Why America’s “Chief Rabbi” Dropped His Last Name
If you were to strike up a conversation with “JSLeibowitz,” age 47, while cruising through JDate, you might not realize you were talking to one of the most famous Jewish men in the country. Of course, the chances that Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz would be looking for a date are slim, because he’s happily married with two kids, but that’s beside the point. The real question is, why did the man better known as Jon Stewart, who commands some of the highest ratings on television and drew 215,000 people to last weekend’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington, DC, lose the Leibowitz?
Dropping a Jewish-sounding name in favor of a catchier stage name is no anomaly. Just ask Robert Allen Zimmerman (Bob Dylan), Melvin Kaminsky (Mel Brooks), Issur Danielovitch Demsky (Kirk Douglas) or two of Stewart’s comic heroes, Allan Stewart Konigsberg (Woody Allen) and Leonard Alfred Schneider (Lenny Bruce). Many of the names on this list, you’ll notice, are of an older generation than Stewart, one in which anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish ostracism was far more common in the United States. But for Jon Stewart, who started his comic career in the 1980’s, this could not have been the motivation. So what was behind the decision?
Did Leibowitz sound “too Hollywood,” as Stewart joked on 60 Minutes, poking fun at the prevalence of Jews in the film industry (which, once again, begs the question, why is a Jewish name seen as an impediment for showbiz success)? Was it a way to cast off the mockery he endured in Middle school, where his classmates dubbed him “Leibotits” and “Leiboshits?” Was it a sense of Jewish blandness (growing up down the street from the Litowitz family, he joked, that Jews had to live in alphabetical order)?
Stewart admits to two reasons for changing his name. The first is that early in his career, while performing at the West Village comedy club “The Bitter End,” the emcee completely mangled his last name, prompting him to drop Leibowitz on the spot. The other reason is “some leftover resentment,” toward his family, particularly his father, Don Leibowitz, from whom Stewart is estranged.
Don and Marian Leibowitz, a physicist and teacher, had moved to New Jersey in 1960, and had two sons: the elder named Larry, and the younger named Jon. The boys had a typical Jewish upbringing: Jon had attended a yeshiva kindergarten and then moved to public school. The family attended High Holiday services at the Princeton Jewish Center, where Jon had his Bar Mitzvah. But whereas Larry’s Bar Mitzvah had taken place at a fancy hotel, Jon’s was more sedate. The reason was that when Jon was 11, his parents separated, leaving the family less financially well-off. His father, Don, moved out of the house, eventually remarried, and had two more sons.
When Stewart went to college at William and Mary, his Jewish-ness and his love for soccer came together. He joined the school’s soccer team, coincidentally called “The Tribe,” where his upbeat wit and dedication led to the establishment of an annual “Leibo Award” for good humor and hard work. He also played in the pan American Maccabi Games in São Paulo, Brazil, where the U.S. team came in second only to Brazil in the finals. When injuries led him away from soccer, he eventually settled on comedy as close second.
Although Stewart dropped the name Leibowitz in 1987, he didn’t legally change his name until 2001, after he had married Tracey McShane, and a year before the first of their two children were born.
So does all this mean that Stewart is somehow ashamed of his Jewishness? He certainly has a fair share of critiques. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews, desperately fearful of biblical cooties, got all Jewier-than-thou when they discovered that a handful of Reform Jews who actually allow their women to do something other than breed and cook also had the chutzpah to be praying nearby,” he said in a 1999 episode, responding to a clash between Orthodox and Reform rabbis at the Western Wall.
In an open letter on Slate, Journalist Ron Rosenbaum called for Stewart to embrace his Jewish roots by changing his name back to Leibowitz. But even Rosenbaum acknowledged that the move would be largely symbolic, noting that night after night, Stewart jokes, chides, and references his religion. His 1996 HBO® special was called “Jon Stewart: Unleavened.” He’s referred to himself as “Jewey Von Jewstein.” He’s called Israel “Heebie Land.” And he regularly mocks himself for changing his name. “Just the fact that he talks about changing his name all the time is a sign of how times have changed,” says Moment Magazine editor Nadine Epstein.
Jon Stewart has become one of the most prominent Jews in America today. “The chief Rabbi of America, in my opinion, is Jon Stewart,” said Anita Diamant, a Jewish writer and thinker at Moment’s 35th Anniversary Symposium in October. After the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” there is little doubt that she was correct.