A Rabbi and ‘Jeopardy!’ Champion Remembers Alex Trebek


When Alex Trebek, the beloved host of “Jeopardy!” died Nov. 8 at age 80, I immediately thought of my friend Rabbi Joyce Newmark. Joyce competed on the show over two episodes that aired in May of 2011, winning $29,200 the first night and $2,000 the second. She and Trebek bantered memorably about her experience as a woman rabbi, one ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary exactly 20 years earlier.

Rabbi Newmark, who lives in River Vale, N.J., is a former leader of congregations in Leonia, N.J. and Lancaster, Pa., and was a long-time columnist for the New Jersey Jewish News. We spoke on Wednesday.

You were among the fewer than 400 people a year who make it to “Jeopardy!” in a process that includes an online test and auditions. Walk me through the process.

After the written online test, you get invited to an audition. You pick the city where you want to audition, and New York is always one of them. The auditions were held in a hotel, and it’s about 30 or 35 people at a time. They take your picture, you get piles of paperwork, and then take another 50-question test to make sure you didn’t cheat on the online test.

Is there a mock studio?

Groups of three play a mock game. When you get to the audition, they ask you to send them five one-liners which Alex Trebek will use to interview you during the game. You do a mock interview. They know you can answer questions, but they want to know you have a personality. Some people know the answers but can only talk into their pocket protectors.

Once you’re in, they fly you out to California?

You get three weeks notice, and they don’t pay for travel. But they changed the system so everybody gets money. Even if you come in third you still get $1,000. And they recommend a hotel not far from the studio.

In the morning a little bus comes to take the contestants to the studio. The green room has pastries but I brought my own bagels. The worst part of the experience is the makeup: Because of the HD TV, it goes on with a trowel. And apparently they don’t have a lot of rabbis on the show, because as soon as I got in the makeup chair the makeup lady explained to me why she took her son out of day school.

How much contact did you have with Alex Trebek either before or during the taping?

They are very careful about anything that could be perceived as cheating. Contestants do not have contact with anyone who has seen a question, which includes Trebek. They have a brief rehearsal, just so people can get used to the buzzer and to the little elevators that you stand on. It’s a black square that all of a sudden goes up, and I was like “Ahh!”

But the two of you got a chance to chat on air.

On my first show, he asked me about Woodstock; on my card I had explained that I was there during the musical festival. On the second show he asked me about being a woman rabbi, and we chatted a bit as the credits ran. One of the things that was very clear was that he wanted to learn – whatever, whenever. “If there is something I don’t know, tell me about it.” He wasn’t just a talking head. In his book he describes how he is very much a participant with the writers in creating the shows.

You had some physical challenges that they were happy to accommodate.

They were incredibly good to me after I told them I couldn’t stand for a half hour straight. I knew that the longest time between commercials was seven minutes and I could handle that. But every time they went to commercial a guy put a chair behind my podium so I could sit. I didn’t want to sit in chair to play because I thought it would make me slow on the buzzer.

They’ve always been very good with people with handicaps. Eddie Timanus was completely blind and [in 1999] they gave him a card with the categories in Braille and a Braille writer when he had to write his final “Jeopardy!” answer. He is a sportswriter; I think he was undefeated.

I have a theory that you and Trebek shared something: You both had pulpit jobs, and your job was to act as emcees and calmly lead people through a carefully scripted set of rituals.

People ask me why I looked so calm, and I’d say, “I’m a pulpit rabbi. I am used to speaking in front of an audience.” For a long time I was reluctant to try out because I knew some people who were one and done and did not do well. And if I crashed and burned it would reflect badly on the title of rabbi, which I am very protective about. Once I got the first question right, I told myself, this will be fine.

Did your rabbinical training come in handy?

There’s a luck factor when it comes to categories. I remember watching one show where there was a contestant named Gitta [Jaroslawicz-Neufeld, of Far Rockaway] who was introduced as a Judaic teacher trainer. The final category was “Old Testament” and she bet something like $9,000 and made a lot of money.

Alex Trebek loved odd facts and read books and appreciated ‘knowledge lishma’ (for its own sake).

My funny luck story came because I read mysteries and thrillers. The night before I was reading a mystery that had its roots in the Vietnam War, and then one of the questions was “most of the French killed in this battle were members of the Foreign Legion.” Everyone was thinking Algeria but because I read the book the night before I knew it was Dien Bien Phu.

What do you remember most about Trebek and what he brought to the show?

He is very kind. He wrote about it in his book. He said that when somebody makes a mistake he tries to make them feel better. He’s trying to make people enjoy being there. Viewers get that. The show is not mean, and there are so many shows on TV now in which people are just mean.

The other thing that works well: Alex does not come off as a smartass or a comedian. He was the kind of person who competes on “Jeopardy!” He loved odd facts and read books and appreciated “knowledge lishma” (for its own sake). He just loved learning.

The whole experience – you came away from it, and even though there is money at stake, what you really want is to keep playing. We are all together having this amazing experience that so few people get to do.

Do you think the show can go on without him? Do you want it to?

I think everybody does, because there is nothing else like it. In the “Jeopardy!” community, there has been talk about who is going to replace him. Alex Trebek would not talk about it, except he’d say, “the audience wants somebody younger, somebody funnier,” and then he’d suggest Betty White. That’s who he was. He wanted the show to be good. He wanted the people to enjoy it and have a really good time. He didn’t think it was about him.