Margin of error
October 9, 2013
Above all, [the new Pew survey of American Jews] vindicates a thesis championed by the late sociologist Gary Tobin. He argued that calling up a random stranger and asking right off the bat about their religion is a sure way to get a false reading. Many people regard the matter as private. That will be especially true of Jews.... Well, the Pew folks say they started off by asking respondents about the quality of life in their neighborhoods and then came around to bringing up religion….— J.J. Goldberg, writing in the Forward
Caller One: Hello, can I speak to the head of the household?
Caller Two: This is Mrs. Weiss.
Caller One: Hello, Mrs. Weiss. I am calling from the Pew Research Center...
Mrs. Weiss: The Jew Research Center?
Caller One: No ma’am, it’s Pew. We’re doing a public opinion survey and wanted to know if you would answer a few questions.
Mrs. W: About what?
Caller One: Oh, you know, this and that. Maybe something about the quality of life in your neighborhood, do you own any pets, where will you daven for yontef.
Mrs. W: What was the last one?
Caller One: Never mind. So here’s the first question. Which of the following describes your neighborhood: a) suburban, b) urban, c) you can walk to houses of worship, or d) you can’t get good deli for miles.
Mrs. W: A?
Caller One: Okay. Question two. Would you describe your neighbors as a) upper class, b) middle class, c) working class, or d) applying for a day school scholarship even though their last bat mitzva was an extravaganza?
Mrs. W: B. But I really don’t know what this…
Caller One: Let’s keep going. What do your neighbors like to do on a Sunday morning? Is it a) go to the mall, b) go to church, c) read The New York Times over bacon and eggs, or d) read The New York Times over bagels and lox?
Mrs. W: Really, I’m very busy at the moment.
Caller One: That’s fine. We’re almost done. If your neighbor’s son married someone of the same sex, would the parents a) pretend they were roommates, b) tell each other whose fault it is, c) insist he convert, or d) wonder if this improves their chances of getting the announcement into The New York Times?
Mrs. W: I’m not sure what you’re driving at here…
Caller One: Please Mrs. Weiss, we only have a few more questions. Let’s pretend it’s December, and I need to find your house. Would I a) consult Google maps, b) plug your address into Garmin, c) turn left at the rod and reel club, or d) look for the houses without Christmas lights?
Mrs. W: Are you asking if I’m Jewish?
Caller One: Well, that’s up to you, ma’am. But now that you’ve brought up religion, I might have one or two hundred questions.
Mrs. W: Actually, my last name is German. I’m not Jewish.
Caller One: Why didn’t you say so in the first place?
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.