora Tim is a crazy genius. Seriously, if you were at the Pandora Meetup on Thursday, July 23 you would agree with me, no questions asked. This casual, laid back guy from Northern California wandered to the front of the room and, without pause, began talking about his degree from Stanford, his life as a poor musician, the ridiculous debt in the beginning stages of Pandora Radio and finally, his experiences being wined and dined in Las Vegas, eating truffle-infused Kobe beef sliders.

There were seniors and there were 20-somethings, all coming together around their love of free streaming music and to learn about the incredibleness that is Pandora Radio. Did you know that 10,000 songs are added manually each month? That is a bunch of people sitting around wearing headphones, hand marking the “genetics” of each song. If not enough consensus is built, they have to do it again. Tim taught us all about his IP-protected Music Genome. The meeting was about technology and a social network made up of musicians and fans. And it all happened here.

Being in a fantastic location gives us the opportunity to participate in culture that is happening now. We tweet, we Facebook friend, we blog; we follow DCist, and we stream Pandora into our offices on a daily basis. These days, none of these things are particularly unique for nonprofit and community organizations. But to have Pandora call you up and ask to use your space – now that is special. You’re part of the “in” crowd. We are, in a word, cool.

Growing up, I never thought my JCC was all that cool. Sure they had trendy California Quivers at the Yom Ha’atzmaut fair, but the JCC was far out in the wealthy area of town. It was not hip; it was where your parents dragged you every so often to community theater or the Jewish book fair.

And, I still admit that when I walk into work, I don’t feel transformed by this “cool” factor. But there are times when I hear of something we’re doing – or something that is happening in our building – and I am really struck at how contemporary we truly are. This Pandora meeting was SO COOL. My friend and I went together: we listened, we learned and we got free t-shirts. When I attended the J-on-Demand inaugural ball – that was also cool! Not many cities could get 100+ 20-somethings to dress up in their formal best on a weeknight and trot on out to the JCC (not to mention after hours in the freezing cold standing on the National Mall).

So all I ask is this: don’t dismiss us before you research a bit. Yeah, when I tell people what I do their words say “cool” but their glazed over eyes say “books? Boring.”  But take a moment to Google that book or that author. Sometimes the program is just your standard Hebrew class, but maybe it’s a controversial dialogue. Perhaps it’s a loud, rock-out-with-your-bad-self kind of band or a really great film that gives you a glimpse at modern Israeli life.

And maybe, just maybe, it will be the cast of MTV’s The Real World DC poppin’ by for a little Jewish flavor. Fingers crossed – we can only hope.

Bonus: Leave a comment! What has been your favorite program here? What program are you most looking forward to?

Aryan Imagin(Nation): Harry Potter and the Teutonic Malfoys of Doom

malfoy hitler youthWhen I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (first American print edition, I might add) for my Bat Mitzvah in January 1999, I’ll admit I was skeptical. This was my Bat Mitzvah! Where was my tree in Israel or my Jewish Book of Why? A wonderful family in my synagogue gave me this book with a note saying they all loved it. It took me a while to come around, but I’ll always take a book recommendation. And when I finally read it, I was hooked.

 So it was no surprise to anyone that I bought tickets to the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. At 10pm, I left my apartment to stand in line with my wizard hat atop my head. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

 At 13, I thought the books were entertaining and fairly well-written. The traditional clash between good and evil was strong, along with social commentary on prejudice against those who are different (I speak mainly of the Mudbloods).

 But it was only after this last movie that I walked out of the theater with a feeling of anxiety. Why is Draco Malfoy so freaking scary? Every time he appeared on the scene, a feeling of doom washed over me. This blond haired boy in a striking black suit scared the crap out of me! Is this just great acting?

 Walking out of the theater, I had a thought: he looks like he could be cast as a young Nazi in any given Holocaust film. The tall, trim, almost white-blond haired actor Tom Felton strikes fear in my heart. If I saw him on the street, I would want to run screaming in the other direction. He looks like a Hitler Youth – or, at least what I imagine one would look like.

 J.K. Rowling clearly went out of her way in her novels to add diversity to the wizarding world. There is Cho Chang, of Asian descent and the Patel twins, beautiful Indian girls. There’s Seamus Finnigan – clearly Irish – and Dean Thomas, depicted in the movies as Black. With this array of characters, the one that visually stands out the most as a misfit is Malfoy. He is blonder than any of the other blonds, and his skin appears as if it’s never seen the light of day. His father’s long, silvery-blond hair is only made more alarming in combination with his ice-blue eyes. And is it any coincidence that the Malfoy family are the greatest villains in the book (well, greatest only second to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named)?

 The Malfoys are determined to rid the wizarding world of mixed blood wizards as well as Muggle-borns. They pride themselves on being “pure blood” through and through. But did they have to be tall, super blond, pale skinned and blue-eyed? Do these features frighten the rest of the audience as much as they frighten me? And as a short, dark skinned/haired/eyed Jewish girl, I will admit: these features alone make me squirm! Forget about the vileness of the characters!

 If the the filmmakers wanted me to crawl into fetal position when Draco Malfoy graced the scene, then bravo! But does anybody else get this allusion? And I wonder: what does this say about me, that physical features so different from my own make me squeamish?

 What do you think? Malfoys = Nazis and Voldemort = Hitler? Or have I just been reviewing too much Holocaust literature in preparation for the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on October 18-28, 2009 (shameless plug).

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