Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Passover is the eight-day Jewish holiday in which we ask questions at the seder table. For one quirky Jewish guy from Washington DC, Sukkot was the eight-day Jewish holiday in which he successfully answered clues with questions.
My kids and I make it a habit of watching the well-known television game show “Jeopardy!” each night. If we skip a few nights, we rely on our TiVo to catch us up as we binge watch several episodes at once. While my young children rarely know the answers to host Alex Trebek’s clues, they really enjoy tuning in each night, and I’m convinced they’re learning something. Over the past week, we’ve been fixated on the interesting, if a bit odd, champion named Matt Jackson. He’s taken the world by storm as he has successfully won eight episodes in a row. While he’s far from catching up to Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 episodes in a row, Jackson has certainly kept the show entertaining. The paralegal has amassed a winnings total of $230,610 so far and will hope to add to that tonight.
Early in the show, Trebek asked Jackson to talk about his “very different” parents.
He responded,“My mother is white, liberal and Jewish, and my dad is black, Christian and conservative.”
Trebek responded, “Whoa — hello!”
The Jewish biracial contestant is only 23 years old and was 22 when he auditioned for the show. As we saw with the lengthy Ken Jennings streak, after several episodes Trebek struggles to find topics to shmooze about with returning champions. On a recent episode before Jackson won his seventh show in a row, Trebek asked him how he acquired all that knowledge.
Jackson explained that it was his grandfather Barnett Berman, a physician at Johns Hopkins University, who stands out as the most influential family member and/or teacher. Jackson said that his middle name is Barnett named for his (maternal) grandfather. “[My grandfather] didn’t just keep to his field. I remember at a Passover seder he tried to figure out who wrote the Torah and went on a long digression. He had a big collection of books. He got a computer, a PC, at a very early stage and taught me to use it.”
*Note: Matt Jackson contacted me to clarify that, “While of course my mother is Jewish and that’s all that matters from the halakhic point of view, I am currently non-religious, or at least entirely non-observant. My Jewish family members are a huge and continual influence on me — particularly through their lived commitment to education — but I don’t want to mislead anybody into thinking I am currently capable of representing Judaism as a faith.”
Matt Jackson’s quirkiness — his awkward smiles at the camera, his quick, loud responses, and his ability to take huge leads over his opponents night after night finding all the Daily Doubles, has led to him quickly becoming a pop culture phenomenon early on in this new season of “Jeopardy!” I love that Jackson has talked openly about his Judaism and his family’s Jewish rituals including the Passover seder. “Jeopardy!” has always struck me as a “very Jewish” game show because it focuses on knowledge and asking questions. It requires competitors to have a vast knowledge of many subjects, which is at the core of Judaism — just think about the plethora of topics covered in the Talmud.
In the course of the history of “Jeopardy!” there have been a disproportionate number of Jewish contestants relative to our population in North America. No doubt, “Jeopardy!” champ Matt Jackson is the most interesting one yet. I feel blessed that my kids enjoy our nightly ritual of watching “Jeopardy!” and you can bet we’ll be cheering on Matt Jackson as he hopes to continue his winning streak.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)