Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Urban bubbe meises

Linked to at DovBear's Blog

Blogger Wolfish Musings recently wished for a Jewish version of Snopes, the premier site for investigating urban legends. He made this wish after receiving an email listing ten "proofs" of the Moshiach's imminent arrival. As it stands, such a site already exists, and it is called Jewish Legends. Unfortunately, it lacks the scope or professionalism of Snopes.

Snopes was hardly the first urban legend-debunking site, but it took a new approach to the subject. For one thing, unlike previous sites of its kind, Snopes didn't deal exclusively with tall tales. Some of the claims that Snopes investigates end up being true. According to Snopes, what sets urban legends apart is not their truth value but their mode of transmission. They're the types of stories you "know" happened because you heard it from a friend of a friend (or read in an email forwarded to you by a friend). Occasionally such stories may in fact be accurate or nearly accurate. The problem is verifying them, and that's where Snopes comes in. It categorizes the truth value of stories with a red light for false, a yellow for uncertain, and a green for true.

Jewish Legends adopts the same color-coding, but with Stars of David instead of traffic lights. Unlike Snopes, it includes roughly the same number of "green" stories as "red" stories. Because so much of it is true, the site begins to sound more like a weird news page than an urban legends page.

Some of the green stories are reasonable choices, such as the report that Coca Cola tastes better during Passover season than during the rest of the year, because it uses sugar instead of corn syrup. Religious Jews are aware of this fact, but because it's so word-of-mouth, it's the type of claim for which verification is useful, if for no other reason than to convince skeptics.

But why do we need the site to tell us, for example, that the first pro-baseball player was Jewish? That may be a noteworthy fact in itself, but it's not a story that has been passed around by word of mouth. I had never heard the story before I came to the site, so it's probably not something that was in need of investigation.

Likewise, the site puts Christopher Columbus's Jewishness in the yellow category. That belief is not an urban legend by any definition. It is a legitimate hypothesis still being debated by scholars.

I also wonder why the site bothers itself with answering the Protocols or the business about a kosher tax. Once you start getting into the debunking of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, your task is practically endless. And it gives the site a graver tone than a discussion about urban legends ought to have. Is the site going to start taking on Holocaust deniers? That would be a perfect way to kill the fun.

The site's best entries include whether the name of the Satmar sect comes from "Saint Mary," whether the Israeli archaeologist Vendyl Jones was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, whether Mordechai was Esther's uncle, and whether "hip hip hooray" has anti-Semitic origins. (Click the links to find out the answer to each of those questions.) Those are all beliefs that have swirled around the Jewish community for quite some time, and are worthy of investigation. I just wish the site would also tackle more current stuff, like the chain emails targeted at Jews. And the weird news entries, interesting as they may be, should at least be placed in a separate section and be less focused upon.

The site seems to have an Orthodox standpoint, but it never tells you that it does. It considers the existence of the Golem to be an open question. It asserts that the actor Ben Stiller, contrary to popular belief, is not Jewish (his father is, and his mother had a Reform conversion before he was born). I suspect that Ben Stiller would disagree.

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