Jon Stewart just doesn’t get it

— by Ilan Chaim

Why does Jon Stewart keep making inept jokes that offend Jews? Such a talented comedian, with such a good ear for irony, and such satirical skill in skewering deserving media or politicians-why must he trash Jewish symbols in the crudest of ways?

If he is too intelligent to claim ignorance, then is the only explanation that he does so out of hatred? And if we accept his protestations of Jewish identity, are we by definition talking about that cliché, Jewish self-hatred?

These questions and more were prompted by The Daily Show episode of June 26. In a piece on the Hebrew National kashrut scandal — certainly a legitimate target for satire — Stewart offered some observations on what makes things kosher. In doing so, he displayed at least a rudimentary knowledge of definitions; even pointing out that the language of the accompanying news clip “not entirely kosher” is what Jews understand to be “not kosher.”

More after the jump.
But then he proceeded to go off the deep end in a decidedly unkosher skit involving the circumcision of a hot dog to make it kosher. The skit, as a colleague pointed out, was worse than offensive-it wasn’t funny.

This is not-God forbid-to deny that circumcision can be funny. Jews have been telling circumcision jokes probably since Abraham, although it’s curious that in Google’s listing of many thousands of such jokes there is a separate category of “funny circumcision jokes” — implying there are also unfunny ones. There is even a separate category devoted to jokes about Tim Tebow’s mission to circumcise impoverished Third World boys, though this is not listed in a separate category of “gentile circumcision jokes.”

What was so offensive about Jon Stewart circumcising a Hebrew National hot dog? An initial test might be to ask whether this was the kind of joke he would have dared to try on a Jewish audience. In other words, was it authentic Jewish humor or was it the kind of “kosher style” ersatz Jewish joke an assimilated Jew such as Stewart has no qualms about milking for a gentile audience?

If one assumes that he is too intelligent to claim ignorance as an excuse, what explanation is left for this truly offensive lapse of taste? Perhaps an explanation may be found in previous gaffes, when he trashed Jewish holidays.

Stewart regularly plays Jewish holidays, Holy Days, and observances for laughs, which he draws from an always easily 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 Daily Show

The Daily Show

In a September 2010 episode, he took Israeli diplomats to task for not attending President Barack Obama’s UN General Assembly speech and then disparaged the reason for their absence — the Jewish holiday of Succot.

In an April 2012 segment pitting Easter against Passover, 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 is warmed up before the taping and laughs at anything.

Compared to circumcising a hot dog — the Jon Stewart Hebrew National Bris — his Passover/Easter showdown was a triumph of understatement and good taste.

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. It is Stewart’s own exceptional talent and obvious intellectual curiosity that make his vulgar Jewish references all the more embarrassing.

So what kind of a Jewish comedian thinks it funny to make jokes about Jewish stereotypes and who is his audience? I would put forward a very unscientific theory that someone who makes such jokes has a deficient sense of humor, if not just deficient common sense. If someone proudly delivers punch lines that are not funny, but brutally insensitive, that person just doesn’t get it.

The writer, a Jerusalem resident since 1972, is an editor, writer, and translator; a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post and information consultant to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

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.

Israel’s YouTube Rorschach for American Jewry

— by Ilan Chaim

Ordinary Israelis living in Israel can ask aloud what Israeli prime ministers and diplomats cannot: Why did so many American Jews react with such hysteria over some ads encouraging Israelis to come home?

Was it the atrocious, inaccurate hype in the headline of Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic kvetch? There was no statement in his blog that backed up the sensationalist head, “Netanyahu Government Suggests Israelis Avoid Marrying American Jews.” The word marriage was not mentioned in the ads.

I can only speculate as to why my former Jerusalem Post colleague was so hypersensitive to the topic and reacted so vehemently. “These government-sponsored ads suggest that it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America.” Not at all, Jeff-they argue that it is impossible for Israelis to remain Israeli in America.

The only YouTube clip that featured a couple, the one above about Israel’s Memorial Day, did not say anything about intermarriage between Israelis and Americans. It was deliberately unclear whether the relationship was between a married couple or boyfriend and girlfriend. The Hebrew tag at the end referred to “partner.”

This is because the point was not intermarriage, but Israeli identity. Not that an Israeli risks losing his or her Jewish identity by marrying an American, but losing Israeli identity by living in America, no matter what the ethnic identity of the spouse. This point was perhaps made more clearly in the other videos: the danger of losing one’s Israeli identity-or that of one’s children-by assimilation.

The more subtle message in this example from a series of unsubtle messages is that a non-Israeli spouse, by definition, cannot understand what it means to be an Israeli. There is nothing insulting in this fact of life, nothing to take offense at. The male partner is presented as clueless-but neither American Jew clueless nor goy clueless, just non-Israeli clueless.

