Jewish Trivia Quiz

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

Greenland

Donald Trump has recently expressed interest in the possibility of the United States purchasing Greenland from Denmark (Note: It is NOT for sale). While it is not exactly clear why Trump is interested, it may be related to the natural resources on the island (iron, oil, gold, uranium and more), which are becoming more accessible as global warming has led to huge ice melts on Greenland. What is a Jewish connection to Greenland?

Greenland map

AThe idea of the United States purchasing Greenland was first proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting with Jared Kushner. Bibi suggested that the United States peace proposal could then include a land swap with the Palestinians, wherein Israel would get permanent possession of the entire West Bank, and the Palestinians would move to Greenland. Said Netanyahu to Kushner, “Instead of having Palestinians across the Green Line, I propose having Palestinians across the Greenland.” Kushner expressed interest in the idea, even as his real estate company was coincidentally in the process of purchasing multiple apartment buildings in Greenland as an investment. President Trump was not available for comment as he was meeting with advisors helping him finalize plans for Trump Greenland, a golf resort that will offer colored balls that are easier to find in the snow.

BPeter Freuchen, a Danish Jew, was a medical school dropout who became a whaler and explorer (surely to the chagrin of his Jewish parents). During his travels, Freuchen lived with various Eskimo communities, where he learned more about hunting, fishing, and surviving in the difficult weather and terrain of Greenland. He also became fluent in various Eskimo languages, and as a result of his knowledge of the Eskimo peoples, he was appointed by the Danish government to be the resident governor of the Thule Colony on Greenland in 1913.

CJews had a long history of living in Denmark, having fled there after the Spanish Inquisition. In the early 1900’s, Theodor Herzl traveled to Denmark and met with representatives of the Jewish community and the Danish government, exploring the possibility of setting up a Jewish homeland in Greenland, a Danish territory. While the Danish government was open to the possibility of providing some land for the Jews, the plan was ultimately abandoned, as it was felt that the conditions were simply not hospitable and would not attract Jewish immigrants.

DGerman forces invaded Denmark in 1940, at which point the Danish government negotiated with the Nazis, leading to more leniency from the Nazis than occurred in other European countries. But in 1943, the Nazis established martial law, and the risk of pogroms and/or deportations of Jews became real. Many efforts were made by non-Jewish Danes to protect their Jewish neighbors, including the establishment of a clandestine plan to send Jews on fishing vessels to Greenland to hide. This was one of many ways in which a high percentage of Danish Jews survived the war.

EErik the Red, the Norse explorer, founded the first settlement on Greenland. Erik, who was Jewish (real name Arik Ha-Adom), raised his son Leif Erikson there (real name Lev ben Arik), and Leif went on to found and serve as first president of Greenland’s only synagogue, Congregation B’nai Norvay Oy Vey.

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Woodstock

The Woodstock music festival took place 50 years ago this week. The event, attended by more than 400,000 people, featured performances by Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, The Who, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and dozens of other musicians. Many of the people involved in Woodstock were Jewish, including the producers (Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld); the primary financial backers (Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts); Max Yasgur, who rented his farm for the event; and many of the performers, including Jorma Kaukonen and Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane; Arlo Guthrie; Country Joe and the Fish (Joe McDonald and Barry Melton); and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. Members of the Monticello Jewish Community Center also played a role at Woodstock. What did they do?

Woodstock poster

woodstock-1969 by Ray MacLean is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A. When the producers realized early on that hundreds of thousands of people were descending on Yasgur’s Farm, far beyond the 80,000 who were expected, they decided to make Woodstock a free event, and they took down the fences around the site. They put out a call for food, as they were not prepared to feed such a large crowd, and members of the Monticello Jewish Community Center, a nearby synagogue, made thousands of cold cuts sandwiches for the attendees.

B. There was a bar mitzvah scheduled to take place on the morning of August 16, right in the middle of the music festival. When members of the congregation learned of the upcoming event at nearby Yasgur’s farm, they realized that the onslaught of thousands of people would create chaos on Route 17, the primary road to their town. They sued to try and prevent the festival from taking place, fearing that bar mitzvah guests would not be able to reach the synagogue; however, a judge dismissed their suit saying that the festival permit had been legally obtained and that it was too late for them to object.

