Jewish Trivia Quiz

from RASHI, RAMBAM and RAMALAMADINGDONG: A Quizbook of Jewish Trivia Facts & Fun by New Orleans native Mark Zimmerman

Jeffrey Epstein

American financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested earlier this month on child sex trafficking charges. After an early career as a teacher, Epstein became an options trader at Bear Stearns, eventually becoming a partner before going out on his own and building a highly successful financial consulting firm. Among Epstein’s business and personal associates are Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Katie Couric, former British prime minister Tony Blair, and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. As a result of Epstein’s arrest, Barak, who is currently running for election against Bibi Netanyahu, is in the process of dissolving his business relationship with Epstein, who largely funded a security company which Barak set up in 2015. Epstein had previously pled guilty to a prostitution charge in a case where he apparently got a “sweetheart” deal from then-prosecutor (and now-resigned Labor Secretary) Alex Acosta. That deal required Epstein to register as a Level 3 sex offender. How did Epstein describe that situation?

Jeffrey Epstein 2013 mug shot

Epstein_2013_mugshot is in the public domain.

A. “I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender’,” Epstein said. “It’s the difference between running someone down in your car and jaywalking.”

B“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender’,” Epstein said. “It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”

C“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender’,” Epstein said. “It’s the difference between eating ham on Yom Kippur and driving to Shabbat services.”

D“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender’,” Epstein said. “It’s the difference between assaulting someone and watching a dirty movie.”

E“I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender’,” Epstein said. “It’s the difference between moo shu pork and corn beef on white bread with mayonnaise.”

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Jared Kushner

Jared Kushner is heading to a two-day conference in Bahrain where he will be attempting to gain support for the Trump administration’s Israel/Palestinian peace plan. However, neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority will be attending the meeting. Kushner will be presenting only economic proposals of support for Palestinians, which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said “is unacceptable before the political situation is discussed.” Kushner recently gave a wide-ranging interview to Axios. In answer to one question, Kushner replied, “All human beings have the right to live in a way that gives them the opportunity to live in peace and to live harmoniously with each other.” What was the question he gave that response to?

Jared Kushner

Jared_Kushner_2017 is in the public domain.

AHow do you feel about the placing of Mexican and Central American children in cages in the United States border detention centers?

BYou are about to unveil a proposed $50 million economic support plan for Palestinians. But what do you believe in regard to the Palestinian desire for an independent state?

CDo you believe the Jewish people have a God-given right to what the Israeli government calls Judea and Samaria and what others call the West Bank?

D. One of your responsibilities is as the Trump administration liaison to China. What is your response to the demonstrations in Hong Kong, where the people are protesting against China’s proposed law allowing for the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China?

E. You have been criticized for getting security clearance from your father-in-law even though the intelligence services objected. It’s been reported that you have huge financial dealings with wealthy foreigners that call into question your objectivity in many negotiations. You undermined Governor Chris Christie in his efforts to work with President Trump as revenge for his prosecution of your father. There are multiple reports of conflicts-of-interest based on your family’s real estate business, including questionable loans, problematic investors, and controversial business practices. You attended the meeting at Trump Tower that Donald Trump Jr. set up to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians. You met with the Russian ambassador and a Russian banker during the transition but did not disclose these meetings for months. You are closely linked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and some say that this is the reason that we have not held Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And John Oliver has referred to you as “Diminutive Nothing Boy 1” in the Mueller report. How do you respond to these criticisms?

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Target was in the news this past weekend, as a major computer glitch caused the checkout registers in almost all of their stores around the world to stop working. Target has found themselves in the middle of some controversies within the Jewish community in the past. In 2017, they apologized for selling Cards Against Humanity, a party card game that was intentionally offensive, when it was discovered that there was a Jewish-themed card set that contained anti-Semitic images and messages that were derogatory or hurtful to Jews. What other event in Target’s past led to an apology?

Target Store

Target by Mike Mozart is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A. In 2010, it was discovered that Target was selling world globes that misidentified Israel as Palestine. Target blamed the supplier of the globes and removed the globes from sale. The company stated that while the globe said Palestine where it should have said Israel, there was also a separate label key that did have Israel’s name. But the spokeswoman added that “the important issue is that we are no longer selling this product in our stores and we are sorry for offending our guests.”

