Jon Stewart’s Jewish problem revisited

— by Ilan Chaim

I’ve learned to expect the best in political satire from The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart. Even his over-the-top bits can be relied upon to be funny, precisely because of their underlying sophistication. Where the laughter stops, however, are the fortunately rare occasions when Stewart overextends himself by stumbling into the unfunny realm of religious satire.

The case in point is his April 9 segment pitting Easter against Passover, most of which I found offensive as a Jew. While the premise was not necessarily a terrible idea, the punch lines trivialized nearly every important concept of the Jewish festival of freedom for the sake of a few cheap laughs. That the studio audience ate it up is no indication of its funniness — it’s a known fact that The Daily Show audience laughs at anything.

More after the jump.
Before going further, a full disclosure: I have watched The Daily Show for years and am a great fan of Jon Stewart as a comedian who happens to be Jewish. Stewart displays great wit and is a constant delight skewering such easy targets as the Fox network. There is also a serious side to the show in many of his interviews, whose subjects are not allowed merely to plug their books, but also deal with serious issues that are a showcase for Stewart’s considerable intellect.

Stewart makes no secret of his Jewishness; indeed, he seems proud to acknowledge it as far as it goes — which is not very deep. It is when he plays his very tenuous Jewish affiliation for laughs that bothers me.

In one bit of the episode in question, a clip is shown of life-size cartoon and adventure characters gathered for the White House Easter egg hunt. This is contrasted with a stationary shot of the White House Seder. Christians get The Avengers, while Jews get matza ball soup.

Seders are boring? Unlike the White House Easter Bunny he celebrates because of its theological connection to the resurrection of Jesus, Stewart dismisses as boring the Seder ceremony that is the first celebration in human history of freedom from slavery. That seems fair, as long as it gets a laugh.

Then he goes personal.

As the father of mixed faith children who are exposed to both Christian and Jewish holidays, I can’t help but feel that we Jews are getting our asses kicked out here.

Why is this the case? Stewart explains that the Jews have already lost the battle between Christmas and Hanuka, because Christians are celebrating the birth of their savior, while Jews are “acknowledging oil lasting longer than it would normally last” — not marking the first holiday in human history to celebrate religious freedom.

The key, Stewart goes on to assert, is the children. The Christians have learned that, if you get the children, you win. What are the lessons for the children? Christian children see that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is represented by a basketful of Easter eggs, chocolate, and other goodies, while those poor Jewish children get to celebrate their freedom from slavery with a Seder plate containing horseradish, among other unsavory things. Chocolate Easter eggs are a fun way to evoke resurrection, but there are evidently few laughs to be generated by an herb used to remind Jews of the bitterness of slavery. Maybe a matza joke instead?

The point of this unfortunate bit is that Christian kids get to eat candy on Easter, while Jewish kids get to munch on the contents of the Seder plate. The fact that the Seder plate is not eaten from, but used to symbolize the parts of the Exodus-for children, as well as adults-means that this was just another phony prop Stewart used to get laughs from people who don’t know any better.

Does Stewart really know any better, when he presents that “mixed faith child” with a choice between candy or “a bone from a dead baby lamb”? And reminds him, “Don’t worry, we used its blood to mark the door.” That gets a real rise from the studio audience. So does dipping the (non-chocolate) Jewish egg in saltwater, because “It represents the tears of your ancestors.” Har har har.

There is a weakly funny comparison of how Christians got Tim Tebow to make an appearance on Easter, while the Jews can only come up with the Prophet Elijah, who “can’t even be bothered to show up.” Another humorous moment in this segment is the Passover-theme water park. Similar ideas have even been tried in Israel.

But it’s Stewart’s suggestion for how Jews should “step it up a notch” to compete with the Easter bunny that crosses the line from assimilated and irreverent to just ignorant and offensive, by adopting a new mascot: “Passover Pete, the guitar playing, pizza eating lion.” He does acknowledge that, “technically, you’re not allowed to eat pizza during Passover,” but says we should just suspend disbelief and proceed to the next product in his new, improved Jewish tradition.

This is a fictitious new Jewish video game for Passover called “Red Sea Redemption-The Wandering.” A short clip of the fictional game follows with — what else? — Stewart’s signature voiceover in a phony Yiddish accent.

Stewart has every right to be a secular, assimilated, or unaffiliated Jew. But he cannot have it both ways. When he plays Jews for laughs by affecting a faux-Borscht Belt Yiddish accent and especially when he makes accompanying cowering gestures, he does a disservice to his avowed people.

When Stewart does what he supposes to be a funny “Jewish” shtick, he is performing nothing less than the equivalent of a black comedian playing Stepin Fetchit.

It is Stewart’s own exceptional talent and obvious intellectual curiosity that make his vulgar Jewish references all the more embarrassing. This occurred most recently last fall, when he did a bit about the Israeli UN delegation not being present for President Barack Obama’s General Assembly speech. The Daily Show camera focused on the empty Israeli seats as Stewart proceeded to make a mocking-not self-mocking-reference to some obscure Jewish holiday called Succot, which was the reason why Israeli diplomats were absent.

Contrary to his even cursory preparation for book interviews, his Jewish references display Jewish illiteracy. Stewart regularly plays Jewish holidays, High Holy Days, and observances for laughs, which he easily draws from an always amused studio audience. He seems to think these supposedly comic references show the gentile world what a regular funny guy he is — and he is often brilliantly funny. What is not a laughing matter, however, is seeing a comedian who happens to be Jewish portray Jews by the worst kind of stereotypes.

The writer is a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post.

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