Jew Talk Too Much

Calling all Jews: Rabbi Cohon is on the air.

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?

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.

Cohon: Yes! And I'm not making that up -- that's his real name. You couldn't invent that name. I tried to stay away from, uh, playing with his name. So to speak.

NT: I've learned a lot from your show. And you've had some pretty impressive guests: Nina Totenberg, Kinky Friedman, Ed Asner. And my hero, Dan Greenburg.

Cohon: The guy who helped write Oh, Calcutta! should be your hero. We've also had [political commentator] Bill Kristol and Neil Sedaka.

NT: And don't forget Martin Abramowitz, the world's foremost authority on Jewish baseball cards.

Cohon: Absolutely. Jews are huge baseball fans. I'm not sure why. And Martin created these cards that rank an imaginary Jewish baseball team. Some of the players on this team have been dead 30 years.

NT: Do you also interview the goyim?

Cohon: Yeah, sometimes. I just had Lily Tomlin on, a very nice lady who isn't Jewish, although a lot of people think she is. We talked about how all the other really successful comics are either Jewish or black, which makes her a minority.

NT: Which is worse, no life after death or dead air?

Cohon: Dead air is much worse because it comes much sooner. But that whole life-after-death thing -- hey, listen, we do have our reasons for not believing in it.

NT: I can hardly wait.

Cohon: It's just that the only guy who ever came back to tell us about life after death was a Christian. And he disappeared three days later.

NT: Oysh. Okay, here's a Jewish question I've always wanted answered: How do you spell "tchotchke"?

Cohon: That's one of the tougher questions. I would spell it c-h-o-t-c-h . . . hmm. Wait. Okay, c-h-o-t-c-h-k-e. You know, the great thing about radio is no one is checking your spelling.

NT: Tell me the truth: Don't you ever just want to eat ham?

Cohon: Not really. You know the old story about the priest and the rabbi?

NT: Does this involve an old lady and a handful of lotion?

Cohon: Not that one. This is the one where the rabbi says to the priest, "One time, when no one was around, I ate a ham sandwich." And the priest says, "That's okay. I slipped up once and had sex with a woman." And the rabbi says, "Sure beats a ham sandwich, doesn't it?"

NT: Ba-dump-bum! Hey, how about that nasty Dr. Laura Schlesinger? Isn't she sort of setting a bad example for Jewish radio?

Cohon: Oy, Dr. Laura. She says she converted, but I say she didn't quite get there. She's not anything I recognize as Jewish -- [she has] a quality of overwhelming judgment with no comprehension. But I hear she's unconverted, and I couldn't be happier.

NT: My friend Bronagiddle is a kvetcher. She claims it's a Jewish tradition to always complain. What's that about?

Cohon: Unfortunately, she may be right. My mother says her favorite position is beside herself. But if you look at the Torah, pretty much from the time Judaism started, someone was complaining. Moses was a big complainer! It's not a healthy or positive thing, but it's part of who we are, part of the makeup of the Jewish character. We're people who are always questioning things and trying to improve them. Because things could always be better.

NT: Amen. I mean, "Go in peace."

Cohon: I'll do my best.

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