B. In 2011, Target made the corporate decision to expand its food section and include fresh produce and other food products to compete with grocery stores. The following year, Target included a large Passover food section in a number of its stores in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other areas with large Jewish populations. The advertising and store displays showed a photo of the many products available under the words “Targeted For Our Jewish Guests on Passover," showing matzah, gefilte fish, and canned Manischevitz chicken soup, but also a picture of Lender’s Bagels. Target apologized while blaming an outside advertising company for the error.

CTarget is the name sponsor of Target Field, the home of the Minneapolis Twins. When the Twins sponsored a Jewish Heritage promotional night in 2017, Target arranged to advertise the event by including a picture of a baseball player in a Twins uniform, wearing a yarmulke. The yarmulke featured the Target logo, which immediately drew criticism from the Jewish community for its insensitivity to growing anti-Semitism, as it looked like they were suggesting that Jews be targeted.

D. In 2013, Target suffered a major security breach, notifying more than 40 million customers that their credit card information may have been hacked. A Target spokesperson told an interviewer on CNBC that “the fault lies with an Israeli contractor, CyberSafe Security, whose failure has compromised the safety of our customer’s finances.” Far right organizations immediately launched an attack on “Jewish companies controlling American corporate finances,” leading Target to apologize for unnecesarily specifying that the contractor was an Israeli company, while clarifying that Target was ultimately responsible for the protection of their customers’ data.

E. In 2015, Target opened their first store in Israel. The store included a kosher deli, and all of the food products being sold were kosher. Target’s advertising department created a variation of their standard logo to mark the occasion, by adding a Letter U to the inside of the Target circle, with the words “Target–Certified Kosher for Israel” above the logo, believing that the U in a circle was a generic kosher symbol. After being sued by the Orthodox Union, holder of the O-U trademark, Target apologized and redid the logo, replacing the U with a K, until they were sued by the Organized Kashrus Laboratories, the holder of that trademark. They tried one more time, replacing the K with the Hebrew letter Kaf, but when Kaf-K Kosher Supervision sued them, Target gave up and began selling non-kosher food.

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Shavuot (the Sephardic and Israeli pronunciation), or Shavuos (the Ashkenazic pronunciation) just ended. The holiday commemorates God’s giving of the Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Shavuot traditions include eating dairy food, participating in all-night study sessions, and reading the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth. Which of the following is also true about Shavuot?

Moses and the Ten Commandments-stained glass window

Moses holding The Ten Commandments by in pastel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

AShavuot is the only holiday mentioned in the Torah that does have a specific calendar date indicated.

BAn Israeli custom is to celebrate Shavuot with water fights in the streets, using water guns, water balloons, and buckets.

COn Shavuot, Italian Jews break mandelbrot cookies (which are a variation of Italian biscotti) into pieces, symbolizing the breaking of the Ten Commandment tablets by Moses when he saw the Israelites dancing around the golden calf. The cookie pieces are then given to the children, symbolizing the sweetness when the Israelites ultimately accepted the Ten Commandments.

DRabbi Shira Stutman of Washington, D.C.’s Sixth and I Synagogue, says that Shavuot is the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish holidays, because it gets no respect.

E. The holiday received mention in a popular song of the 1990’s which included the lyrics, “I spent Shavuos in East St. Louis. A charming spot, But clearly not the spot for me.”

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In an effort to goad Mexico into taking more action against Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to the United States southern border, President Trump has announced that he will begin implementing tariffs on Mexican goods in the coming weeks and months. There is a long history of Jews in Mexico, dating back to the early 16th century, when Jews fled the Inquisition in Spain. It is believed that many Conversos (Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism) accompanied Hernando Cortés on his voyage to Mexico in 1519. Some Conversos in Mexico remained Catholic while maintaining some Jewish customs, while others eventually returned to Judaism. What Mexican tradition is said to have its roots in the practices of these early Jewish immigrants?


Pint Sized Sombreros by Russ is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

AThe idea of eating food wrapped in a tortilla, though now a very common Mexican eating tradition, was not native to Mexico. Mexicans typically ate yeast breads which were originally of Spanish origin, such as pan basico and pan rustico. Because the Inquisition was eventually established in Mexico, many Jews lived lives as Crypto-Jews–ostensibly as Catholics, while secretly maintaining their Jewish practices. In order to hide the fact that they would not eat leavened bread during Passover, they created corn tortillas, which were an unleavened product, to use instead of bread. Because these Jews had Sephardic roots, they had no restriction against eating corn during Passover.

