It’s about 10:00 AM on tape day, and I’ve had my make up done (which, yes, felt kind of strange), heard the briefing and strategy sessions, practiced my story for my interview with Alex, and signed all the paperwork. And then comes the moment I’ve been waiting for – the twelve of us who are there for tape day (the current champion, the ten contestants for the five days of taping, and an alternate) walk onto the stage for rehearsal.
And as I stand behind the podium, holding the buzzer that feels quite similar to the toilet-paper holder I had used for practice, and stare at the 36 TV screens that display the clues I’ve seeing for years, it truly hits me.
“Ho. Ly. Cow. I’m on the Jeopardy! stage. I’m on the stage. For Jeopardy! I’m actually behind the podium. On. The. Stage.”
Then and there, I make a decision – while I definitely want to win, most importantly, I’m simply going to enjoy this day. And man, was it fun.
If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are curious about what it’s like to be on Jeopardy!, or want some “behind-the-scenes” stories, or are looking for any tips or strategies if you are a future contestant.
You’ll find all that here, but it was such an amazing experience that it required multiple posts. So since I’m a rabbi, on this post, all I’ll talk about here is my Jewish approach to being on Jeopardy! (which is spoiler-free!). If you’re interested in learning more, you can click below to hear more about what happened the day of the taping and details of the show (which does have spoilers), along with what I did to prepare.
HOW MY JUDAISM HELPED MY JEOPARDY! SKILLS
Yes, there were definitely some practical things that I did to get ready for Jeopardy! And yes, I was a little disappointed that the category “Old Testament Names” came up in rehearsal, not on the live show. But more than the facts themselves, there were three main ways my Judaism influenced how I played Jeopardy! — and discovered lessons that can be good for all of us to learn.
1. Control what you can – and realize you don’t know how much control you have
Keith Williams, who runs the excellent site “The Final Wager,” talks almost exclusively about the Final Jeopardy! wagers. Why? Because it’s probably the only thing you can control. As he says, “You can’t do anything about what goes on the board, or how fast your opponents are on the buzzer, or who finds the Daily Doubles.”
In other words, focus on what you can control, and ignore the rest.
That idea was, in fact, the crux of my application to rabbinical school. All potential rabbis who apply to the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion have to choose a Jewish text that inspired us, and to write an interpretation of it. I chose a text from the Babylonian Talmud that says: “When a child is conceived, an angel asks God, ‘Will this child be rich or poor, strong or weak, wise or foolish?’ But the angel does not ask, ‘Will this child be righteous or wicked,’ because ‘all in the hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven.’” (Niddah 16b)
Now, even if you don’t believe in angels – or God, for that matter! – there’s still an important lesson here: we simply don’t get to control how rich, strong, or wise we will be. Yes, we try to get a good-paying job to become richer, or go to the gym to become stronger, or cram facts into our heads to become wiser (or at least smarter).
But we also know that our job might get downsized, or we could pull an hamstring, or there’s a weird category like “Shakira.” Randomness happens, and we simply don’t get to decide how much control we have.
What we can do, though, is use whatever control we have to improve ourselves.
So as I got ready for the show, I prepared, and practiced, and watched dozens of reruns. I studied the topics that were likely to come up and that I was weak in, like American Literature, Art History, or Lakes and Rivers. But even more importantly, I tried to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for a variety of outcomes. I didn’t worry about how good my opponents might be or whether I’d love or hate the categories, and instead focused on simply trying to play my best game.
That’s why, when people asked me, “Were you nervous?”, my answer was “No.” As the cameras rolled, I truly felt like I did everything I could under my own power to give myself the best chance, and I just let everything else go.
2. Pay attention to the small — and seemingly irrelevant — things
On the February 23, 2016 show, there was a category entitled “What’s Your Hurry?” The $200 clue was: “The train with this ‘weaponized’ name was developed for use during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.”
Now, there’s no need to have included the word “weaponized” – the clue would have made perfect sense without it. But that additional information more easily leads to the right response, “What is ‘bullet train’?”
The Jeopardy! writers do this all the time. They put in additional words or phrases that aren’t necessary, but help you get to the right answer. You need to be on the lookout for whatever seems to be irrelevant, because that very “irrelevance” is ultimately trying to teach you something.
Similarly, when Jews read the Torah, we seek out the words that don’t seem to be necessary. The idea is that every word in the Torah has meaning, so if there’s some word or phrase that appears “irrelevant,” it, too, must be there to teach something. That style of reading texts is part of what’s called “midrash,” which comes from the Hebrew word “darash” literally meaning “to demand,” but really means, “to interpret.”
