Jew Talk Too Much

New Jew Revue

You shouldn't know from Sunday morning AM radio -- with maybe one exception. Too Jewish With Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends, which debuted here last month, is fast becoming a guilty pleasure among Jews and gentiles alike. The 3-year-old Tucson-based program, which can be heard Sunday mornings at 7 on Phoenix station 1310 KXAM, is gearing up to go national with its combination of humor, news, commentary, and interviews with what Cohon calls "all the most interesting Jews today."

With humor drier than a day-old bagel, Cohon covers everything from Torah to shtick, while the "and Friends" -- regular mavens including a former diplomat, an Israeli reporter, and national columnist Amy Hirshberg Lederman -- handle everything else. It's not as juicy as your grandmother's brisket, but what else do you have to do first thing Sunday morning that you couldn't maybe listen to the nice rabbi a little on the radio?

New Times: Rabbi, please tell me, what does "too Jewish" mean? Is that like Mordecai Finkelstein noshing a kishke on Friday night in the garment district?

Calling all Jews: Rabbi Cohon is on the air.
Calling all Jews: Rabbi Cohon is on the air.

Rabbi Sam Cohon: Well, that would definitely be very Jewish. But if you're asking, the name Too Jewish came about because we had a very little time to come up with a name for the show. We were going to call it Deli Home Companion. I decided, "Nah, that's gonna get us in trouble." Then it was going to be called All Jews Considered. But that's been taken. I finally came up with Shma Israel, which means "Here, Israel," but I was told [by radio producers], "No, that's too Jewish." And that's where the name came from.

NT: That's horrible.

Cohon: Well, but it's the perception of Jews in America. The idea isn't that you can actually be "too" Jewish, but it's definitely a popular perception. And it's part of what motivates us as we're assembling each show. We want to explore what it means to be Jewish in America today.

NT: Wealthy? Sovereign? Employed in the garment industry?

Cohon: Some of that. But we're mostly looking at how to live authentically as a Jew, to be committed to your Jewish identity, and to do it in a way that's meaningful -- whether that's through religious Judaism, or a commitment to studying and enjoying different aspects of Jewish culture, food, and music. We want to question and challenge these things in a way that's informative and very hip. Hip is very important in America.

NT: And it's very hip to be Jewish right now -- the whole Kabbalah craze.

Cohon: I know! And yet for a long time it was simply not cool to be Jewish. You got a nose job or you named your kid Courtney.

NT: Or Christina.

Cohon: Or Britney! Then there was a move toward "I really am Jewish, and I'm proud." Which eventually led to this new awareness with Jews being identified in a positive way. Does this mean that Madonna knows anything about Judaism? Probably not. But she -- and the other celebrities who are into Kabbalah -- are a good entree. Just because Britney Spears gets a Kabbalah tattoo doesn't mean she's Jewish, but if her tattoo motivates people to consider Judaica, that's fabulous. Which doesn't mean we can't make fun of her on my show.

NT: You're a funny Jew! But is there really a need for Jewish radio?

Cohon: Yes. Jews invented the movie industry, but you didn't see many Jews on the screen, or Jews making movies about their people.

NT: Well, actually . . .

Cohon: I know, there was The Jazz Singer. But not much more. Just lately, in the last five or 10 years, you're starting to see Jewish figures on TV in a more general way. But on radio, we're still invisible.

NT: Well, everyone is invisible on the radio.

Cohon: And so it's always been an easy place for performers to homogenize their Judaism. There have always been a tremendous number of Jewish performers in radio, but not a lot of programming out there that says, "Jewish!" And there's a tremendous interest in Judaism. We have lots of non-Jewish listeners.

NT: Like who?

Cohon: I have minister friends whose secretaries listen to [my show] on the way to church. They get there and they repeat the jokes, and I like to imagine them saying, "It sounded funny, but I don't know what it means!"

NT: You play Jewish music on your program.

Cohon: Yes. I'm a cantor as well as a rabbi. A cantor is a --

NT: I know what a cantor is.

Cohon: I'm sorry. Bad habit. I have to check sometimes to see how much people know.

NT: I know from Jews, a little. I love the Jews! Except for that circumcision thing.

Cohon: (Laughs.) We actually did a special circumcision show. I just think circumcision jokes are funny. But we addressed it also because it's a real issue and an interesting part of our culture. As a rabbi, I thought it was important to explain its historical context.

NT: I heard that show. Your guest was a circumcision expert named Dr. Steve Dickstein, for Christ's sake.

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