The author's family making a valiant attempt at reenacting a certain Last Supper; Thanksgiving 2011.

At My Table: Thanksgiving Jeopardy!

One Jewish historian's enthusiastic holiday tradition.

For the past decade, I have forced a ridiculous Thanksgiving tradition on my unsuspecting family. Every year they hope it won’t happen. Every year they complain and try to get out of it.

And yet every year, I joyfully set up a row of chairs and a bulletin board in our kitchen, put on a neck tie, hold an inflatable microphone I got at someone’s bar mitzvah long ago, and run an elaborate (and lengthy) game of Thanksgiving Jeopardy.

As my aunts, uncles, parents, and grandfather will tell you, it’s torture.

The first year, I made the questions so hard that no one got a single answer right. The second year the questions were slightly easier, but I still hadn’t found my groove. By year four, the questions were excellent, but the difficulties of the previous years were so ingrained in my family members’ memories that they basically gave up before the game even started.

A few years ago, my parents gave me a set of answer buzzers as a gift. Along with a Bedazzler I once received for Hanukkah (as an adult), they are my most prized possession. That present confirmed to me what I already knew: They love (and expect) this game, even though they kvetch about it.

Why does the tradition matter to me? Well, it doesn’t hurt than I’m a born performer who loves inane trivia. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a historian and this is an excuse for me to do extensive research into the development of my favorite holiday. But most of all, I love it because it’s a way for me to add my own spin onto this holiday that’s such a crucial part of my family’s life.

That feels like a Southern and Jewish sentiment to me: observing tradition, but altering it to fit into a new context. Embracing change while staying true to our roots.

We pick up the turkey from Bolton’s Farm Market, my father makes pies, we eat, we say what we’re thankful for, we cry, and then I run upstairs to grab the Jeopardy board I’ve assembled with foam core and index cards. It’s time to begin.

Last year, I missed Thanksgiving for the first time. I was in graduate school in Ireland, and I had class on Thanksgiving. It was surreal. I FaceTimed with my family and grabbed a pint with friends. It wasn’t the same.

This year, I’ll fly home to Pennsylvania from Mississippi, where I’m living out a dream of working in cultural heritage at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I feel that this may give me slightly more clout as a trivia question writer. At the very least, it means that I have a platform to share this educational tradition with others.

The questions range from the simple (“What utensil did the Pilgrims not use on the First Thanksgiving?”) to the ridiculous (“For this year’s Final Jeopardy, you will have 20 minutes to write a song about a topic inside the envelope I’m about to give to you.” Seriously, I wish I had recorded that one). More and more, the points are given based on earnest pleas and dramatic responses. Whatever the teams wager for Final Jeopardy, they’ll get – I learned early on to make that a creative challenge, and it’s not up to me to judge someone else’s art. I’m a public historian, not Roger Ebert.

There are always categories based on things that are happening in my life; a series of questions about, say, the history and traditions of my undergraduate institution. There will certainly be some Southern and Jewish content on the board this year (to any family reading this: bone up on your Eudora Welty). It feels like heritage work to me because it gets people engaged in learning, making art, and laughing together while sharing an important cultural experience. It’s a stretch, but it feels like home.

Want to know how to organize your own Thanksgiving Jeopardy game? Whether you need last-minute insights or want to start planning now for Thanksgiving 2018, feel free to shoot me an email – as I will enjoy reminding my family, doing stuff like this is my job now.

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