Why are Jews so different – Judaism 101 in Transit

Judaism 101

An au pair girl from Europe was telling her friends back home about the American Jewish family she worked by for a year.

“They have very strange festivals”, she exclaimed.

“There’s a day called Shabbat, when they eat in the dining room and smoke in the bathroom”.

“Then they have something called Tisha B’Av, when they eat in the bathroom and smoke in the dining room”.

“And then there’s a day called Yom Kippur, when they eat and smoke in the bathroom…”.

The au pair girl might have remained ignorant of real Jewish practices for the entire year she was working, simply because she was too shy to ask a member of the family the reasoning behind their strange actions. But then they might not have known the real reasoning either and that was the cause of their inconsistency in religious practice in the first place…

I believe that when a Jew is on the road then he or she is an unofficial ambassador of the Jewish People and should react accordingly. Whether one covers their head and dresses in a way that makes them look Jewish or not, is not the point I want to convey. What’s important (in my opinion) is that you know how to respond to honest curiosity and questions in a way which leaves them more knowledgeable (and even respectful ) of who we are.

When you travel long distances, people tend to chat with their neighbors and fellow travelers. Eventually your religion will be mentioned (unless one hides the fact zealously) and the topic of Judaism or the State of Israel or religion in general could come up.

“Oh, you’re Jewish? I know someone Jewish from back home. If you’ve already mentioned it, I have a question. Why do Jews do…(fill in the blank)?”.

They might ask you about the reasoning behind Kosher food, the restriction of work on the Sabbath or about not eating bread on Pesach. Maybe they’ll inquire about the Jewish perspective on dating and marriage or your opinion on intermarriage and premarital sex. They may ask about festivals and the difference between Chanukah and Christmas. They may be interested in the various movements in Judaism and about why the so-called ultra-Orthodox are so different. They might have even heard about the Hassidic Movement and its customs and they’re fascinated to learn more.

Once the topic is opened, the options for questions and discussion are endless. At that moment you’re not merely a private citizen with your own opinions and religious practices. You’ve suddenly become an unofficial representative of the Jewish People, irrespective of your personal beliefs. But you freeze and your mind goes blank because you’re not very sure yourself why Jews do…(fill in the blank).

Even if you respond that you personally don’t observe or keep a particular practice or tradition, it’s still important for you to know exactly what it is that you are (or aren’t) practicing. As far as your partner in conversation is concerned you are the sole source of Jewish knowledge on the continent.

I’m aware that giving clear-cut, authoritative and definitive answers on Judaism isn’t for everybody. There are countless fine religious Jews who haven’t the faintest idea how to explain basic Jewish terms in clear and simple words, even to their fellow Jew. So when it comes to explaining to a non-Jew, why we don’t drink their wine and why we don’t intermarry with them and why we don’t eat their food and why we don’t enter their house of worship, one can really get flustered and start stammering.

I firmly believe that every Jewish traveler should be prepared with answers to the basic questions on Jewish practice and belief. Of course it’s hard to study everything in advance, so I’d like to share with you a few great resources for getting trustworthy and in-depth information on the road.

traveling ambassador jewish people
Judaism 101

My favorite site is called Judaism 101 at www.jewfaq.org. It contains clear and definitive information on hundreds of Jewish topics. The site is very light on the graphics. It’s nearly all text with clip-art, so the site loads very fast.  The author Tracey Rich put in clear categories of topics including IDEAS, PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS, WORDS, DEEDS, TIMES, LIFE CYCLE and REFERENCE.

Rich also categorizes topics according their level of complexity and for whom the topic is intended, including BASIC, INTERMEDIATE, ADVANCED and even GENTILE. He really deals with an enormous amount of topics so you can get a quick definition for countless questions.

I just checked out the site on my smartphone and he’s definitely mobile ready. This means that if you’re on a train in South America with a bunch of backpackers and you get the Jewish question, just click the site and you’ll have an answer in a few moments. Of course I recommend going through the site BEFORE you leave on a trip, to get an idea of what’s available there and how to find it.


Another excellent site is Aish.com

This site run by the Aish Hatorah Rabbinical Collage in Jerusalem (they’re located facing the Western Wall) delves deep into all aspects of Jewish philosophy, tradition and practice in an engaging and popular style. Like Jewfaq.org its mobile ready. You’ll need to study the material in your free time according to what interests you. It isn’t for looking up a quick answer to a live question while waterskiing.

Next time someone asks you a question on Judaism, don’t be shy. Speak up. You’ll feel prouder of your heritage. And most of the answers are just a click away…