First the good news: When it comes to knowledge of other world religions, Jews and atheists are at the top of the heap. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked 3,412 Americans age 18 and older 32 questions about their knowledge of religions. Jews knew the most, followed by atheists/agnostics and Mormons.
Here’s the bad news: According to the survey, “large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history, and leading figures of major faith traditions — including their own.”
For example, 45 percent of Catholics missed the question on the meaning of the Communion bread and wine, and about half of Protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the inspiration of the Protestant Reformation. As for knowledge of other religions, only 47 percent of Americans know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist (apparently the survey did not ask, “Is the pope Catholic?”). Fewer than 8 percent of adults know that Maimonides was Jewish.
Of course, simple facts about beliefs and customs don’t tell you the whole story about any religious group. That’s what I’m here for. I can’t help my non-Jewish friends with knowledge of other religions, and if they want to know the basics of Judaism there are plenty of good sources out here. What I can help them with is a deeper understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people, and to answer the kinds of questions Pew should be asking:
Which is the least appetizing Jewish food?
• Gefilte fish
• Pickled herring
Which of the following people do not show up in synagogue on Saturday mornings at the scheduled start time of 9 a.m.?
• The rabbi and the cantor
• The gentile bar mitzva guests
• Everyone else
What is the least common complaint heard in a synagogue?
• The rabbi’s sermon was too short
• There weren’t enough new melodies!
• They’re serving meat at kiddush again?!
What is your favorite episode from the Bible?
• When everyone thought Moses was an Egyptian
• When Abraham bought his ancestors a burial place in Hebron
• When God convinces Pharaoh to let His people go
What is your favorite episode from Seinfeld?
• When everyone thought Jerry was a Nazi
• When Jerry bought a van from “Fragile” Frankie Merman
• When Kramer convinces Jerry to get illegal cable
What is the significance of the number 18?
• In Hebrew numerology, it spells “chai,” or life
• It takes 18 minutes to bake a kosher matza
• In many states, it means a kid can drive the other kids to soccer practice
Which of these is not an actual Jewish custom?
• Swinging a live chicken to expiate one’s sins
• Shaking a citrus fruit to celebrate the harvest
• Aiming a firearm to obliterate a quadruped
Is it okay to do yoga if you’re Jewish?
• Yes, as long as the physical poses are isolated from the spiritual meditations
• No, except if it is being sponsored by Sisterhood
• Maybe, but please check with your chiropractor
Which of these important sayings is not from the Mishna?
• “Who is wise? One who learns from all.”
• “Who is rich? He that rejoices in his portion.”
• “Who is coming? And will we need to put the leaf in the table?”
What is Shemini Atzeret?
• The pen name of Sholom Aleichem’s less talented brother
• A holy day marking the eighth day of Sukkot
• No one really knows — just keep davening
There you go, my non-Jewish friends: The real knowledge you need to understand the Jews. As for the meaning of Communion, you’re on your own.
UPDATE: A colleague in California pointed out that I was mistaken when I wrote that in terms of knowledge of religions, "Jews knew the most, followed by atheists/agnostics and Mormons." According to the survey, Jews score highest on questions about all religions other than Christianity; when you add Christianity, atheists and agnostics come out on top and Jews and Mormons finish a close second. Of course, most of us suspect that the atheists and agnostics are mostly Jews to begin with, but I stand corrected.