C. Because of the massive crowds attending Woodstock, festival producers had to be very creative in finding ways to feed, house, and transport the performing musicians. Some acts were brought in by helicopter because, as Arlo Guthrie famously announced, “The New York State Thruway is closed, man.” Other acts managed to get to the site but could not leave. Sha Na Na, the 1950’s doo-wop style group, performed their set, but then found themselves unable to get back to New York City. Many of the members of the band were actually Jewish, and one member, Rich Joffe, had a cousin who was a member of the Monticello Jewish Community Center. He called his cousin, and as a result, the synagogue agreed to house the band overnight, with members coming into the building to prepare meals and set up cots for the band members to sleep on. As a way of thanking the congregation, Sha Na Na returned a year later and performed a concert at the synagogue as a fundraiser.

DRealizing that many of the attendees at Woodstock were Jewish, members of the Monticello Jewish Community Center set up a tent on the grounds of the festival site and provided kosher meals. They also hosted Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday morning.

E. The Monticello Jewish Community Center heard about the upcoming Woodstock music festival and decided to put on their own Jewish music festival for visitors to the Catskills. The event was marketed under the name WoodShlock using the slogan, “Three days of food, music, food, peace, food, and did we mention, food?” Entertainers included Rabbi Shankar; Melanie Zoftig; Country Joe and the Gefilte Fish; Joe Alta Cocker; Sly & The Mishpacha Stone; Sha Na Nach Nachma Nachman; Blood, Sweat & Tsuris; and Kreplach, Shtups, Nosh, and Yid.

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Hal Prince, z”l

Theater director, producer, and impresario Harold “Hal” Prince died last week at the age of 91. Prince, who came from a German Jewish family, was involved in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway productions. Many of his shows had Jewish themes, connections, or stories, most famously Fiddler on the Roof, which Prince produced in 1964. Prince also directed and produced Cabaret, about a seedy nightclub in late 1930’s Nazi Germany, which included a sub-plot about the relationship between a German boarding house owner and her suitor, a Jewish fruit vendor. What show that Hal Prince was involved in originally had a Jewish-themed plot that was changed before the show was ultimately produced?

Harold Prince receives the Golden Plate award from Toni Morrison

Harold Prince receives the Golden Plate award from Toni Morrison is in the public domain.

AIn 1955, Prince was a co-producer of the show Damn Yankees, about a long-suffering Washington Senators fan who couldn’t stand seeing the New York Yankees constantly beat his beloved team. The man, Joe Boyd, made a deal with the devil to become Joe Hardy, a young power hitter who led the Senators to victory. This show originated as Damn Yekkes, a story about a poor Litvak immigrant from Vilnius who hated the rich German Jews who he worked for at a shmatte factory on the Lower East Side of New York. He made a deal with the devil that enabled him to become a wealthy Yekke, whereupon he opened a shmatte factory across the street from his employer and drove that “damn Yekke” out of business.

BThe musical Company was produced and directed by Prince in 1970. The show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, focuses on a young man named Robert, who is surrounded by his married friends and his three girl friends. The issue of being single vs. being married is explored as Robert’s friends throw a party to celebrate his 35th birthday. In its earlier incarnation, the plot of Company was about the single life of Robert, but originally, he was surrounded not by his friends, but by his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even his rabbi, all of whom constantly “hocked” him to get married and produce grandchildren. The song Another Hundred People with the opening lyric line “Another hundred people just got off of the train” was originally written for Robert’s mother, who sang “Another hundred friends of mine are bubbies again.”

C. One of Hal Prince’s many collaborations with Stephen Sondheim was on the show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which Prince produced in 1962, with Sondheim writing the lyrics and music. Forum is about a slave named Pseudolus who attempts to win his freedom by helping his master woo a pretty young woman. The show originated as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Temple, about a young Jew named Shikkerlus who attempts to convince the High Priest at the Temple to hire him to guard the stash of sacrificial wine. The show featured an earlier version of the opening number, A Comedy Tonight, as follows: Something farblondjet/Something for gornisht/Something farshtinkener/Meshuggenehs tonight./Something farchadat/Something farpotshket/Something farbissiner/Big mishegoss tonight!

