The Tucson-based radio show "Too Jewish," a gemtlich blend of music, humor and politics, offers up a weekly serving of everything Jewish, that is, two opinions on every issue, preferably contradictory.
"People call us from their hot tubs in Oro Valley," joked Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, who developed and hosts the show, which airs at 10 a.m. Sundays on KTKT AM 990.
"We started talking about it about a year and a half ago as a way of reaching people who weren't otherwise connected to Judaism, Jews who hadn't done much about their Judaism, and as a fun thing to do," he said.
In kicking around possible names for the show, "we thought of a 'Deli Home Companion,' and 'All Jews Considered,' but we didn't want to get in trouble with NPR," said the rabbi. "People kept saying, 'that's really good, but it's too Jewish' - and that's how we got the name."
On the show's one-year anniversary Aug. 3, Cohon interviewed actor and activist Ed Asner, best known for his role as the crusty Lou Grant in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the 1970s.
"Ed Asner is very interesting, a haimish (Yiddish for "down-to-earth") guy, said Cohon. Asner, 73, described the difficulties of growing up in one of the few orthodox Jewish families in Kansas City. His father fought his pursuit of a career in show business. "Years later, the actor said, his mother finally conceded, "Vee vaz wrong, and I'm glad."
As president of the Screen Actor's Guild in the early 1980s, Asner "took a very principled stand critical of Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston in a struggle over the guild's position on Nicaragua and El Salvador" against the Regan administration's handling of the Iran-Contra affair. "There aren't that many Jewish people who can claim to have taken on Moses," said Cohon.
Temple members Beverly and Arnold Halter listen to the show every week. "Every Sunday morning between 10 and 11 we put on the answering machine and don't take any calls. That's when we have breakfast," said Beverly, 71, who with her husband Arnold, 74, moved to the northwest side of Tucson three and a half years ago from Philadelphia. The couple likens the show to the comedy of the "Borscht Circuit" in the Catskills, where they went to see comedians like Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason and Red Buttons.
Kurt and Lynn Strauss, both in their 60s, are regular listeners, even though they aren't part of the rabbi's congregation.
"We don't make any progress in human relations without knowing something about the other guy, another culture," said Kurt. "You don't have to be Jewish to learn something from it."
On July 13, Cohon "deconstructed" Bastille Day, starting with a comedy clip from the late great 1960s comedian Alan Sherman of "Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda" fame. He melodically describes French tyrant Louis XVI as "The worst, since Louis the First."
France has a long and distinguished Jewish history, said the rabbi. Sephardic Jews from Spain spread out into France after their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century.
"In addition to their great success, there has also been great tension and pressure," most famously the case of Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure Jewish captain in the French army, who in 1890s was unjustly accused of selling military secrets to Germany and sent to Devil's Island, a penal colony off the coast of South America.
Charging anti-Semitism in his famous tract "J'accuse!" the novelist Emile Zola came to the defense of Dreyfus, who was later pardoned. Theodore Herzl, a reporter in Paris at the time, witnessed mobs shouting "Death to the Jews" and became the father of the Zionist movement to found a Jewish state.
In between "News of Jews Around the World," ads for the temple and Jewish mother jokes, musicologist Neil Levin informed listeners about the Milken Foundation Music Project, an ambitious project to preserve 600 pieces of music - enough for 90 CDs - celebrating Jewish life and experience. There's no Jewish music per se, because "notes have no ethnicity or religion," said Levin.
Other guests have included Les Yieux Noirs, a French Jewish Klezmer gypsy rock jazz band, who will perform at the temple Aug. 30; Ed Rosenthal, who wants to legalize medical marijuana; and nationally-known poet and novelist Marge Piercy. Meivin (Yiddish for "expert") Tom Price regularly comments on the international Jewish scene.
"We've had many political guests, including Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., on the Middle East and Israel, and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who talked with a great level of passion about what it's like to be Jewish on the political left today," said the rabbi. "We try to add some light as well as some heat."
The most controversial show was on anti-Semitism, with retired UA professor Dr. Leonard Dinnerstein, author of 'Anti-Semitism in America. "He poo-pooed anti-Semitism, saying it was in decline," said Cohon. "We got letters, calls and complaints saying he's wrong."
One of the show's most interesting guests, he said, was Josh Pastner, UA assistant basketball coach, a rising young coach who's been featured in "Sports Illustrated. "He's incredibly positive and upbeat, proud of being Jewish, and very committed," said the rabbi, even though it doesn't give him any special "in" in the basketball world. "There aren't a whole lot of 7-foot Jewish guys in the NBA or in college basketball."
Cohon spends between five and eight hours a week on the nationally syndicated show, which also broadcasts in North and South Carolina, Missouri, Connecticut and Florida. "KTKT has 20,000 listeners," he said. "It's really hard to tell how many listeners we have, but we get a lot of e-mail, letters and calls, from 20 to 50 a week. We try to answer them all.
"It's actually a lot of work, but a lot of fun and the response has been pretty good. Other guys involved are sound engineer-producer Walker Foard, who is not Jewish. One of our temple members, Rich Moret, brought him in to produce the show because he's the best sound engineer in Tucson. He's learned a lot about Judaism."
Deborah Sterling, 47, a Hadassah volunteer, housewife and mother, insists that her two teen-age boys listen to the show. "We've only missed one since it started," she said. "I loved Alan Sherman - my parents had his records when I was a kid. Rabbi Cohon is refreshing, intellectual."
Sterling believes the show reinforces her sons' Jewish identity. "This way, I know my kids are doing one more Jewish activity that they wouldn't be doing otherwise."
Listeners can e-mail the show: email@example.com or contact the synagogue at 327-4501.