Memorial Day in Israel is coupled with Independence Day. A day of national mourning segues into a day of national celebration: The terrible cost of independence and freedom is inextricably linked to its joy in a dramatic, nationally observed cathartic transition. No American partner in a relationship with an Israeli can possibly fathom this while living in a country whose Memorial Day has long ago lost its memory. The chasm between drivers at the Indianapolis 500 and drivers stopping their cars and standing at attention at the sound of sirens throughout Israel is a fact.

Leaving aside the issue of inter-religious intermarriage, can an American Jew, even one who participates in an Israeli memorial ceremony at the local JCC, have anything but a vicarious understanding of what an Israeli feels?

The message in this clip is a rather brutal statement of the fact that, despite all the feel-good Zionist propaganda, we are not one. Our experience is not your experience; our understanding is direct and empirical-yours may be of the best intentions, but is theoretical. No American Jew should take offense if I point out the fact that I and my four children have served in the Israel Defense Forces.

More after the jump.
A word on journalistic integrity. Aside from the inaccurate headline, Goldberg’s lament begins with a rather unfortunate, snarky slant. It’s not “the Netanyahu government’s Immigration Absorption Ministry.” It’s not Netanyahu’s IDF, either. But if he makes this association because he assumes that Netanyahu knows what’s going on in all his bloated coalition government’s ministries, he’s obviously forgotten Shas minister Eli Yishai’s gift of housing developments to Vice President Joe Biden.

The Absorption Ministry is not making a statement on intermarriage, but on Israelis living in the Diaspora. The little girl who Skypes her grandparents in the homeland about Christmas in the video on the right is not engaged to marry an American. She is being raised by parents who apparently want to fit in with the majority culture, not by one of the many Israeli families who discover and benefit greatly from the rich variety of Jewish life in America.

You’ve heard of the brain drain? That’s what happens when lots of Israelis who start out studying or looking to strike it rich in America end up never coming home. We need Israelis in Israel, not in Palo Alto.

As crude and/or heavy handed as the videos may be, they reflect a sad reality: Israelis, particularly their young children, risk losing their identity surrounded by the American culture. A non-hypothetical example: A sabra couple I know are living in New Jersey, where the husband works for a hi-tech company. They are secular, but in their native Rehovot they wouldn’t think of driving, working, or going to school on Yom Kippur, because to do so would violate the norms of the majority culture. In New Jersey on Yom Kippur, the kids went to public school, the husband to work, and they have a Christmas tree to fit in with the neighbors.

Israel is trying, albeit in a rather clumsy way, to encourage its citizens to return home. It is not out to insult Americans or show contempt for American Jewry.

“The idea communicated in these ads,” Goldberg writes, “that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik.” Wrong again: The campaign was not aimed at American Jews, but at expatriate Israelis.

Classic, not archaic, Zionism argues that Jews truly concerned about the Jewish national future should live in Israel. American Jews can live full and meaningful Jewish lives in America; Israelis cannot live full and meaningful Israeli lives in America. The difference is being part of the majority culture. Secular or religious, Israel is, at least for the time being, a majority Jewish state.

Lobby for us in Washington, marry our sons and daughters, but live in Israel. Maybe that’s the key to this overreaction: Could American Jews be insulted at being reminded that Israel wants its citizens to come home-and feel guilty at not availing themselves of the same opportunity?

The Jewish Federations of North America joined the indignant misunderstanding:

While we recognize the motivations behind the ad campaign, we are strongly opposed to the messaging that American Jews do not understand Israel. We share the concerns many of you have expressed that this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

Not to be left out, Abe Foxman pronounced the ADL’s verdict:

We find these videos heavy-handed, and even demeaning…we are concerned that some may be offended by what the video implies about American Jewry.

I’m still at a loss to understand the ferocity of the reaction to this campaign. Is it the intermarriage thing? Is it because people who are divorced (no pun intended) from their Jewish identity to begin with feel some kind of guilt at being reminded of there being a much stronger Jewish identity in Israel? Is it people who are perhaps proud of being among the less than 15 percent of American Jews who have ever visited Israel, but nevertheless feel uncomfortable that we want to live here, and by implication, want them to also?

It’s instructive to note that Israeli wags have instantly responded to the bloggish hullaballoo by producing matching satirical takeoffs on the three insulting videos. Their treatment on YouTube for Hebrew speakers shows why the ministry’s heavy handed, mawkish approach actually insults Israelis — not American Jews. The counter-videos shown on the right, featuring caricatures of familiar obnoxious Israeli behavior, are produced by the fictitious “Ministry of Escape.” Their message: These Israelis should stay abroad. The real ministry’s message should extol the joys of living in Israel, where Jews whether secular or religious are part of the majority culture.

No secular Jewish Israeli child fails to know when each Jewish holiday is, just as no secular Jewish American child could possibly fail to know when Christmas is; but does that secular Jewish American child know the Jewish holidays?

