Created by a Roman Catholic media mogul and hosted by a Canadian Catholic (of Franco-Ontarian and Ukrainian descent) who for years had the most famous mustache in show business, Jeopardy! is not an explicitly Jewish show. But so many of its formal qualities—the search for truth, the hokey sense of humor, the emphasis on erudition and esoteric knowledge, and the indelible role it occupies in the history of show business—jive with the Jewish American experience that it’s hard not to call it a Jewish show, or at the very least Jew-ish. (And this being Hollywood, the program has had its share of Jewish writers.)
What’s more is that Jeopardy! has featured a disproportionate number of Jewish questions—or answers, if we use the proper nomenclature—from Hebrew Bible quotations to major archaeological finds to anecdotes from the life of Herman Wouk. Even one of the show’s earliest episodes, an unaired 1984 pilot featuring a young Alex Trebek, prompted contestants to ask, “What are chopped chicken livers?” (the answer, from a Food category: Jewish deli substitute for “pate de foie gras”). And there have been dozens of Seinfeld questions—from ones about the original name of Jerry’s neighbor—he was briefly called “Hoffman” (and also “Kessler”) before he became “Kramer”—to “yada yada yada.”
In my own experience on the show, I’ve found that deciphering some answers requires a kind of of rapid-fire Talmudic parsing of the text. Whereas the show used to be straight trivia in the early ’90s, now the answers come laden with clues. Sometimes getting it right requires you to quickly piece together these hints, to know that “a painter of sets at the Moscow State Jewish Theater” must refer to Marc Chagall. Why else would your parents have displayed so prominently that poster of one of his shtetl scenes, if not to prepare you for this very moment?
Here, then, are the top 10 Jewish answers—after appearing on the show, I’m contractually obligated to abide by its conventions—from Jeopardy!’s history. Great thanks go to the obsessive and dedicated folks at j-archive.com, which has catalogued more than 222,000 clues from the show’s 28-year history.
December 22, 1987
Category: Films of the ’80s
Answer: In this 1983 musical Barbra Streisand disguises herself as a boy to study the Talmud
Question: What is Yentl?
April 24, 2008
Category: History of the Jewish People
Answer: 1818: The first synagogue of this branch of Judaism opens in Hamburg
Question: What is Reform?
September 10, 1984
Category: Foreign Cuisine
Answer: Jewish crepe filled with cheese
Question: What is a blintz?
October 24, 2005
Category: The Old Testament
Answer: After he went to heaven in a chariot of fire, his servant Elisha inherited his power
Question: Who is Elijah?
March 21, 2007
Category: Jewish History
Answer: Term for attacks on Jews, from the Russian for “destruction;” they started to get bad around 1881
Question: What are pogroms?
December 27, 2006
Answer: Digging in Jerusalem, Eilat Mazar believes she has found the palace of this 10th century B.C. king
Question: Who is David?
November 16, 2009
Answer: Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during this Jewish harvest festival to remind one that life is fleeting
Question: What is Sukkoth?
December 22, 1997
Category: Religious Matters
Answer: The Talmud consists of the Mishnah, the written version of Jewish oral law, & this, commentary on the Mishnah
Question: What is the Gemara?
April 23, 1987
Answer: Wintertime Jewish holiday that’s mentioned in the New Testament but not in the Jewish Bible
Question: What is Hanukkah?
March 4, 2004
Category: Celebrities’ Original Names
Answer: Seinfeld co-star Jay Greenspan
Question: Who is Jason Alexander?
Jacob Silverman is a writer in New York. He’s also the current reigning Jeopardy! champion, having earned $35,998 in three victories. He returns to defend his title on May 14.