Friday, December 9th | 16 Kislev 5783

September 26, 2017 4:57 pm

New York Times Blunders Again on Jewish Literacy

avatar by Ira Stoll


The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times has managed yet another blunder in basic Jewish literacy.

The latest offense comes in an otherwise interesting and so far as I can tell unobjectionable report about a Jewish wedding in Uganda. The Times report includes the claim, “A kittel is a white pocketless linen robe.”

Actually, a kittel — worn by some Jewish men at their weddings, on Yom Kippur, or when leading a Passover Seder — doesn’t have to be made of linen. The website of the Judaica store Eichler’s has a choice of 26 in either 100% cotton or a polyester/cotton blend, but none in linen. The Israel Book Shop has one in a cotton/polyester blend. Amazon has one in a polyester/cotton blend. Ben’s Tallit Shop has two, both in poly/cotton blends.

Wikipedia also inaccurately describes a kittel as a “white linen robe,” but the New York Times is supposed to be more careful than just copying inaccurate information from Wikipedia. Encyclopaedia Judaica’s entry on “Kitel” describes it as a “white garment,” but the word “linen” does not appear at all in the entry.

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This may not seem like such a big deal, but it’s part of a pattern of repeated recent New York Times errors when it comes to basic matters of Jewish religion and ritual, including what week the Sukkot holiday was, the length of the Jewish period of mourning for a spouse, the number of pages in the Talmud and whether beef tenderloin is kosher.

Before the Times eliminated its public editor position, one person who held that position, Margaret Sullivan, wrote, “staff diversity results in better and different coverage.” She expressly included “diversity of religion.” It’s possible that if the Times had more religiously observant or Orthodox Jews among its editing staff, some of these errors would have been caught before publication, saving the newspaper some embarrassment and the erosion of whatever credibility it has.

The Times reporter on this story happens to come from a wonderful and brilliant Jewish family that includes several members of whom I personally am quite fond. But even the best reporters need intelligent, careful, skeptical and knowledgeable editing.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.


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