Trevor Noah’s mother should be proud. It takes major star power to fill a large auditorium to capacity for nothing more than a question-and-answer session. Dressed in casual black, the South African who inherited John Stewart’s “The Daily Show” throne, did just that, speaking at Memorial Auditorium at Montclair State University on April 1. He kept his audience enthralled for an hour, and left them wanting more.
He was answering questions posed by Chris Jackson, the editor of his book, “Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.” The autobiography, released late last year, brought him to the opening program of the first Montclair Literary Festival which ran March 31 and April 1. The festival was organized by and benefited Succeed2gether, a Montclair-based nonprofit that provides free tutoring and other educational services to low-income children in Essex County.
Noah, who credits his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, with everything that has won him international acclaim, says she isn’t particularly impressed by his success. “I don’t think she’s read the book,” he added.
When he was a kid, his mother, a member of the Xhosa tribe, converted from Catholicism to Judaism. She learned plenty about Yiddishkeit and still directs Hebrew blessings his way. But, though an adoring parent in the best Jewish tradition, apparently she didn’t get the part about behaving like a Yiddishe mama.
“She told me she is proud of who I am, not what I do,” he said.
However, if she isn’t into kvelling over her boy, this writer was willing to do it on her behalf, and it warmed my heart to see him in person at MSU, in all his dimpled brilliance.
Last year, when the now 33-year-old was preparing to take over the “The Daily Show,” I wrote to “his people” offering my services. I wanted to be his off-screen or on-screen American interpreter.
As a fellow South African, and an older Jewish matron who has been in this country way longer than he, I could be the voice in his ear whispering, “No, no, Trev, don’t tell the Americans they’re racist. You’re a newcomer, remember — a guest. These folks might tell everyone, even total strangers, to ‘have a nice day,’ but they’ll be just as ready to call you a shmuck if you act like a know-it-all.”
At that point, he did seem to need help. He had already offended a bunch of people with tweets that sounded misogynistic and sometimes anti-Semitic. He had joked about Jewish women’s sexual habits and rich showbiz impresarios, and a double doozy that insulted both Jews and his homeland: “South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful.”
The outrage didn’t stop there. In his book he has a chapter titled, “Go, Hitler.” Predictably that drew criticism even before publication. It isn’t a pro-Nazi statement; it’s about how Africans take atrocities that touched them directly more seriously, and the fact that the Holocaust was fastidiously documented by its perpetrators, whereas massacres in Africa weren’t. But still it drew accusations that he was trivializing Jewish suffering.
He makes me cross too — but you have to see his statements in context. He mocks all groups, and is equally hard on himself. In Montclair, putting humor aside he opened up about his chameleon personality, and how he exploited that to win friends at school and pave a career path, adapting to whomever he was with. Brought up in a Xhosa home in Soweto, he learned English first and then another eight languages. He learned to blend.
He has done it to some extent in America — but maybe not always enough. I’d have urged him to apologize for past sins and promise to do better in the future, but that’s not Noah’s style. He simply asked not to be judged on silly, misguided jokes. Stewart asked his fans to give the new guy a chance, the way they gave him one.
Noah’s fan base has been growing, fueled no doubt by the extraordinary political climate. But feelings remain mixed. Grinning, he described encountering an elderly woman as he walked along Broadway in Manhattan. “She said, ‘You’re black,’ which is clearly true, and ‘You’re a lot less Jewish than Jon Stewart. But you’re still a mensch.’”
As part of her caring, Noah’s mother – still a devout believer in Jesus – gave her son a bar mitzvah of sorts. This is something he doesn’t mention in his book and didn’t discuss in Montclair, but he has talked about it in interviews. She wanted to usher her boy into manhood the Jewish way. Unfortunately, as he told an NPR interviewer about his poorly attended simcha, “No one around us knew what a bar mitzvah was, so they didn’t come.”
But if Noah was ignored on that occasion, he was celebrated in ways that made no sense to him as a child. As he explained from the MSU stage, because his father, Robert, is white, a Swiss German, he was lighter skinned than any of the people around him, and because of the South African racial divide and the power vested in whiteness, he was treated with deference even by his own grandparents.
At funeral gatherings, occasions that drew far more people than the small homes could accommodate, he would be invited inside. “Sometimes I was invited in ahead of the relatives,” he said.
With a ponim like his, I’d have invited him inside, too.
I never did get a reply from his team. On Friday at MSU, I thought about making my offer again, if I could get close enough. That didn’t work out; the crowds were too dense and he was rushing, with two additional shows that evening at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. It was clear though that he doesn’t need my help. He had that audience in the palm of his hand.