Are American Jews really insulted by what they perceive as Israeli ethno-centricity and chutzpa, or are they having an allergic reaction to the strength of a dearly purchased Israeli Jewish identity that they, despite their celebrated free birthright, don’t have?

For that matter, we Israelis have noticed that the much (self-)touted communal answer to the failure of America’s Jewish educational system and its over-50 percent intermarriage rate is a program called “Birthright Israel” — not “Birthright New York.”

This deal is not about American Jews. It’s about Israeli expatriates. It’s not about you, it’s about us. It’s not about us not being able to maintain a sense of Jewish identity in America; it’s about us not being able to maintain an Israeli identity in America. It should not be insulting to you if I want to be me.

The writer is a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post and consultant to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com

When The Choice is Life

— by Ilan Chaim

There is no dilemma in freeing one captive at the possible future cost of endangering the lives of others, even by exchanging his freedom for the freedom of convicted murderers.

The moral imperative to choose life deals with fact, not supposition. We are commanded to save a life, not to worry about the possible consequences that releasing a number of murderers may or may not have on other lives.

We are called upon to deal with certainty: that Gilad Shalit lives and his life in continued captivity is in danger.

More after the jump.
Some people oppose the exchange by arguing that the price is too high. Some cite rabbinical disputes over redeeming prisoners for too high a price, as if there is any relevancy to such a medieval calculus. Such reasoning is a world away from how a sovereign Jewish state must defend itself and the soldiers who risk their lives to protect it.

These moral bookkeepers calculate that, in previous such exchanges, a certain percentage of terrorists were recidivists who murdered Jews again. While this is true, it ignores the fact that we live with the reality of terrorism all the time, independent of possible prisoner exchanges.

A grim example of this truth is the fact that the Fogel family was recently massacred by freshmen terrorists, not recycled monsters who had been traded for Jewish prisoners-or as in one abominable previous case, their corpses.

There is a gruesome corollary to this perversion of the traditional Jewish calculus-that saving a life is like saving a world-one that would reduce the value of a human life to something measurable on a profit and loss balance sheet. This new math states that one actual life cannot be worth many potential lives.

A most frightening expression of this sinisterly emerging new value is a rumor relayed to me by my son, now in his third year of compulsory service in the IDF. He told me there is an “understanding”-not yet an official protocol-that if soldiers in combat cannot prevent a comrade from being taken prisoner, they should shoot him in the head. Better a dead hero than a live bargaining chip.

This hideous rumor is but a reflection of the morality of those who would devalue human life by assigning greater value to a potential, unknown, future danger to the lives of many over the clear and present danger to the life of one.

There are others-some of the bereaved who lost loved ones to the actions of some of the very terrorists who are about to be exchanged-who oppose the exchange not on the grounds of future possible danger, but because in their anguished eyes the terrorists have not been punished enough. They have not done their time.

This second attitude, while understandable, is even more lacking in moral justification than opposition on the grounds of hypothetical danger. For those who would keep Shalit in a Gaza dungeon just so their own tormentors would remain in Israeli prisons are ultimately seeking to do so out of vengeance. Will ensuring that a given terrorist murderer continues to serve 15 consecutive life sentences bring any Jew back to life?

Trading murderers for Gilad Shalit will save one Jew’s life. That is a fact we can all live with.

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

Jon Stewart’s Jewish problem

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Hurty Sanchez
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

— Ilan Chaim

Comedian Jon Stewart made headlines last week when CNN anchor Rick Sanchez was fired for making disparaging remarks about Jews in general and about one Jew, Stewart, in particular.

Sanchez’s firing was a just punishment for the crime of anti-Semitism, but Stewart of all Jewish people should appreciate the irony of the situation.

As Stewart commented on Sanchez: “Finally, a guy who says what people who aren’t thinking are thinking.” Unfortunately, this statement applies to Stewart himself.

First of all, 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, but certainly not as a Jewish comedian. Stewart displays great wit and the show is a constant delight skewering easy targets, such as the Fox channel. 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.

More after the jump.
It is when he plays his very tenuous Jewish affiliation for laughs that bothers me. 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 makes accompanying cowering gestures, he does more of a disservice to his avowed people than a news anchor being snidely anti-Semitic.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
International House of Handshakes
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

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. Playing the Jew as schlemiel has a proud and funny history from vaudeville to the present, but for someone with Stewart’s intellect to present such a crude caricature is demeaning.

It is Stewart’s own exceptional talent and obvious intellectual curiosity that make his vulgar Jewish references all the more embarrassing. This was particularly acute most recently 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 dripping with unenlightening sarcasm.

Contrary to his even cursory preparation for book interviews, his Jewish references display Jewish illiteracy.

Stewart regularly plays Jewish holidays, Holy Days, and observances for laughs, which he draws from an always easily 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 stereotype.

Ilan Chaim is a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post.