BBuñuelos (also called bimuelos) are a popular snack in Mexico and throughout Latin America. The treat is a deep-fried dough drenched in syrup, which in Mexico typically consists of brown sugar, cinnamon, and guava. It is believed that buñuelos were brought to Mexico by Jews fleeing the Inquisition, as this was basically a variation of a Sephardic fried doughnut which was part of the Chanukkah tradition.

C. Piñatas are a popular decorative and party item in Mexico, consisting of a very colorful papier-mâché figure, usually an animal, which is filled with candy and hung from a tree. Blindfolded children swing a bat at the piñata, hoping to break it and release the candy for all to enjoy. The roots of the piñata are from Syrian Jews who had settled in Spain, but were later expelled during the Inquisition, ultimately settling in Mexico in the New World. The piñata was based on a Syrian tradition at Purim, where papier-mâché Haman heads were hung in the synagogue. When Haman’s name was mentioned during the Megillah reading, children would strike the Haman figure with sticks.

DThe tamale is a traditional Mexican food, consisting of dough which is filled with either meats, cheeses, chiles, vegetables, or other items, and then steamed and placed inside a corn husk as a wrapping. The idea of using a corn husk, rather than using a tortilla as was very common in Mexican food, came from Conversos. These former Jews would not eat tortillas, as they were made with lard, which the Conversos would not eat.

E. Many of the first Jews to come to Mexico following the Inquisition maintained their Sephardic customs, including the wearing of head coverings by men. A  Mexican hatmaker once admired the hat of his Jewish neighbor, a man of Bukharan ancestry who was wearing the large, brightly colored kippah traditionally worn by Bukharan men. The hatmaker learned from his friend where he could buy one of those hats, which he then adapted by adding a wide brim. He sold that hat, and eventually built a business around selling these beautiful multi-colored head coverings, which provided great protection against the blazing Mexican sun. The hatmaker thanked his friend for helping launch his successful business, but added, “I have one question. Why do you always wear your hat, even when you are inside?” Replied the Bukharan Jew, “God requires us to always cover our heads. As my rabbi says, we have ‘shum b’reira,’ no choice.” Hearing this, the hatmaker adapted the Hebrew phrase into Spanish and called his wide-brimmed colorful hat the sombrero.

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Will Smith

Will Smith is currently starring as the Genie in a live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin. What is a Jewish connection in Will Smith’s life?

Will Smith

Will Smith by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A. Smith grew up in West Philadelphia’s Wynnefield neighborhood, an area with a large Jewish population. When Smith first began rapping under the name The Fresh Prince, he often performed at the bar mitzvahs of his Jewish school friends.

B. Smith is a winner of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Humanitarian award for his commitment to education, cultural diversity, and social responsibility. The award was presented to him by actress Charlize Theron, who was Smith’s co-star in the movie Hancock.

CWhile filming Aladdin in Jordan in 2017, Smith and his wife took a side trip to Jerusalem, where he was filmed saying, “I’m chilling by the Western Wall” before crashing the Torah reading of a boy making his bar mitzvah there.

D. Will Smith was born and raised in Philadelphia. When Smith was a child, his father was employed as a janitor at Congregation B’nai Abraham, one of the oldest synagogues in Philadelphia. Smith credits his father’s relationship with the synagogue and its rabbi and members as the reason why he has always felt a closeness to the Jewish people and Israel.

E. One of Smith’s first film appearances was in Men in Black, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. When Sonnenfeld’s son Sam had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Smith attended and feted the teen with a rap which included the following lines: I pulled up to the shul about nine, kine-ahora/And I yelled to the rabbi 'Yo homes let’s do some torah/I chanted my parsha/It was totally the bomb/Then I sat on my throne as the Mitz of Beth Am.

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Herman Wouk z”l

Best selling author Herman Wouk died last week at the age of 103. Wouk, an Orthodox Jew, won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Caine Mutiny, and also wrote many Jewish-themed novels, including The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, and Marjorie Morningstar. Marjorie Morningstar told the story of a young Jewish woman who pursued a life in the theatre, where she became involved with another actor, Noel Airman, who attempted to lead her into a non-traditional life and an affair. When Marjorie tried to get him to settle down to a suburban middle class Jewish life, what pejorative nickname did Noel assign to her?

Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk 2014 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A. He referred to her as Ginny, derived from virgin. He used this nickname in a demeaning way, as he was critical of her for feigning interest in him but ultimately not proceeding with a physical relationship.

B. He called her a JAP, the term he coined for a Jewish American Princess, a now-offensive name that in the late 1950’s became part of the cultural lexicon when referring to some upwardly mobile but vapid Jewish women.

CHe called her Mother, to indicate that despite her claim to be a modern young woman, she in fact clung to the old-world values of her mother.

DHe called her Shirley, his term for a stereotypical privileged Jewish woman who only wanted the conventional suburban middle class life.

E. Marjorie refused to have premarital sex with Noel, saying, “We are not married. I will not have sex with you.” Surprised, he said, “Surely you can’t be serious,” to which she replied, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

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Billy Joel

Billy Joel just celebrated his 70th birthday with a concert at Madison Square Garden, featuring video birthday wishes from Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks, Don Henley, Pink and others, plus a guest performance by Peter Frampton. Though Billy Joel’s parents were both Jewish, he was not raised Jewish, and was actually baptized in a Protestant church. Which of the following is a true story regarding Joel’s Jewish background?

Billy Joel

Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden by slgckgc is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A. Joel began taking piano lessons when he was 8 years old. The first time he performed in public was at the bar mitzvah party of his best friend David Sheinberg, which took place at a popular Long Island party venue, Leonard’s of Great Neck. For the event, Joel learned to play Hava Nagilah, which he then performed as the guests danced the hora and David was lifted on a chair. It was after this event that Joel’s parents finally told him that they were actually Jewish.

BJoel learned he was Jewish when he was young, and he mentioned it to a neighborhood boy who immediately punched him, knocking him to the ground. Joel later said that this incident was one of the influences on his lyrics in the song Prelude/Angry Young Man, including the lines “He’s always at home with his back to the wall/And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost/And he struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross/And he likes to be known as the angry young man.”

CJoel learned he was Jewish when he was young, and he mentioned it to a girl who lived across the street. She responded that he would grow horns. For many months after, Joel checked his head to see if horns were starting to grow.

DIn 1988, Joel decided to celebrate a bar mitzvah, as it was his 39th birthday (3 times 13). As part of the ceremony he delivered a bar mitzvah speech about how his Jewish heritage influenced his life. He later incorporated that speech into his song Two Thousand Years from the River of Dreams album, including the lyrics: “In the beginning/There was the cold and the night/Prophets and angels gave us the fire and the light/Man was triumphant/Armed with the faith and the will/That even the darkest ages couldn’t kill.”

EAs a young adult, Joel reconnected with his Jewish roots and decided to have a bar mitzvah. At the party afterward, Joel played piano and entertained, singing a song he wrote for the occasion entitled, Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant, with lyrics including the following: “A bottle of red/Manischevitz/It tastes so good after you’ve had a shvitz/You can shove matzah balls down your belly/while dining at our kosher deli.” He later rewrote the song as Scenes from an Italian Restaurant and it became a huge hit.

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Joe Biden

Joe Biden officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. Biden has a long history of support for Israel. He often talks about his first trip to Israel shortly after he was elected to the Senate in 1972. On that trip he met with Prime Minister Golda Meir and discussed Israel’s conflict with the Arabs. When Biden looked concerned and sad about Israel’s existential threat from her enemies, Meir said, “Senator, don’t look so sad … Don’t worry. We Jews have a secret weapon.” Biden then asked her what the secret weapon was. What was Golda Meir’s response?

Joe Biden

Joe Biden by Andy Witchger is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A. “We have nuclear weapons. We have absolutely no plan to use them, but we have absolutely no plan to get rid of them either.”

B. “You see, we have no place else to go.”

C. “We have you, and all of our friends in the United States. That gives us faith in our future.”

D. “We have God. And Senator, though I am not a religious woman, I do have absolute faith that we will survive and thrive.”

E. “I just told you–it’s a secret. And stop smelling my hair.”

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Maxwell House Haggadah

The most popular haggadah in American history is the Maxwell House Haggadah, which the  company has been distributing for free (with purchases of Maxwell House coffee) since 1932. More than 50 million copies have been given away worldwide since then, and they even had a place at the table of the White House seder hosted by President Barack Obama. What is the background story of Maxwell House’s decision to market their coffee by producing a Passover haggadah?

