MSU Bias Busters publish timely guide to American Jews

MSU School of Journalism

American Jews are on the front page this spring for many reasons.

This week (March 20-22, 2016), U.S. presidential candidates are vying for attention at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Coming up is the convergence of Easter (March 27 for Western Christians and May 1 for Eastern Orthodox Christians) and Passover (starting at sundown on April 22, 2016). Those holidays always generate headlines, sometimes referring to the calendar convergence as “crossover holidays.”

In a 2015 poll for The Economist and YouGov, 22 percent of a sample of 1,000 Americans said they acknowledge the holiday commemorating the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. That means about 10 times as many non-Jews say they note the occasion as the 2-3 percent of the country that is Jewish.

Within the Judaism, it’s a Passover tradition for seder hosts to spark discussion of contemporary issues that connect with Jewish tradition and values. Seder hosts often look for thoughtful material to share with participants in addition to the Haggadah booklets that contain the readings and songs seder guests use during the ritual meal.

This new book is written for non-Jews to answer commonly asked questions about Jews and Judaism—but the book was edited with the help of a nationwide panel of Jewish readers. Even though the ideal readers for all of the Bias Busters books are not members of the minority groups featured in these volumes—many Jews are likely to want to read this new book and discuss the answers we have assembled.

Consider the Easter/Passover “crossover,” a phrase that describes the convergence of these ancient holidays. What’s the connection? That question is in keeping with our main goals in producing these guides: We’re helping people to learn about each other. We’re answering the questions that are most commonly asked among friends and colleagues, but that are rarely answered in standard reference books.

We answer the basic, everyday questions people have about each other but might not ask because they are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or embarrassing themselves. We believe that curiosity should be rewarded, not discouraged. These guides are meant to take the sting out of asking questions and to open up conversations. We write these books like real people talk. We hope that when you finish one of these guides, you will have more questions than when you started, as well as more confidence to ask them.

We’re fueling a well-informed national conversation that, in the end, builds healthier communities.

100 Questions and Answers About American Jews is the longest guide in the Bias Busters series, so far. Besides 100 questions and answers, it has new special sections including a guide to holidays by ReadTheSpirit’s Stephanie Fenton, graphics to explain things and a glossary. There are also videos that show you about the Passover seder. Other videos let you see and hear the ram’s horn blown for Rosh Hashanah and show how Torahs are kept and handled.

The questions in this new book include:

  • What is the significance of the small, circular cap some Jewish men wear?
  • Are Jews a race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, culture or a people?
  • How are Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews different?
  • How is Zionism different from Judaism?
  • How many Jewish Holocaust survivors are alive today?
  • Why does it seem like there are so many Jewish holidays?

The guide has sections on identity, religious practices, history, customs, food and stereotypes. Some of the answers might surprise you, but the guide will never scold anyone for asking the question.

And that is key. Journalism students at Michigan State create these guides with the idea that it is important and fun to learn about each other and that a clear, simple guide that answers our most basic questions is a good place to start.

This guide was vetted by 20 people, including five rabbis, to reflect practices among the major streams of Judaism. There is great diversity in Jewish thinking. That is explained in an opening essay by Rabbi Bob Alper, author of the books Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This and Thanks I Needed That. Michigan State Associate Professor Kirsten Fermaglich recounts the social and political history of Jews in America. Her first book was American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares. She is working on another tentatively entitled A Rosenberg by Any Other Name, an exploration of name changing in the United States in the 20th century.

Whether you are already doing the Passover crossover and want to know more or are someone who wants to get in on this interfaith experience, this guide can help you in plenty of time for the holiday.

Joe Grimm is editor of the series and visiting editor in residence in the Michigan State University School of Journalism.


Care to learn more?

Visit our bookstore for more on this book.

Here is one of the videos produced by the Bias Busters team …

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