Required Reading for Rick Sanchez and Jon Stewart

What to make of Rick Sanchez’s bizarre and self-destructive anti-Semitic outburst? Well, Jon Stewart, who was the Jewish synecdoche in his rant, made some gentle fun of it and Rick Sanchez on his show Monday night. Yes, he made Sanchez look foolish, but Sanchez had already done that on his own. At the end, he pretty much lets him off the hook by stating, “I’m not even sure Sanchez believes what he’s saying.” There were some follow-up columns today, word of an apology and the whole affair seems ready to fade as its Friday to Monday lifespan expires.

Capitalism and the JewsBut missing in the ensuing fallout has been the more delicate question, not of whether Rick Sanchez believed what he was saying, but why, throughout the ages have similar charges been levelled at Jews and believed in the first place? Why is it that the refrain of “Jews control (fill in the blank: CNN, the media, the banks, all of capitalism)” has such durability?

There are two parts to that answer, and the first is the acknowledgement that Jews have been very succesful in the media and in Western capitalism generally. Prominently successful? Definitely. Disproportionately successful? Perhaps. And at times that success has made Jews a target for groups that are dissatisfied and under duress (and when your show is getting the shove for Eliot Spitzer’s comeback, you’re definitely under duress). While that explanation satisfies the sociological explanation of how one group comes to blame another, it sidesteps a more delicate question: Why are Jews more or more prominently successful in capitalist societies?

That is the question at the heart of Jerry Muller’s suddenly all-too-timely Capitalism and the Jews which is being featured on October 25 as a part of our Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The title itself is provocative because the Jewish community has been reluctant to discuss its own success so publicly. Muller writes in his introduction, “some Jews regard the public discussion of Jews and capitalism as intrinsically impolitic, as if conspiratorial fantasies about Jews and money can be eliminated by prudent silence.” In its willingness to look studiously at the history of Jews and the rise of capitalism, this book reminds me a lot of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler, which tackled the history of the Jewish moguls who established the film industry as an economic and cultural force in American life.

While Gabler structured his book around the biographies of the Hollywood moguls and the studios they created, Muller breaks his study into four sections: “The Long Shadow of Usury,” which examines the rise of capitalism and Jews’ early roles in it; “The Jewish Response to Capitalism” which further explains the success of Jews in modern capitalist societies and the communal response to this dominant ism; “Radical Anticapitalism” which looks at what Muller calls “the dialectic of disaster; anti-Semitism led Jews to prominent positions in Communist movements, and their very salience in a movement that threatened existing society provided new fuel for anti-Semitism.” Finally, Muller looks at the sometimes lethal mix of capitalism and nationalism — and the important ways in which nationalistic kinship can both shape and be shaped by economic development and disaster.

Of course, a logical exposition of the history and consequences of Jews and capitalism should be all that’s needed to put to rest these silly conspiracy theories and fury-fueled anti-Semitic rants.

Then again, maybe Jon Stewart should have Jerry Muller on his show. They’d have a lot to talk about.

Veiled References to Philip Roth on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Okay. Pop quiz for all you careful readers of Philip Roth out there. Where did Philip, as well as Nathan Zuckerman and Alexander Portnoy go to elementary school back in the ole Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, NJ?

If you answered Chancellor Avenue School, you are correct and thus will fully appreciate this bit from last night’s Daily Show.

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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.


Last night Jon Stewart noted, “It’s Sukkot, which is the Hebrew word meaning, “How many holidays can Jews fit into one month?”

Truly, the Jewish holiday season is non-stop action – from the reflective mood of Rosh Hashanah to the boisterous dancing at Simchat Torah, the holiday where we celebrate the yearly completion of the reading of the Five Books of Moses.

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How do we get the most out of this holiday season? I believe the preparation is the answer. And not only material preparation (shopping, cooking, etc.) But spiritual preparation.

Taking time to examine our behavior and our relationships brings deeper meaning to the High Holidays. And Sukkot, when we build and dwell in portable homes (Sukkot)  offers us an opportunity to reflect on the many blessings of having a permanent home – particularly in this year of foreclosures economic troubles.
Taking time to prepare enables maximum experience.

This fall, the Washington DCJCC is offering a different kind of preparation opportunity,   “Tying the Knot:  Pre-Marriage Workshop for Couples.” Wedding preparations can be stressful and overwhelming. And yet how much time do we devote to our spiritual preparations for the big day? “Tying the Knot” offers engaged couples a safe space to explore issues central to forming a healthy and happy marriage in a Jewish context.

Sarah Gershman is the Jewish Education Associate for the Leo and Anna Smilow Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the Washington DCJCC. Her children’s book The Bedtime Shma won the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

Live Blogging: A Guide to Jewish References in the Oscars Broadcast

Translations for the Hebraically challenged appear in purple.

*8:36 pm–Jon Stewart “Atonement captures the raw sexuality of Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is translated as the “Day of Atonement.”

8:40 pm–Jon Stewart “Gaydolf Titlar” Adolf Hitler was an infamous 1930s and 40s dictator with a bad mustache. Also a murderous antisemite.

8:47 pm–Bob Hope “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or as its called in my house Passover.” Passover seders tend to run a little long. Updated: Were told from the Washington Post live chat that this is actually a pun on the fact that Hope was perennially “passed-over” for an Oscar. This disqualifies the reference from being Jewish as we just don’t think puns are all that funny.

10:00 pm–Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen as Dame Judy Dench and Halle Berry. Not technically a Jewish reference except that instead of being classy and sexy they are chunky and Jewish.

10:43 pm–The Counterfeiters wins Best Foreign Film. The story of the counterfeiting operation at the Ravensbruck concentration camp — I saw the film last year at the Berlin Film Festival and thought it was amazing. Sony Pictures Classics which opened it this weekend in NY and LA will probably do a bigger rollout very soon. Too bad that Beaufort, from Israel didn’t win. It would have been nice to have a Jewish film not about the Holocaust win the Oscar. I guess the Academy just isn’t ready for Jews as soldiers–flawed ones at that.

10:52 pm–Spielberg talks about winning the Oscar for Schindler’s List and we get the delicious juxtaposition of him (in flashback) dedicating the award to the six million, and then declaring (in 2008) “It was the best night of my life.” Interesting editing choice.

10:56 pm–Most Menchlik Moment (M3) – Jon Stewart brings Markéta Irglová back onstage to say her brief thank you’s. Jon, your mother should be so proud.

11:01 pm–Kaddish

11:43 pm–The Coen Brothers win Best Director and Best Picture for No Country For Old Men (they picked up Best Adapted Screenplay earlier). They’ve recently signed-on to adapt Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union (see Shabbat Surfing).

11:48 pm–Roll credits. The show ends before midnight. We can all go to bed.

*All times Eastern

Shabbat Surfing: Academy Award-Winning Links

Joseph Cedar's Joseph Cedar director of the Academy-Award nominated Israeli film Beaufort (featured in the 2007 WJFF) resolves his shabbat dilemma. Meanwhile, there is another Jewish-themed film competing for Best Foreign Film – The Counterfeiters. The Austrian/German co-production is in limited release this weekend from Sony Pictures Classics, which had hoped to have three films nominated in this category, but The Band’s Visit was disqualified for having too much English, and Persepolis was a surprise exclusion from the final nominees. Naturally, we’re all rooting for Beaufort and the good folks at Kino Films. Meanwhile, we ask, is host Jon Stewart Jewish?

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