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'TOO JEWISH' ON THE MOVE

Can a talk show be too Jewish for a Christian radio station? Not if that station is KVOI 690 AM, which last weekend welcomed Rabbi Sam Cohon's local Too Jewish program to its airwaves.

"We think what he does is very valuable to the community," says KVOI general manager Doug Martin, "so when the opportunity came to put the rabbi on, we thought it would be a good move for us."

Martin notes that there's already a Jewish presence on his station, and his listeners are "already clued in on Jewish culture and Israel," thanks to the syndicated programs of Dennis Prager (10 a.m. to noon, weekdays) and Michael Medved (1 to 4 p.m., weekdays). Those are fairly generalist shows, though; Prager deals with moral issues from a largely interfaith angle, while Medved is interested in politics and pop culture.

Rabbi Cohon's program, in contrast, explicitly revolves around questions of Jewish identity in the 21st century. It's an hour of Jewish news, opinion, comedy, music and inspiration, airing Sundays at 9 a.m.

Cohon, senior rabbi at Tucson's Temple Emanu-El, launched Too Jewish two years ago on KTKT. Cohon moved to KVOI last weekend to avoid being pre-empted by Arizona Cardinals games this fall.

But what about that title? Can one be too Jewish? Or, conversely, slightly Jewish?

"That's exactly the question," Cohon says. "We thought about calling the show Deli Home Companion, or All Jews Considered, but we didn't think that would go over so well." Another possibility was a Hebrew title that translates as "hero Israel," Cohon says, "but people said 'That's just too Jewish.' And that seemed like the title to use.

"We show off the ways you can be Jewish in a way that's meaningful and fun and entertaining. A lot of our listeners aren't Jewish; they just find the program interesting and entertaining. Apparently, you don't have to feel guilty to listen to Too Jewish."

Somehow, Cohon has managed to snag interviews with personalities as diverse as Ed Asner and William Kristol; this Sunday's guest will be Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. "We just ask them, and they say yes," Cohon reports. "They're Jewish, and they're happy to talk, because there aren't very many Jewish radio shows in this country. Not very many interesting Jewish radio shows, anyway. And I do research before the interviews, so I'll know what I'm talking about." Now, that's something you can't expect from your average talk-radio host.

Hardly any of the programs are live; that allows Cohon to conduct phone interviews with his guests at their convenience, and then drop them into the broadcast package. "We put it all together a couple of days in advance," he says, at the facilities of Journal Broadcasting. "The quality of digital audio production is so good these days that you can't tell where the show is coming from. I could probably do it in my home."

While recruiting leftist guests like Asner and right-wingers like Kristol, Cohon says he tries not to promote a political agenda of his own. "I tend to be open to all political perspectives," he says. "I've had Sen. Russ Feingold on, and we'll have Sen. (John) McCain in a couple of weeks, and they're pretty far apart politically. I've interviewed Yael Dayan, a strong left-wing Israeli political activist, and I've had a right-wing Israeli settler on. We treat them with even-handedness. That doesn't mean we have to like what they say, or that I don't challenge them.

"It's important to make fun of politicians of all stripes, and also rabbis, which we also do. You need to have the ability to see people for what they are and enjoy the humor and comedy in life."

The rabbi hadn't had his own radio show before he started Too Jewish, but he did record two-minute radio "devotionals" when he worked in South Carolina a few years ago, so broadcasting wasn't a completely new experience for him.

Cohon, a third-generation rabbi, became a certified Conservative cantor in 1987, but now he's heading a Reform congregation, and his father, in the course of his career, went all three directions--Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Asked whether the strands of Judaism are really that interchangeable, or if this fluidity reflects certain changes in his personal philosophy over the years, Cohon replies, "I think both. People's perception is you're either Conservative or Orthodox or Reform, but I think you're just Jewish. You could also say I can't make up my mind. But in contemporary Judaism, the lines have blurred a great deal. I think Judaism speaks to us in a variety of ways, and it's a very organic and changeable religion and culture.

"To be able to explore all the aspects of Judaism is very important. We have people in my congregation who grew up Orthodox, Conservative, Episcopalian, Catholic, they grew up here, they grew up in Israel. So as a rabbi, you have to be able to reach people in a lot of different ways."

One of those ways is his "Taste of Judaism" courses, intended for "unaffiliated" Jews; those have attracted 2,000 attendees in the past four years. Too Jewish, is in some ways, a spin-off of those classes.

"I think people should listen to this show because it's a lot of fun, and they may learn something and explore some spiritual possibilities they hadn't thought of," Cohon says. "And if they have some complaints, they're halfway to being Jewish already."

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