Who is the latest Jewish trivia whiz?


Answer: Jason Keller. The man who won $213,900 over the course of nine episodes on Jeopardy!, the classic quiz show, now envisions traveling to Israel for competitive Scrabble.

While many Jews who have never been to Israel anticipate their first visit to the Western Wall, Jason Keller also has the Tel Aviv Scrabble Club—one of the world’s largest clubs of its kind—in mind.

A brainy tour of the Holy Land would only be natural for the 30-year-old Highland Park, NJ, resident, who last month won $213,900 during a nine-episode run on Jeopardy!, the classic answers-and-questions quiz show.

“I would love to see everything that Israel has to offer,” Keller said. “I really want to tour the country, but I’ll admit that if I happen to go during a time when there’s a Scrabble tournament, I may go to the Scrabble tournament.”

Appearing on Jeopardy! marked the fulfillment of a 16-year quest for Keller, who benefitted from a lifelong appreciation for trivia and brain games. He had been sending postcards and self-addressed stamped envelopes to the show since he was a teenager.

When the registration process evolved to online testing as the first qualifying filter, Keller passed that test four separate times and received three in-person auditions. Eventually, he wowed producers by telling them about his friendships with former Jeopardy! contestants through Scrabble tournaments, quiz bowls and other events.

“This is something that I’ve wanted for a really long time, and I’ve usually been an optimist,” he said. “I always felt that it would happen eventually.”

Nearly three months after his June audition, Keller was called to appear in late October. The show tapes five shows a day, two days a week, and Keller’s first game was the final show of a Tuesday taping.

As he stood on the stage, Keller grew more excited hearing famed announcer Johnny Gilbert:

“This…is…Jeopardy!”

From the middle position—between Leslie Hamilton, a teacher and swim coach from Erlanger, Ky., and one-day champ Beth Watkins, a graduate student of medieval studies from Savannah, Ga.—the exam prep tutor was ready.

“There were some nerves, but it was more like ‘Here we go,’” Keller said. “I was more nervous sitting in the audience before my game. By the time I got up there, I felt relieved, and thought I would just see what happened. I thought I had a pretty good shot.”

Keller took control of the game early, accumulating $7,000 after the first round and $20,200 heading into Final Jeopardy, $6,400 more than second-place Hamilton.

The final answer, “A Roman legal term for a debtor sentenced to servitude is the origin of this term for a slave to a vice,” stumped Keller’s opponents, and his response of “What is addict?” made him a champion.

“I prepared myself for everything, from the best to the worst,” he said. “I dreamed about winning game number 75 [thus setting a record] and having all this confetti in the studio and having [former Jeopardy champion] Ken Jennings watching. I also had visions of getting on one show, having the categories not go my way and being really angry about it afterward.”

Keller’s winnings were the sixth-most in Jeopardy’s long history and the largest of the current season. His nine-day run is also among the longest since the show relaxed its rule that forced champions to retire after five straight wins.

During his run, Keller defeated an elementary school teacher, comedy writer, travel specialist, medical student, grocer, librarian, chef and assistant principal, among others. Keller gave the most correct responses in each of his nine wins, answering 229 questions in that span.

Three times, he entered Final Jeopardy as a runaway winner—meaning he had more than twice the amount of the second-place score—and twice won despite trailing.

With his fifth win, Keller guaranteed himself a spot in the Tournament of Champions.

“That was my first thought,” he said. “Not a lot of people get to do that. It was just wonderful.”

Keller wished his mother a happy birthday on his 10th show, which aired Dec. 29, thanking her for instilling in him a love of all games. They played Wheel of Fortune when he was a child, and Jeopardy eventually became an evening viewing staple.

He got a Scrabble board in third grade, learned how to play chess from his dad, and learned card games from his grandparents.

After a whirlwind weekend of commuting between coasts, Keller lost despite a last-minute charge. Tired by the taping of that day’s fourth episode, Keller didn’t know that the correct response to, “Concluding a four-book series, his 2004 novel ‘Folly and Glory’ features Kit Carson, William Clark & Jim Bowie,” was author Larry McMurtry.

He lost to Dave Leach, a software analyst from Atlanta, Ga., who also didn’t know the answer.

“I knew that [McMurtry was] a writer who does stories about the West, but I don’t know if I would’ve come up with that about him,” Keller said. “I was disappointed. There’s always regret when it’s over. You love the experience, and you don’t want it to end.”

For the Tournament of Champions, Keller will seek to improve his breadth of knowledge. While he thrived at geography, opera, women in sports and literature, he considers movies, animals and questions that ask for specific dates as weaknesses.

Raised in a Conservative Jewish home, Keller became intrigued with the prospect of traveling to Israel after hearing about his younger brother’s experiences on a Taglit-Birthright trip.

But for his next public endeavor, Keller is thinking bigger, picturing himself in physical jeopardy while dashing around the world on The Amazing Race.

