Should Jon Stewart change his name back to Jon Leibowitz?

Scrutinizing culture.
July 24 2009 7:08 AM

An Open Letter to Jon Stewart

Bring back Leibowitz!

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But it's hard to believe that his decision to change his skin from black to white wasn't a reaction to racism, to seeing the ugly way people with dark skin were treated even by members of his own race with lighter skin. Well, you can say that feeling, that attitude, belongs to a sad time that has thankfully passed.

At this point, wouldn't changing your name be just an honorable thing to do as well as a long-overdue symbolic celebration of the passing of the age of "passing"? I will admit I have a personal interest in this matter since I have a recognizably Jewish name. I want to tell you two quick stories about my mother and father. My mother couldn't get a teaching job during the Depression, and in order to get any regular secretarial work, she felt she had to change her name in Morgenstern-to-Morningstar fashion. No, it wasn't Dachau-style anti-Semitism she was reacting to; it was more "gentleman's agreement"-style, country-club anti-Semitism, but there was something ugly about the necessity of the change, nonetheless.

I also have a very touching memory of my father, who, when I first started getting published in national magazines, made a point of telling me that it meant a lot to him that I didn't change my name. I have to admit I was a little shocked, because the possibility hadn't occurred to me, but he was in the product of an era in which Jews regularly changed or modified their names to make them less obtrusively Jewish, and he was glad I didn't feel his name was a burden of some kind.

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In fact, I did modify my name slightly: My given name is Ronald, not Ron. (My mother for some reason was a fan of the British actor Ronald Colman, who as I dimly recall played stuffy aristos. *) Never feeling like a "Ronald," I called myself Ron from my very first byline.

My father's attitude contained elements of pride and protectiveness reflective of another era, right?

And yet there it still is: Jon Stewart. A faint but unnecessary relic of anti-Semitism. You know, Jon, the treatment of Jewish names is often a barometer of that social disease. I consulted one of the foremost scholars of anti-Semitism, Robert Wistrich, the author of a forthcoming history of it called A Lethal Obsession. He pointed out that "[i]n 1938 the Nazi government obliged all German Jews to add an additional name (Israel for men and Sarah for women) to mark them off from the rest of the population. It was one more way of signaling the end of Jewish emancipation." And, Wistrich added, even now in very different circumstances, name changing of a different sort "reflects a latent Jewish insecurity and sense of vulnerability which is far from having disappeared." So you shouldn't feel bad about having done it, Jon. But it is a good time to change it.

So I think you should take your old name back. And then I think you could start a movement, asking other name-changers in show business to join you in getting back to their roots.

Now, you have every right to wonder why I'm singling you out like this. I think it has something to do with what I like most about your show, which is that you, like the best satirists, focus on making fun of those who put up a false front. Not that Stewart is false in any malign sense of the word. (It was your middle name—well, Stuart was!) But that it's a kind of mask, and you spend most of your time making fun of the pretentious masks that politicians, celebrities, and big shots adopt.

You're all three now—a politician, a celebrity, and a big shot—in the sense that you have remarkable influence politically. In fact, pols and political writers often establish their identities in their appearances on your show because you have a way of exposing their authentic selves however inauthentic the "authenticity" is. They either pass or fail the Jon Stewart authenticity test. And now we learn from a new poll that you're the new Cronkite, the nation's most trusted news source. All the more reason not to use a name that doesn't completely pass the Jon Stewart authenticity test, does it right? 

I think you know what I'm talking about, and I think it would be great on so many levels if you changed your name, officially, on your show. Or tell us why you've chosen not to. (I bet Slate would give you a slot to do so as well.) But I have a feeling that deep down inside you want to do it.

In fact, you've inspired me. I'm going to change my name to make it more authentic.

Yours truly,
Lance Rosenbaum

Correction, July 27, 2009: This article originally misspelled the name of actor Ronald Colman. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)