D. One of Prince’s biggest successes was West Side Story, which he co-produced in 1957. The play is a musical about the rivalry between Puerto Rican and white street gangs in New York, and the tragic love story of Maria and Tony, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Before Prince became involved in this project, the show was originally called East Side Story, and it took place during the Easter/Passover season. The plot revolved around rival Catholic and Jewish gangs, and the tragic love story of a Lower East Side Holocaust survivor, Tante, and an Italian gang member from Greenwich Village.

EIn 1979, Prince directed the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, about an evil barber who kills his clients by slitting their throats with his shaving razor, after which Sweeney Todd’s friend Mrs. Lovett bakes the bodies into meat pies. The show was originally written as Shloime Cohen: The Demon Mohel of Kraków, about a rogue mohel who performed circumcisions on unsuspecting customers. Without being more specific about what happened next, suffice it to say that the show closed quickly after failing to receive Kashrut certification.

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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has just replaced Theresa May as prime minister of Great Britain. Johnson has been a strong supporter of Israel and an advocate for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. What was Johnson’s connection to Israel before he became a politician?

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister of Israel by Foreign and Commonwealth Office is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

AJohnson attended high school at the elite British boarding school Eton, where he stood out as a rugby player. When Johnson was 16, he traveled to Israel as a member of the British National Youth Rugby squad to compete in an international tournament. The British team won the tournament, and Johnson later spoke of the trip, saying, “It was exciting to be in the Holy Land, but the best part was meeting so many people from so many different countries.” In particular, Johnson became friendly with Natan Shavit, the captain of the Israeli team, and the two men have stayed in touch ever since. Johnson stayed with Shavit on his most recent trip to Israel in 2017 as the British foreign minister.

BBefore entering politics, Johnson was a journalist, working for the Times and later for the Daily Telegraph. Reflecting his right-leaning political views, in 1992 Johnson wrote an award-winning series of articles about world leaders who had led their countries during a political shift from liberal to conservative government, including President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. For the article about Begin, Johnson traveled to Israel and interviewed many of the people who had worked with Begin, and he became close friends with Begin’s son (and former Knesset member) Benny. 

CIn 1993, the European Young Conservatives was founded in Great Britain, uniting organizations from across Europe who shared a conservative political philosophy. Over time the EYC expanded to include members from non-European countries, including Canada, New Zealand, and Israel. In 1998, Boris Johnson served as an advisor and traveled with a British teen delegation to the international conference of the EYC, which was held in Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the keynote speaker at the conference, and he and Johnson met and became close friends.

DIn the summer of 1984, Boris Johnson and his sister Rachel traveled to Israel to be volunteers on Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, in the Galilee. According to Rachel, “for me, it was summer vacation, mostly spent gazing at the good looking young Israeli soldiers.” But Boris, she said, “already showed his leadership skills by becoming the head of the volunteers group within a month of our arrival.” In this position, Boris worked with the kibbutz leadership in scheduling the workload for the volunteers, and also arranged for the volunteers to take trips to other parts of the country.

EIn the summer of 1984, Boris Johnson and his sister Rachel traveled to Israel to be volunteers on Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, in the Galilee. Rachel worked cleaning the men’s toilets until she complained and was moved to apple picking. Boris cleaned pots and pans in the kitchen, and according to Rachel, was hardly noticed, other than sticking out like a sore goy thumb because of his pale skin and blonde hair.

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Project Rozana

With little recent progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, many Israelis and Palestinians are focusing on people-to-people (P2P) approaches between the two communities, with a goal of promoting understanding and cooperation “on the ground.” One NGO (non-profit) that has taken this approach and begun to have a substantial impact in recent years is Project Rozana. What does Project Rozana do?

Project Rozana logo

Project Rozana logo used with permission of Project Rozana.