“There could be a bunch of different angles,” Keller said with a laugh. “My younger brother thinks we should go on together. I could do the brainy stuff, and he can do the physical stuff. Or maybe they’d want two long-running Jeopardy! champions [on a team].”

Rabbi loses title on ‘Jeopardy!’


Rabbi Joyce Newmark failed to defend her title on the television game show “Jeopardy!”

Newmark, a Conservative rabbi and a member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, N.J., lost on a show aired Tuesday night after easily defeating two other opponents the previous night and winning $29,200.

As is her general practice, Newmark, 63, wore a yarmulke during both tapings.

What is “Rabbi who won big at Jeopardy?” (Clue: Joyce Newmark)


Jews have a reputation for answering a question with a question. That might help explain Rabbi Joyce Newmark’s big news—she is now a “Jeopardy!” champion.

In an episode of the television game show aired Monday, Newmark had no problem defeating two other contestants and finishing with $29,200.

The 63-year-old Conservative rabbi hosted a viewing party Monday night at the Teaneck synagogue Congregation Beth Sholom, where she is a member.

The episode, which was recorded Feb. 2 in Culver City, Calif., aired 20 years to the day of Newmark’s graduation from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

A member of the first class of Wexner Graduate Fellows, she has served congregations in Lancaster, Pa., and Leonia, N.J., but currently writes and lectures.

Prior to rabbinical school, Newmark spent more than 15 years in management consulting and banking.

As is her general custom, Newmark wore a yarmulke during the taping of the show. The headcovering has been part of her garb since 1987.

“The interesting thing is that nobody said a thing about the kipah,” she said. “Since I was introduced as a rabbi, they may have just thought it was normal.”

Newmark had auditioned unsuccessfully for “Jeopardy!” in 2006 before her successful tryout in 2010.

While her profession was not a main focus of her appearance, it did not go unnoticed.

“As soon as I sat down in the makeup chair—the worst part of the entire experience—the makeup lady immediately began telling me why she had decided to take her son out of Jewish day school,” Newmark recalled.

Alex Trebek, the show’s longtime host, was interested in her profession, asking off-camera about how long female rabbis had been around and if there were any female Orthodox rabbis. (Newmark was not the first female rabbi to appear on “Jeopardy!”—that distinction belongs to a young Reform spiritual leader from several years ago who didn’t have much luck on the show.)

Once the cameras started rolling, Trebek introduced Newmark as a rabbi, but then went on to ask her about her experience at Woodstock, where she stayed at a motel rather than camp out.

Before the episode aired, Newmark wasn’t able to divulge much about what happened on the show, though she did insist that being a rabbi did not give her a leg up on any of the questions.

Well, maybe one—about which figure in the Bible succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites. Newmark certainly knew the correct response (“Who is Joshua?”), but wasn’t able to buzz in early enough.

She did, however, nail the Final Jeopardy question: “From the Latin for ‘Free,’ this 2-word term for a type of College refers to the old belief of what a free man should be taught.” … “What is liberal arts?”

Newmark was set to return Tuesday night to defend her “Jeopardy!” title.

At her audition, she was asked to fill out a form informing the producers if there were specific dates when she would not be available to tape. She wrote “Jewish holidays.”

Upon receiving the congratulatory call from the show about her selection, Newmark expressed surprise, explaining that she had never expected to be picked.

“We actually were going to call you two months ago,” the show official told Newmark, “but it was during Chanukah, so we figured you couldn’t come.”

(Rabbi Jason Miller is the director of Kosher Michigan, a kosher certification agency, and president of Access Computer Technology, an information technology consulting and social media marketing firm in West Bloomfield, Mich. He blogs at http://blog.rabbijason.com.)

Trivial Matters


The answer is: This 17-year-old from Brentwood will be competing in the "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament starting Feb. 4.

The question: Who is Seth Disner?

Disner, who considers himself a trivia buff, got a chance to test his skills against some of the quickest high schoolers in the country after acing a grueling 50-question qualifying exam. The "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament, taped in December, chose only 15 participants from over 6,000 applicants this year. The contestants were picked from tryouts in Chicago, Orlando, Philadelphia and Cincinnati.

Memorizing tidbits is far from being Disner’s only talent. The high school senior shares some of that knowledge as a teaching assistant at University Synagogue and works both sides of the theatrical stage at the private Brentwood School, building sets and performing in school plays. He has also announced football games for his school’s radio station.

All of that performing experience may have given Disner some advantages under the glaring lights of the "Jeopardy!" studio. But he had one advantage worth even more — the hometown advantage.

"My Latin class took a field trip to see me compete," he says. So while his competitors from far-off cities were greeted with the standard polite applause, the homeboy had more than half the audience in his corner. When his favorite subject — football — showed up as a category in an early round of competition, "I almost cried I was so happy."

We can’t tell you how far young Disner makes it in the tournament, but his mother, Dr. Sandra Disner, did mention the broadcast dates for the semi-final and final rounds a few times. They air starting Feb. 11. The question is: How far will he go?