Jewish Trivia Quiz

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


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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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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