Bare-bones Judaism in one easy lesson

A couple of days after Passover, I eavesdropped on the following conversation among three 20-something guys; one was Jewish, the other two were not.
July 29, 2010

A couple of days after Passover, I eavesdropped on the following conversation among three 20-something guys; one was Jewish, the other two were not.

Non-Jewish Guy No. 1: What did you do this weekend?
Jewish Guy: Went to my mom’s house for Passover.

Non-Jewish Guy No. 2: What’s Passover?

Jewish Guy: When you eat matzah instead of bread.

Non-Jewish Guy No. 2: Why? Like, what’s the point of Passover?

Jewish Guy: I don’t actually know.

Non-Jewish Guy No. 1: You don’t know the point of Passover? I know and I’m not even Jewish, dude. Passover is when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, and Moses went to the Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go!” And Pharaoh said, “No way!” How can you be Jewish and not know that, man?

I silently concurred with Non-Jewish Guy No. 1: How can you be Jewish and not know the Exodus story? That is akin to a Christian unwrapping Christmas gifts oblivious to the fact that Dec. 25 marks Jesus Christ’s birthday.

Unfortunately, Jewish Guy may be the new norm instead of an anomaly. I have gone to several bar mitzvahs recently where it was difficult to distinguish Jewish guests from non-Jewish guests. Both groups watched impassively as the rabbi and the bar mitzvah boy went through their respective Jewish moves: blessings before and after the Torah, standing when the ark was opened and the explanation of that week’s Torah portion without registering a flicker of recognition. Jew and non-Jew looked on with the same dumbfounded expression one typically sees at rugby matches and on the faces of California’s legislators discussing the budget.

Let me say right up front that I’m far from a Jewish scholar. My formal Jewish education consists mainly of attending Hebrew/religious school for several years when I was a kid, the occasional adult Jewish education class at my synagogue, a recent week spent at Brandeis University meeting with a Who’s Who of the Jewish world, and cramming with my daughter for her “Jewish text” final at New Community Jewish High School a few months ago. My Hebrew reading, I’m embarrassed to admit, has been on a downhill slide since my bat mitzvah. But, if “Jeopardy!” had a category called “The Least You Need to Know About Judaism,” I’m quite sure I could sweep it.

Are there certain Judaism basics every Jew should know?

Thinking about it another way, if the same question were posed about mathematics, I think we would agree that one should be able to add, subtract, multiply and calculate pi to the seventh digit. American history? That Christopher Columbus discovered America, George Washington was our first president, and the war in Afghanistan was led for a time by a general who thought it was a good idea to tell a Rolling Stone reporter that the vice president of the United States is a moron. Science, in a nutshell, is: What goes up must come down.

While you undoubtedly have your own list of what should appear on a Judaism GED exam, here is my list of what I think every self-respecting Jew should know.


If you surveyed 100 Jewish men and asked why Jews are traditionally circumcised, 89 percent of them would say, “It was my mother’s way to make sure I didn’t end up with a shiksa.” The other 11 percent would assume it has some connection to Jews’ affinity for head coverings. Neither is correct. The reason that Jews are circumcised on the eighth day is because Abraham (see Jewish Bigwigs below) was commanded by God at the age of 99 to circumcise himself, his son Ishmael and the other men with him as a sign of the covenant between Abraham and God. The eighth day is specified in the Torah.


According to HebCal.com, there are 45 holidays or special dates that Jews (theoretically) observe. Don’t panic. You don’t need to be familiar with most of them. The majority of these “holidays” are “special” Shabbats and other random observances that only appear on the rabbinic school exit exam. I think you can proudly wear your Star of David necklace if you know the basics about the following five.

Contrary to popular belief, Chanukah is not a Jewish Christmas, but a completely unrelated holiday that commemorates the battle waged by Judah Maccabee and his brothers against the Syrian King Antiochus, who had ordered all Judeans to worship the Greek gods. Long story short, the Maccabees kicked Antiochus’ Greek-god-worshipping butt. So why eight candles and eight nights? Because when the Jews went to relight the Ner Tamid (the eternal light), a day’s worth of oil miraculously lasted for eight nights. (I’m proud to say I started the rumor that Toyota stole the idea for the Prius from the Maccabees.)

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
I suspect that even Jewish Guy knows that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, but Yom Kippur sometimes is a stumper because so much of the service is in Hebrew, and it is difficult to pay attention when all you think of is the bagel reward you receive at the end of the day. On your Jewish holiday cheat sheet write: “Yom Kippur — Say you’re sorry, and promise to be good.”

I was on the fence about including Purim because it has basically been diluted into a day where Jewish kids show up at synagogue in recycled Halloween costumes. I can accept SpongeBob living in a pineapple under the sea, but attending synagogue is a bit of a stretch. If a non-Jew asks you about Purim and you work “Queen Esther” and “Haman” into the conversation, you will appear fairly knowledgeable. And if you can make an argument to support your case that poppy seed hamantashen are superior to the chocolate version, you will really impress.

Non-Jewish Guy No. 1 summed up the holiday nicely, but if you want to learn more, read the Book of Exodus or rent “The Ten Commandments” from Netflix.


For the most part, these are easy to remember because you simply need to think of the names of your great-uncles — Abe (Abraham), Isaac, Aaron — and two of the more popular kids’ names: Noah and Jacob. For some reason, Moses is not a popular name for either great-uncles or kids, so you will just have to write that one on your hand with a Sharpie.

Abraham is the first Jew (if you said Adam, do not pass go and do not collect $200); Isaac was Abraham’s kid with Sarah; Jacob was Isaac’s son; Moses stood up to Pharaoh and received the Ten Commandments from God; Aaron was Moses’ brother and spokesperson; and Noah built the ark. (I highly recommend that you don’t attempt to learn any more about Noah because he really wasn’t that great; basically, he was the best of the worst.)


In addition to the above, it would be nice if every Jew knew the “Shema,” which says that we believe in just one God. (What do Jews for Jesus do during this part of their service?) And in a perfect Jewish world, every Jew would know the blessings, which are sung before and after reading from the Torah. If you don’t know them, download them from iTunes (the 1-minute, 28-second version is the best), and practice when you are on the treadmill at the gym.

Please feel free to copy this article and pass it out to any Jew sitting next to you at a bar mitzvah who is moving his finger from left to right over the Hebrew text, pretending to follow along. And if you find yourself on “Jeopardy!” and the category for the final answer is “Stuff Every Jew Should Know,” bet it all.

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