A. Project Rozana’s mission is to create “pathways to peace” between Israelis and Palestinians by providing funding and other support of health-care initiatives. Named after a Palestinian girl, Rozana, who received life-saving emergency medical treatment at Hadassah Hospital, Project Rozanas focus is on health-care as a bridge between Israeli and Palestinian communities. The organization supports volunteer Israeli drivers who bring seriously ill Palestinian children from the security crossings to Israeli hospitals for treatment, funds the training of Palestinian doctors in Israeli hospitals, and pays for medical care for Palestinian children when Palestinian Authority funding is not available.

BProject Rozana operates day camps which are open to both Jewish and Palestinian children in Israel. Even in cities with mixed populations, such as Haifa, Akko, and Jaffa, this is one of the few opportunities in which children from both communities can play together and get to know each other on a one-to-one basis. Project Rozana was started by the family of an Israeli girl named Rozana who had attended a similar camp in Maine under the auspices of the Seeds of Peace organization. Rozanas family felt that bringing the concept into Israel was the next step forward in promoting peaceful interaction between the communities.

CProject Rozana is a cooking school established in Haifa by Israeli chef Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia and named after his mother Rozana, who inspired him as a chef. The school is open to Israelis and Palestinians, and provides chef training as well as courses in restaurant management and related hospitality skills. Tuition is free, as Solomonov raises funding from Israeli and Palestinian chefs and restauranteurs around the world, including Alon Shaya of New Orleans, and Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi and Palestinian Sami Tamimi, co-authors of Jerusalem: A Cookbook.

DIn 2018, a group of Israeli settlers on the West Bank set fire to an olive tree orchard owned by a local Palestinian. Hearing this story on the news, a 7-year-old Israeli girl named Rozana told her parents that she wanted to send the orchard owner some olive tree seeds. The girls father explained that the trees did not actually grow from seeds, but he used this moment as an inspiration to collect olive tree cuttings which he and Rozana brought to the Palestinian to help him replant his orchard. Following this initial effort, the man established Project Rozana to provide tree cuttings, seeds, and saplings to Palestinian and Israeli families who could not afford them.

E. Project Rozana was established by the wife of a prominent Jerusalem rabbi. The woman, the Rebbetzanna Rozanne Rozeannadanna  established Project Rozana in response to a letter she received from a congregant. She tells the story thusly: A Mr. Richard Feder, formerly of Fort Lee, New Jersey and now of Ramat Trump, Israel, wrote in and said, Rebbetzanna Rozanne Rozeannadanna  there’s another election coming up and I don’t know who to vote for. Do I vote for Blue and White, or Black and Blue, or Jerusalem of Gold? Do I vote for Bibi or Barak or Benny or Baba Ghanoush? Should I be Progressive or Secular or Sephardi or Haredi or Jewish or Arabish or just pro-marijuanish? Am I for a one-state solution or a two-state solution or a deep-state solution or a deranged mental state solution? Am I pro-Israel or pro-Palestine or pro-Philistine or pro-Phyllis Diller? Or should I just return to Fort Lee and vote in the American election, which isn’t so complicated? So I told him, Mr. Feder, you sure ask a lot of questions. But I’m gonna help you, because it’s like my abba used to say–Rebbetzanna Rozanne Rozeannadanna, if it isn’t one thing it’s another. If it isn’t Bibi, it’s Bubbie. If it isn’t Haredi, it’s Havruta, and if it isn’t Havruta, it’s Havarti. And speaking of Havarti, did you ever eat that labeneh cheese? You know, the one that isn’t yogurt, and it isn’t cottage cheese, and it isn’t cream cheese. I don’t know what kind’a cheese it is. But I do know that when you try to eat it, you don’t know if you should swallow it or spit it out or swish it or just hold it in the side of your mouth until it mixes with your saliva and just kinda melts away. Which just thinking about it makes me wanna puke. So that, my friends, is why I created Project Rozana. To help you decide which cheese to choose, which political party to patronize, and whether to vote for King Bibi, BB King, the BBC, or Bebe Rebozo.

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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

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

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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Mexico

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?

Sombreros

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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