Jewish Trivia Quiz

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

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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Passover and Pets

As Jews worldwide prepare for Passover, which begins this Friday night, many people are wondering what they are allowed to feed their pets during the holiday. Which of the following are real rules?

Clementine dresses for the seder

Clementine Dresses for the Seder by Meryl Zimmerman Music is used with permission of the owner.

A. According to the website’s Ask the Rabbi feature, pets should not be fed food with chametz in it, because it is forbidden to derive any benefit from chametz during Passover, and if your pet eats chametz, you are indirectly receiving a benefit. However, the Aish rabbi says that pets can eat kitniyot, or legumes, regardless of whether or not the pet owner eats kitniyot (traditionally only Sephardic Jews eat kitniyot during Passover).

BAccording to Rabbi Yehuda Epshtein of the Orthodox Union, it is acceptable to include your pet on the list of items which you sell as chametz to a non-Jew, directly or through your rabbi or other religious authority. In that way, the pet is not considered to be yours, and you can then feed the pet chametz during Passover, as you are no longer benefiting from the non-Passover food.

CAccording to Rabbi Zvi Goldberg of Star-K, the kosher food certification organization, it is okay to feed non-kosher food to animals during Passover because one is allowed to derive benefit from non-kosher food. However, Rabbi Goldberg says that pets cannot be fed food which mixes meat and milk products.

DAccording to Rabbi Avi Weissman of Yeshivat Magen Torah in Brooklyn, it is only acceptable to feed your pets kosher for Passover food. However, Rabbi Weissman says that you cannot feed matzah to your pets. This is because matzah is viewed as the bread of freedom–the bread which the Israelites ate when they escaped from Egyptian slavery and crossed the desert. Because pets are not free, but are subservient to their owners, Rabbi Weissman says that it is not acceptable to feed matzah to your pets.

ERabbi Zakkai Zalmon Veisfisch of Temple Betta Al-Bakor in Pikesville, Maryland says that it is not acceptable to feed food flakes to aquarium fish during Passover, as these items are chametz. When asked what one should do with their aquarium fish since it would be wrong to not feed them for a week, Rabbi Veisfisch stated that he is happy to share his recipe for guppy-filte fish.

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Israeli Elections

Israel is holding parliamentary elections this Tuesday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu running neck and neck with Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White Party. Whoever wins will have the challenge of putting together a coalition government in a country whose electoral system makes it very easy for small parties to gain representation in the Knesset. More than 40 political parties are competing in this week’s election, and in fact, more than 100 different political parties have been represented in the Knesset at some point in Israel’s history. This system has led to the establishment of many unusual political parties over the years. Which of the following was a real Israeli political party?

Knesset building

19172-Jerusalem by xiquinhosilva is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

AHaMiflaga LeMilhama BeBankim, (The Party for the War Against Banks), which in 2006 advocated for laws making it easier for citizens to sue banks.

B. Nitzole HaSo’a’a Im Bogre Ale Yarok, (Holocaust Survivors with Green Leaf Veterans), a combined 2009 list of marijuana advocates and Holocaust survivors who want larger pensions. Their 2300 votes fell far short of the number needed to enter the Knesset.

CThe Lehem, or Bread, party (Lohame Hevra Me’uhadim), submitted a list in the 2006 elections, campaigning to represent the needy and homeless. They received fewer than 1500 votes.

DYibane, (Build It), a 2009 combined list of ultra-Orthodox Jews who advocated for the building of a third Temple in Jerusalem and a Sheldon Adelson-backed group who pushed for the building of a floating casino in the Dead Sea that would be accessible by boat both from Israel and Jordan.

E. Zehuyot HaGever BaMishpaha - Ra’ash, (Man Rights in the Family), advocated for equality for men in divorce proceedings in 2006. They did not attain any seats in the Knesset. 

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Cory Booker

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey is running for president. At a CNN Town Hall meeting last week, he spoke of the importance of his Christian upbringing, but he then went on to say, “Can I quote some Hebrew to you? I studied the Torah, too. There’s a song sung during the High Holidays: ‘Ki veiti beit t’fila yikareh l’chol ha’amim’ — ‘May my house be a house of prayer for many nations’.” Booker has long had connections to the Jewish community. In the early 1990’s, while he was studying at Oxford, he went to a Chabad Purim celebration where he danced around the room with the other participants. What did Booker carry on his back during that dance?

Senator Cory Booker

190204-Z-AL508-1207 by New Jersey National Guard is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

AA Megillah scroll.

BHe carried a large map of the Jersey Turnpike, and on his head he wore an EZ Pass device.

C. The rabbi’s daughter, dressed as Queen Esther.

DA Four Seasons record album, as he was dressed as a Jersey Boy.

