Cool Jews!

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October 14, 2010

Over coffee the other day with Ellen, a fellow Jewish writer, I say the unspeakable: “You know, Rick Sanchez was kinda right – not that Jon Stewart is a bigot, but there sure seem to be a lot of Jews in the media. Of course, I wouldn’t dare say that out loud because I would be accused of reinforcing the horrible stereotype that Jews control the media.”

Ellen adds, “And doesn’t anyone think it’s weird that three of the nine Supreme Court justices are Jewish, and of the three women, two are Jewish?”

When I’m with another Jew, I feel free to indulge in “Yay team!” conversations, referencing everything from the rather large number of Jews in the media to the fact that Nobel Prize winners of Jewish ancestry are overwhelmingly represented. (There are at least 181 Jewish Nobel Prize winners, so that %22 of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish and only about .02% of the world is.) However, what we might say to one another in private as “insiders” is something we would be horrified to hear from anyone else on the outside, especially (as Rick Sanchez did) in public.

Try as one might to ignore the Jewish elephant in the room, there it is – all around you see smart Jews, successful Jews, literary Jews, Jewish doctors and politicians and activists. 50% of all world chess champions are Jewish, 25% of all ACM Turing Award winners for computer science are Jewish, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is Jewish…. When President Obama was elected, a joke circulated on the internet for a long time about how the White House was creating a minyan, the ten Jews needed for a prayer quorum, given the number of Jewish men who comprised the Obama inner circle (Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, etc.) .

I am not ethnically Jewish, so I can’t be accused of reverse racial profiling. I guess I’m just interested in this people I’ve joined, and in the larger questions Jewish success raises – why are certain people more likely to be good or not so good at certain things? How do we become who we are? The luck of the draw? Genetics? Natural selection? Environment? God’s chosen ones? Or because when you get kicked out of so many countries, the only things portable that you can take with you are your brains and your words?

I don’t know the answers (and I don’t dare mention the scientifically researched but hotly debated paper by respected geneticist and anthropologist Henry Harpending at the University of Utah, who determined that Ashkenazi Jews, on the whole, have a higher IQ than the rest of the world’s population), but I do know that we need to be honest. Feeling as if we shouldn’t report the facts lest we be misunderstood, or offend someone, or get fired from CNN, is completely contrary to the foundation of America’s commitment to the First Amendment . How can anyone with a straight face claim that being Jewish is incidental and immaterial to intellectual prowess, given just those few statistics?
I’m reminded of the controversy that surrounded Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University, when he suggested that perhaps the reason women don’t excel in math and science is because they just aren’t that innately good at it. Summers resigned after the hubbub that ensued following his remarks to that effect. God forbid, you should recognize that any of these elephants exist. (Larry Summers is Jewish, the son of two economists, and the nephew of two Nobel laureates in economics. He’s also part of Obama’s minyan. Not that it’s relevant, and not that we Jews are counting.)

Back to Jon Stewart: Stewart can and did make a number of unkind comments about Rick Sanchez – not racist, but just not nice – over the years. He won’t be fired for them because it’s okay in the media to mock others and damage their self-esteem, especially if you’re funny. Rick Sanchez, on the other hand, made the mistake of not being funny or ironic, but being earnest. Yet, Sanchez is correct: there are no Latin American, African American or Asian American primetime news hosts. He is also correct, to my mind anyway, that there is an elite, Northeast establishment of liberals. And there sure are a lot of Jews in the media.

Ellen reminds me that, at one point, Jon Stewart actually hid the fact that he was Jewish. He changed his name from Leibowitz and didn’t really mention his Judaism on his show. Some Jews felt he should have been more open about it, which he is, now.

“I remember reading that he had issues with his father, and that’s why he changed his name. But he’s not obliged to discuss it,” I argue. “It’s his personal business.”

And with that sentence, “It’s his personal business,” you know immediately that I wasn’t born Jewish. Because there’s no such thing as somebody’s Jewishness being only his business. He reflects well or badly on the rest of the tribe, so it is our collective business. And in return, the tribe will gather round him in times of trouble and fire anybody who dares call our boy (whose father is a physics professor) a bigot.

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