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The secret Jewishness of Trevor Noah

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It was a slow news day on March 31, when social-justice sleuths resurfaced some of the older, sexist, carelessly mean-spirited Twitter jokes from the account of Trevor Noah, the new Daily Show host who made his debut on Sept. 28. While cracking about fat chicks and beating up women, Noah offended some Jews, too:

And so began a torrential flood of think-pieces as the Internet slammed into outrage overdrive. In mere hours, Noah went from being a welcome new black face on late-night TV to a misogynistic, racist, fat-shaming anti-Semite whose jokes one writer deemed as “annihilatingly stupid.”

Noah slid away from social media after that, offering a limp half-apology on Twitter and largely hiding behind Comedy Central’s statement of defence. He seemed shell-shocked by his tenuous propulsion to American fame. His Twitter account became mostly self-promotion for the show and his summer comedy tour (which included well-received spots at Just for Laughs in Montreal and JFL42 in Toronto), and by early April, he was busy doing public damage control with Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David at a New York Mets game – just casually hanging out with some Jews.

Now, to be clear: despite the vaguely biblical surname, Noah isn’t a practising Jew (though he is, technically, one-quarter Jewish; his father is Swiss-German, his mother a Xhosa-Jewish South African), but an aura of Jewishness nonetheless lingers around him. The most obvious point of connection is The Daily Show, which launched not only the career of Jon Stewart, one of the most influential nebbish comedians alive, but also Josh Gad, Lewis Black and Dave Attell, among others.

But on a broader note, Noah appears to have this freedom when it comes to joking about Jews and Israel. We caught a glimpse from his brief Twitter scandal (OK, so the line about Jewish chicks going down is tired, but can we all agree that #BeatsByDreidel is a fantastic pun?) – yet there’s more. He has a standup bit about being called “black Hitler” by a German woman, and has talked openly (and hilariously) about his friend named Hitler – who happens to be a “very good-looking, young black man” with an unfortunate name. He obviously has opinions about Israel and Palestine (pundits have predicted his upbringing in apartheid South Africa will influence that touchy subject) and days before his Daily Show debut, he called Stewart his “Jewish Yoda.” 

There is an ease with which he approaches these themes in his comedy, a freedom that seems not to stem from a place of malice, as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies has graciously noted, but rather – and this is me inferring independently here – from a place of solidarity. 

The irony behind the whole controversy is that, while Noah isn’t Jewish, he has inarguably known more bigoted persecution – something we Jews are taught from childhood to understand and appreciate – than any of the modern North American Jews or social-justice warriors who’ve vowed to boycott his show. Growing up in Soweto, his mother – who was once shot in the face after divorcing a man who later threatened her son’s life – had to pretend that Trevor wasn’t her child, and was thrown in jail repeatedly for her illicit relationship with a white man. Young Trevor has lived in true squalor, and while he jokes about growing up in poverty, he very rarely speaks publicly about his personal life. 

Such prejudice and terror have more to do with blackness and poverty than Judaism, of course – but, then again, blacks and Jews have long maintained an understated sort of camaraderie over civil rights, bumpy roads to immigration and a wandering sense of home. In many ways, Trevor Noah feels Jewish. Rather than ostracize him for a few dumb jokes from five years ago, we should embrace his voice and hear it out.