ERabbi Shmuley Boteach.

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Alex Trebek, the longtime host of Jeopardy, recently announced that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. At the time, he noted that he welcomed the prayers of his viewers, which led Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, a former Jeopardy contestant, to organize a digital interfaith prayer service for Trebek. The participants were all former Jeopardy contestants who are members of the clergy. When Rabbi Mitelman was a Jeopardy contestant, what happened when he missed the final Jeopardy question?

Alex Trebek

Alex Trebek by Peabody Awards/Anders Krusberg is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A. The category was “The French Revolution,” and the clue read: “The last prisoner moved before the Bastille was stormed, this nobleman left behind the manuscript for his most infamous work.” Mitelman did not get the answer, which was “The Marquis de Sade.” Another contestant said “I’m pretty happy the rabbi didn’t know about sadism!”

B. The category was “Animal Adversaries Speak” and the clue read: “I initiated a hostile takeover because Snowball had no business sense & would have bankrupted the Homestead.” Mitelman did not get the answer, which was “Napoleon the pig speaking.” Another contestant said “I’m pretty happy the rabbi didn’t know about the pigs!”

C. The category was “Pick a Pope,” and the clue read: “Was guilty of excommunicating the heretic Pelagius.” Mitelman did not get the answer, which was “Pope Innocent.” Another contestant said “I’m pretty happy the rabbi didn’t know about the popes!”

D. The category was “Historic Nicknames,” and the clue read: “Learning her craft from Tessie the Tassel-Twirler, this burlesque artist was ‘The Best Undressed Woman in America’.” Mitelman did not get the answer, which was “Gypsy Rose Lee.” Another contestant said “I’m pretty happy the rabbi didn’t know about the strippers!”

E. The category was “Alliterative Commentators” and the clue read: “These commentators cover the gamut of topics from Aggadah to Zohar.” The answer was “Rashi, Rambam, and Rashbam,” but Rabbi Gitelman incorrectly answered “Rashi, Rambam and Ramalamadingdong.” Another contestant said, “I’m pretty happy the rabbi guessed that. I’ve been wanting to ask this question for a long time. So Rabbi, can you tell me, who put the ram in the Ramalamadingdong?”

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College Admissions Scandal

Last week saw the indictment of celebrities, financiers, coaching and admissions personnel, entrance exam administrators, and others, all of whom participated in a college admissions cheating and bribery scandal led by William “Rick” Singer. This is by no means the first time that college admissions has been shown to have a dark side, including a long history of quotas and other procedures meant to limit admission of Jews and other minorities. In fact, the addition of interviews, letters of recommendation, and a focus on qualities other than high school academic performance (including extra-curricular activities, particularly participation in sports) goes back 100 years, as part of an effort to limit the number of Jews admitted to Harvard and other prestigious institutions. In 1922, Harvard University added a question to be asked of applicants which was clearly intended to help identify Jewish students: “What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully).” Which of the following are also real examples of stories from a century ago regarding efforts to limit Jewish acceptance to Ivy League schools?

Yale Logo: Urim v'Thummim, Lux Et Veritas (Light and Truth)

Yale 1 by SubtlePanda is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A. Francis Parsons, who was a fellow of the Yale Corporation, noticed a large number of Jewish names listed among the Yale  freshman class of 1929, leading him to write the following to the chair of admissions at the university: “This list reads like some of the ‘Begat’ portions of the Old Testament.”

B. In 1927, a Yale alumnus wrote a letter complaining that his donations to the school were being used to educate “Yids.” The school’s associate treasurer responded saying, “It will interest you to know that we are making every effort to remedy the condition.’’

C. In 1922, Harvard’s president, A. Lawrence Lowell, proposed a quota to lower the number of Jews gaining admission to the university. Lowell argued that this would benefit the Jews at Harvard because “The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews.”

D. There is a folder from the early 1920’s in Yale University’s archive labeled “Jewish Problem.” Among the documents in the folder is a memo from the university’s admissions chairman urging a limit on the acceptance of “the alien and unwashed element.’’

EIn 1922, the Yale Board of Trustees voted in secret to enact a quota on Jewish students, and then discussed ways to ensure that this would not become public information. As part of their coverup, they decided to take actions which would imply that Yale was friendly to Jews despite the reality. These included adding the Hebrew words “Urim v’Thummim,” meaning “Light and Truth” to the official Yale logo, as well as giving their students the nickname “Elis,” claiming that this was a way to give honor to the people of Elijah the Prophet. In a further effort to create a positive association between Yale and the Jewish community, the university purchased the Yale Lock Company and renamed it Yale Lox.

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