Jewish? Jewish? Jewish?

Jew? Not A Jew?     by David Holzel

The name game goes on.

I don’t have cable, so it took me a while to realize that Jon Stewart is Jewish. It’s obvious if you watch him perform, but how was I supposed to know? I watch TV the way God meant us to–by fetching broadcast signals from the air with antennae.

So what conclusion is one to jump to when one learns that Jon Stewart graduated from William and Mary College, that ancient bastion of Virginia planter aristocracy?

And then there is his surname. Stewarts have a long history of not being Jewish. Rod Stewart. Not a Jew. Martha Stewart. Not a Jew. Jimmy Stewart. Not a Jew. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Not a Jew. Stuart Little. Not a Jew.

It turns out that, in the old showbiz tradition, Jon Stewart started out life as Jonathan Stewart Leibovitz and, to save himself some trouble, lopped off a few syllables of his name, including his entire last name.

In the old days of the American melting pot, Jewish performers regularly changed their names to make them sound more “American”–or at least Irish. The Marx Brothers’ uncle Al Schoenberg was part of a vaudeville team called Gallagher and Shean. (Ironically, the Marx brothers all changed their first names, but not their last names.)

Similarly, Irwin Kniberg became Alan King. Joseph Gottlieb became Joey Bishop. It was like a damned Jewish chessboard for a while.


Nowadays it seems that everyone
who is or was ever famous is gay. But once, everyone you ever heard of was a Jew, whether the public knew it or not. That’s when knowing a celebrity’s “real” name became one of the pillars of American-Jewish literacy.

Jack Benny was Benjamin Kubelsky. George Burns was Nathan Birnbaum. Mel Brooks was Melvin Kaminsky. Lenny Bruce was Leonard Alfred Schneider. Woody Allen was Allen Stewart Konigsberg–which might make him a relation of Jon Stewart, I’m not sure.

We often chide these people for throwing off their Jewish mantle. Had they no pride? What’s wrong with the name Fyvush Finkel anyway? Two thousand years of Jewish suffering, the expulsions, the pogroms, the Cossacks and all those feathers blowing from torn pillows around the Pale of Settlement ... and Mendel Berlinger wasn’t a good enough name for Milton Berle?

It’s only recently that we’ve learned the price these Jews had to pay for rejiggering their identities. Bob Dylan relates in his memoir, Chronicles Volume 1, that he had grown up being called either Robert or Bobby Zimmerman. Neither of those worked with the name Dylan. It had to be Bob. Trouble was, nobody had ever called him Bob, and it took him a long time before someone shouting Bob down a Greenwich Village street got the nascent voice of his generation’s attention.


We’re so multicultural now, an Ashkenazi surname barely registers a blip.



Some of this name changing had to do with creating a snappier sound, or something that would look good on the marquee. It was often more of a showbiz thing than a Jewish one. A green performer often had no choice, working at the behest of management, the studio or the record label. Thus John Couger. Cat Stevens. Marilyn Monroe. It’s enough to make you want to change your name to Yusuf Islam in retaliation.

The person now most intertwined with the Marilyn Monroe, Elton John, changed his name from Reg Dwight. When he was knighted, it was as Sir Elton. Does this mean poor old Reg is still a commoner?

The exception that proves the rule
of simplicity is the late, lamented Rodney Dangerfield. Starting life as Jacob Cohen, he switched to the snappier Jack Roy when he launched his unsuccessful first stab at a comedy career. For his midlife showbiz comeback, he wanted to reinvent himself. The story goes that he asked the emcee to not introduce him as Jack Roy. When it was the comedian’s turn on stage, the emcee announced, “Please welcome Rodney Dangerfield.” After his set, the newly, er, christened comedian asked why on earth did he pick the name Rodney Dangerfield? The emcee said simply that it was the first name that popped into his head.

I had always thought this name-changing business was the shtuyot of the immigrant generation. We’re so multicultural now, an Ashkenazi moniker barely registers a blip among names like Condoleezza Rice, Jake Gyllenhall, Chloë Sevigny or David Hasselhoff. Would Jerry Seinfeld have been more successful if he had changed his name and that of his character to Jay Sign? (Then there’s the counter-example of Jason “Greenspan” Alexander.)

But it persists. Selma Blair began life with a Beitner at the end of her name. Natalie Portman's real name is protected by the Mossad, apparently.

So what is so wrong with Jon Leibowitz? It couldn’t have been any tougher to handle than Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Al Black? Jack Black?)

It makes me wonder who Marvin Hamlisch was before he changed his name.

Copyright © 2005-2009 by David Holzel

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