Trivially pursuing a Jewish I.Q.

Every student knows that learning is easier if it is fun. Make a game of the lesson. Create an incentive for fulfilling the assignment. Wrap the task in an attractive and motivating challenge that can lead to the true seduction of knowledge and understanding. Organize the search for answers like a television game show, with competitors revealing their command of multitudinous facts and trivia.

Rabbi Alex J. Goldman provides an example of both the pluses and minuses of the “Jeopardy” approach to Jewish learning in his modest little paperback, “What’s Your Jewish I.Q.?”

On one hand, the author reminds us of the venerable tradition of question-and-answer pedagogy as practiced by Socrates, and of the responsa of Jewish sages over the centuries, based upon Sheelot U-Tshuvot, in which people query their rabbis.

On the other hand, Socrates asked questions to nurture understanding, not to drill his students on facts. And the tradition of responsa, while it may provide knowledge, offers no guarantee of enlightenment. The book is filled with questions of what, when, where and how. But it generally lacks questions of why? What is the meaning of Purim? is about as close as it comes to the search for significance, a real component of intelligence.  

The book will stimulate curiosity, so it succeeds in that limited sense. But its content reads more like an almanac than a guide to becoming smart, at least Jewishly speaking. For example, we learn that both Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor converted to Judaism before marrying their third husbands! This may not be Jewish knowledge and information on the level of the symbols of Rosh Hashanah (addressed elsewhere in the book), but it’s certainly fascinating (if not at all useful).

It would have been more accurate to title this thin volume “What’s Your Jewish Pop Culture I.Q.?” Questions are drawn from some 52 categories including film, television, musicians, comedy, sports, authors, artists and political figures. The classification is more Jewish in such sections as Talmud, Jewish calendar, the Sabbath, bar mitzvah, Sukkot, Israel, etc.

Furthermore, at a time when the concept of intelligence quotient is being revised and recast by such (Jewish) cognitive scientists as Howard Gardner at Harvard, it may be misleading to continue to endorse the mere acquisition of a smorgasbord of Jewish facts (or more properly, credits) as “intelligence.” Psychologists now better understand the complexity of human intellectual operations, and the critique of I.Q. and I.Q. testing is broad and deep. Goldman’s book really belongs to the old mindsets that offer what is now perceived to be a much more limited description of the content and process of cognitive functioning.

Ultimately “What’s Your Jewish I.Q.?” isn’t about thinking at all, but just an exercise in memory and name recognition, with questions and answers designed to simply inform rather than to educate in a more meaningful sense. The book does chronicle in an unsystematic manner the diverse contributions of Jews in the popular culture, but whether this opens up new vistas of Jewish culture remain to be decided by individual readers.

Nevertheless the Q&A lists are occasionally entertaining. Even those with a high Jewish I.Q. in Goldman’s sense may be surprised to learn that Hank Greenberg was not only the first Jew to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, but that he played in a World Series on Rosh Hashanah but would not do so on Yom Kippur. Is the world better off now that I know that? Frankly, I don’t feel any smarter, Jewishly or otherwise.

“What’s Your Jewish I.Q.?” by Rabbi Alex J. Goldman (113 pages, Citadel Press, $12).