Maxwell House Haggadah cover, 1933.

Maxwell_House_1933_Haggadah_cover is in the public domain.

A. The most popular coffee among Jews of New York in the early twentieth century was Nescafé, made by a Jewish-owned company. In fact, the name Nescafé was created by combining the Hebrew word Nes, meaning Miracle with café, for coffee. In 1919, Maxwell House Coffee was the upstart competitor created by a Russian immigrant, Max Schilkofsky of Brooklyn. He was constantly trying to find a way to overcome Nescafé’s prominence in the marketplace, when, during the early spring of 1931, his wife told him to stop at the Jewish bookseller and purchase some haggadahs, as Passover was approaching and they needed additional copies for their expected large crowd. As he perused the haggadahs and made his purchase, he had the brainstorm that giving away free haggadahs could be the marketing ploy that would work. He connected with a publishing company and produced the first Maxwell House haggadah the following year.

BWhile Maxwell House was a well-known brand of coffee within the Jewish community, as it was certified kosher, it was not typically served at seder meals because many people drank their coffee with milk, which could not be done at a meal which was almost always a meat meal (brisket being the most popular main course). In 1928, Rich Products came out with a new product, non-dairy creamer. With this invention, the people at Maxwell House finally saw an opening for their product at Passover. They initially placed ads in the Forverts newspaper showing pictures of their coffee can alongside a picture of the Rich non-dairy creamer product and a notation that Rabbi Shmuel Krinsky of Congregation Anshe Chesed on the Lower East Side had certified both products to be kosher for Passover. As a further effort to increase sales of Maxwell House coffee, the company began distributing free haggadahs with purchases of their coffee. Rich’s originally distributed the Maxwell House haggadah with sales of their non-dairy creamer as well, but discontinued this practice after a couple of years because of pressure from other coffee companies.

CThe idea for a haggadah to be distributed for free was first envisioned by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, working with  Eastern European immigrants who were settling in New York. The aid organization would typically give haggadahs to new immigrants (among many items of support they would provide), but as the number of immigrants dramatically increased, they needed a way to fund this project. Someone from HIAS approached the people at Maxwell House and asked them to sponsor the printing of a haggadah. The first haggadah was printed and given out by HIAS in 1931, noting on the cover that it was paid for by Maxwell House Coffee. The following year, Maxwell House asked if they could print extra copies beyond what HIAS needed, which they would then distribute for free to those who purchased their coffee, and HIAS agreed to this marketing plan.

DThe Jewish population of America at the turn of the century was overwhelmingly Ashkenazic, and one of their dietary rules at Passover time was the prohibition against eating kitniyot, or legumes. Included in this category were beans, and it was wrongly believed that coffee beans were (as the name says) beans! In fact they are actually fruit, and are not included in the kitniyot restriction, but most Jews simply did not know this. The promotion of Maxwell House coffee as actually being kosher for Passover began in 1923 with ads run in the Forverts newspaper noting the kosher certification by an obscure Lower East Side rabbi. A few years later they made the decision to publish a haggadah as a giveaway with Maxwell House coffee purchases to further promote their product.

E. Aron Streit first started making matzah on the Lower East Side of New York in 1916. As the company grew, their need for more flour led them to reach out to King Arthur Flour company, the oldest flour producer in the United States. King Arthur received kosher certification and began selling flour to Streits. Seeing how much flour Streits would purchase every year at Passover time, someone at King Arthur decided that they should begin marketing their products to the Jewish community. Having learned about the haggadah from the people at Streits, King Arthur’s advertising department came up with what they thought was a brilliant marketing plan–a free giveaway haggadah, with a front cover that read, “The Melech Aharon Haggadah, with wishes for a Zissen Pesach from your friends at King Arthur Flour.” However, the promotion was a failure as the cover of the haggadah included pictures of products which could be made from King Arthur Flour, including bread, rolls, and other baked goods. Aron Streit explained the problem to the clueless head of King Arthur Flour, saying, “You correctly used the Yiddish phrase ‘A Zissen Pesach,’ which I taught you. Now you are learning a new Yiddish phrase–‘What a goyishe kop.’ ”  The company was stuck with thousands of unwanted haggadahs, until someone from Maxwell House Coffee learned of this marketing disaster, printed new covers to paste over the original, and went on to distribute the first Maxwell House haggadahs.

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