Oy vey: How to avoid being a shmendrik or a schmo when working with Jewish terms and topics

I often joke that one of the best Easters I ever had was the time I celebrated Passover.

It was one of my first years living alone in Missouri when my friend Adam asked if I’d be interested in coming over for Passover Seder, a traditional meal with family and friends often held on the first night of Passover.

I spent half the night asking two basic questions: “What does X thing we’re doing now mean?” and “Is there meat in this?” (The Seder took place on Good Friday, so I had that no-meat thing happening as a Catholic kid.) Adam, Lee and all the folks who had done this before were more than happy to help me figure things out. My only regret is that they let me eat too much matzoh, which felt like it was expanding in my stomach and making me want to die.

This week marks the end of Passover for this year, so in honor of the timing of this event, I thought I’d roll out some of the worst media errors tied to misunderstanding, misinterpreting or just just screwing up things associated with Judaism and a couple basic rules to prevent making these mistakes in the first place.


If it doesn’t make sense, ask again

A lot of people will have trouble capturing quotes from sources who use terms that are unfamiliar to them. This is why it’s always important to ask the person to either repeat the quote or clarify it. If you don’t know something for sure or it’s not making sense, don’t use the quote. That will help you avoid a correction like this one:


The term “sitting shiva” refers to a week-long period of mourning in the Jewish faith. Close relatives of a person who died stay at home and greet family and friends. According to Forward.com, the New York Times similarly screwed up a shiva-related item in its coverage of “JSwipe,” an app for Jewish singles that is akin to Tinder. (The paper also misused another Jewish term, yentas.) If the reporter didn’t know that was what the sheriff was referring to, that might be fine. However, I have no idea who thought people would “sit and shiver.”

The Wall Street Journal made a similar gaffe in quoting someone, who was discussing a story from the Old Testament:


The story at issue came from the Book of Numbers, in which the Israelites had become angry with Moses for bringing them out of Egypt to a place with no food or water. God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff and when Moses did, water flowed from it. (I’m paraphrasing a bit here.) However, the Journal reporter referenced a country that didn’t get any version of that name until the third century (at the earliest) and wasn’t modernly defined until the 20th century. Even if it had been around, it’s unclear why the reporter thought Moses decided to undertake a 500-mile irrigation plan.

Basic rule: If you’re not sure, ask again. If it still makes no sense, don’t use it.


“Like a Christmas tree to celebrate Easter”

Just because something is associated with a group, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can just slap it on anything you’re doing about that group and call it good. One of my friends pointed me to this photo that was used in a tweet by a political organization in Canada to wish people a “Happy Passover:”


As news reports on the issue pointed out, the two people here are making challah, a braided egg-bread that is eaten on almost every Jewish holiday. The problem? Passover is one of those outside of the “almost every” holiday list, as leavened items are banned. It took several hours for this tweet and image to come down, as the one person who had access to the group’s social media account couldn’t be reached.

A fellow educator pointed out a similar problem when it comes to the use of menorah photos in ads or with news stories:

(This is like) using the wrong menorah for Chanukah on the promo. There are two kinds of menorahs: the Chanukah one has 9 candles and the weekly one has 7.

Basic rule: Not all symbols are created equal, so don’t try to “spruce up” your coverage of something based on a limited understanding of the topic. It’s akin to having someone who doesn’t understand Christianity say, “Happy Easter! I brought you a pine tree!”


Look it up

The initial title for this post involved the word “putz.” I looked it up and found out that, although the colloquial version of this word roughly translates to dummy, twerp or idiot, it literally means “penis.” I then moved on to shmuck (or schmuck in some cases), only to find that this word, too, literally means “penis.” In short, I learned two things:

  1. My knowledge of Jewish insults isn’t as great as I thought it was.
  2. It seems most of the insults I knew had something to do with male genitalia.

The point is that I looked these things up before assuming I knew what it meant so I didn’t embarrass myself when I misused the word. I also found that there are multiple spellings and some difficult pronunciations to some words. (The Jewish-English Lexicon was a real lifesaver.)

This revelation could be helpful for people who are in broadcast and might not be able to sound out the words they want to use:

Chutzpah refers to things like nerve, gall and shamelessness. I would argue it takes some serious chutzpah to try to fake your way through a pronunciation on live TV.

Or to just “guess” at a word because it sounds close, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did in a letter to a Jewish constituent. Walker signed off the letter with the line, “Thank you again and Molotov!

Walker was trying to come up with “mazel tov,” a term that means “congratulations” or “good fortune.”

On the other hand, Molotov is generally used as a shortened reference to a “Molotov cocktail,” which is a bottle-and-wick fire bomb:



Basic rule: The dictionary never hurt anyone, so don’t be afraid to use it.

In picking through these various levels of disaster-bacles, I hit up a bunch of people I know who have a better overall understanding of the faith, the traditions and more to see what they thought when they saw this. Adam, who ended up being the best man at my wedding years later, chipped in to the conversation with some good advice that I thought would bring this post full circle:

To me this just gets back to fact-checking 101. If you don’t understand a court hearing you went to, ask a veteran lawyer or judge or even a reporting colleague to explain what just happened. Don’t understand a Jewish ritual? Same deal. Ask a rabbi, or somebody at your local campus Hillel, or a Jewish colleague, etc.

When I covered Roman Catholic services or other news events, I double- and triple-checked every dang detail, even the ones I thought I was pretty sure about. And nobody with the diocese, or my Catholic colleagues, minded that I asked and asked and asked again. They were happy I was trying to be accurate.

In my view, there’s no more or less of an excuse for screwing up a Jewish fact as any other fact.





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