About 10 million people tune in to “Jeopardy!” every week. The game show has a reputation for being brainy, but comfortably mainstream. But last week, contestants were challenged by a Torah reference that few viewers — and probably not even most Jews — could identify, let alone put their response in the form of a question.
In the category of “Sabbath” for $400, Jewish actress Mayim Bialik, the show’s temporary host, showed the contestants a photo of cholent, then read the clue: “Exodus 35:3 bans doing this on the Sabbath, hence the Jewish dish ‘cholent,’ which can go on the stove Friday and cook until Saturday lunch.”
Contestants answered “What is cooking?” and “What is work?” Both incorrect. “What is ‘lighting a fire?’” Bialik said. “And the word ‘cholent’ is from the French ‘chaud lent,’ [meaning] ‘cooks a long time.’”
It was a singular moment. Bialik, an Orthodox Jew who puts her Jewish identity front and center, presented a “Jeopardy!” clue that addressed an issue more sophisticated than bagels and lox — one of the more traditional symbols often associated with Jewish life. In commenting on “cholent-gate” in a tweet, Bialik explained that she does not write the questions. But she excited followers with the announcement that she would be making a vegan cholent on Instagram Live.
For our community, the elevation of the humble Shabbat stew brought a shot of pride. For everyone else, it was an opportunity to learn about Jewish culture from an actress who plays a neurobiologist on TV, but has a Ph.D. in neuroscience in real life.
Bialik seems to be a good fit for “Jeopardy!” which has been struggling to find a replacement for longtime host Alex Trebek, who died at the end of last year. Bialik was one of the celebrity guest hosts who filled the role earlier this year. In August, the show announced that executive producer Mike Richards would become the permanent host, with Bialik serving as host for prime-time specials and spin-offs. Then came reports that Richards had made antisemitic and sexist comments in the past, and he was gone. Sony Pictures Television then announced that Bialik, along with former winner Ken Jennings, would serve as host through the rest of the year. Bialik has said she would be interested in taking on the role permanently.
Trebek’s shoes are hard to fill, but we’d like to see Bialik get the job. She’s got the star power, engaging personality and “smart person” bona fides for the role. But she has her own history of controversial comments, including disclosure in one of her books that she chose not to vaccinate her children. She has since made clear that she is not an anti-vaxxer, and confirmed that she and her children have received COVID-19 vaccines. Critics remain skeptical of her late conversion to science-based vaccinations.
For us, a combination of merits analysis and Jewish pride makes us want to see Bialik continue to host “Jeopardy!” next year and into the future.