So, for example, in Exodus 24:12, right after Moses receives the Ten Commandments, God tells Moses, “Come up to the mountain and be there.” The Chasidic rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk brings up one of those “irrelevant” words: “If Moses came up on the mountain, he would already be there! So why would God also specify ‘and be there?’” The answer he gives: “Even though he may be standing on the very peak itself, his head may be somewhere else. The goal, you see, is not merely to ascend but also to be there, to be actually present there, and nowhere else.” (cited in Sparks Beneath the Surface, Kushner and Olitzsky, 91).
In other words, if we can look between the lines, and truly pay attention – especially at what seems useless at the time – we can discover new levels of meaning. In fact, for this text from Exodus, both the form and the content are saying the same thing: be fully present and pay attention to the small things.
3. Remember that remembering requires effort
My fifth-grade teacher was in the audience for my appearance, and when I told her how much I studied, she told me, “As your former teacher, I’m really proud of you. As your friend – dude, chill out!”
But this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was not going to blow. So in preparation, I used two main books: The Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions by Chuck Forrest and Mark Lowenthal, which, even though it is now 25 years old, still has some great facts to know about authors, musicians, explorers and science, and Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris, who was a five-time champ, as well as a writer and a comedian.
In Harris’ book, he shared a few of his preparation tips, and the biggest one was to use visual images to shove a ton of facts into your head. I’ll give you an example. I knew that the Mississippi River was long, in the Midwest, started in Minnesota, and that St. Louis and New Orleans were on it, but not much more. So I looked it up, and saw that it the main cities along it were Minneapolis and St. Paul, La Crosse, St. Louis, Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I then created an image – Minnie Mouse and St. Paul playing lacrosse, under the Gateway Arch that’s a large letter “mem” (a Hebrew letter), handed to a red baton, ending in New Orleans. Boom – done.
I did that trick with literature, art, music and dozens of other topics (click here if you want to know the gory details), and realized that consciously remembering things takes a LOT of work.
In Judaism, too, we try to ensure that we remember things. Remember Shabbat. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. Remember the Shoah. As Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf once said, “Uniquely Jewish is the idea of memory as will. Memory is not seen as something that befalls a passive consciousness. It is something purposefully appropriated in awe and love.” (Unfinished Rabbi, 33)
Passover, which is coming up in a month, is a perfect example. The most frequently repeated commandment in the Torah is to “remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” And the Seder itself aims to give us physical and visual cues to help us remember. From the the smell of horseradish to the taste of matzah and charoset to the strange symbols on the Seder plate, Judaism gives us “tricks” to help us remember what is most important, since we know how faulty our memory might be otherwise.
So if you want to remember something, then, you’ve got to invest the time and energy, use tricks to help the facts stick in your brain, and most of all, find joy in all that learning and that studying, because a love of learning goes hand in hand with the importance of memory.
And I loved the studying. I learned so many facts, and so many new memory tricks I can teach my kids. And I felt great pride in realizing that the studying was paying off, even if it just was from my couch. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I felt very incredibly excited to have gotten this Final Jeopardy! right, since I would have never gotten it before I studied.
Ultimately, I probably made about 2,000 flash cards in six weeks, and had a blast testing myself to gain more knowledge.
My wife was very patient and understanding.
There’s one other thing I have to mention about Jeopardy!, and that’s the other contestants. When I would watch the show, I had always wondered why it was that when someone hit the Daily Double, their opponents would clap so hard. Weren’t they trying to win? And why did the people who finished in second or third seem so genuinely happy for the champion?
The answer is that, as you might know, Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, so you spend the whole morning with the other contestants. Everyone is nervous, everyone is excited, and most of all, everyone is fulfilling a lifelong dream. And because of the kinds of people the contestant coordinators select, everyone is also really, really nice.
To me, that’s the most Jewish piece about Jeopardy! — it’s a community of people who simply find learning and knowledge fun. And that community extends beyond the contestants on the show. Even if you just watch from the couch and yell out answers, or get excited when you get Final Jeopardy! right, you’re somebody who enjoys knowing a little more after the show than you did beforehand.
After all, the wonderful thing about both Jeopardy! and Judaism is that they remind us that as we gain more knowledge, we discover that there is always more to learn — and most crucially, a whole new set of questions to ask.