'Jeopardy!' winner not surprised at antisemitic response to her success

What she hadn’t counted on, Emma Salzberg said, was her fellow contestants standing up for her.

Alex Trebek poses on set at Sony Pictures in Culver City, Calif., for the premier of the 28th season of "Jeopardy," Sept. 20, 2011. (photo credit: FREDERICK M. BROWN/GETTY IMAGES/JTA)
Alex Trebek poses on set at Sony Pictures in Culver City, Calif., for the premier of the 28th season of "Jeopardy," Sept. 20, 2011.

Emma Saltzberg knew she might invite criticism by competing on “Jeopardy!

From her years of experience in progressive Jewish groups, including IfNotNow, a group founded in 2014 to galvanize American Jews to oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, she knew that her appearance on one of the most popular TV shows in the United States would likely generate negative comments from those who believe criticizing the occupation is antisemitic.

So when those comments started to appear on social media, especially after IfNotNow touted her third win, and then her fourth and final contest, Saltzberg wasn’t surprised.

“That was priced into my decision to do something public,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I was totally expecting it.”

What she hadn’t counted on, she said, was her fellow contestants standing up for her. On Monday, Lawrence Long, the nursing student and self-described “stay-at-home uncle” from North Carolina who defeated Saltzberg on Monday’s episode reached out to let her know that he was distressed by the attacks and would be donating to IfNotNow in her honor.

Long, whose second appearance also ended in a win Tuesday, told JTA that he happens to agree with Saltzberg on the issue of the occupation, but that wasn’t what animated him.

“I noticed the particularly hateful comments directed at Emma online,” he said in an email, adding, “I would have had her back regardless of whether our personal beliefs align. … I wish her nothing but the best and I gotta figure out the cool multiple of $18 to donate.”

Saltzberg said Long’s outreach “made my heart swell” — and that it was just one of many examples of kindness from within the famously tight-knit community of “Jeopardy!” contestants.

“It was just more than I could have possibly dreamed up,” she said about her game-show experience.

Saltzberg said she plans to use her $58,799 in winnings to save for an apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives with her fiance, and to buy art. She talked to JTA about the correct answers that she credits to her years in Hebrew school, how her Jewish family turned her onto trivia and what she thinks Jewish communities can learn from the “Jeopardy!” community.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JTA: How did you end up on “Jeopardy!” and what was the experience like for you?

Saltzberg: It was so fun. I feel like I really am not used to experiences that are, like, just good and fun. Especially not now.

It was just so much fun getting to go to the Sony lot and work with the staff on “Jeopardy!” who are just incredible. They’re so skilled and warm and just made me feel so comfortable. And then winning, and then winning again and again — it was just more than I could have possibly dreamed up.

In November 2020, my fiance and I were watching the old “Jeopardy!” episodes on Netflix, and I just kept getting things right and quickly and he said, you know, you should take the test. He didn’t stop bugging me for several days until I took the test. I got the invitation to a group audition on Zoom in June. And then in August, they called me and they asked me to come at the end of September.

I couldn’t go because it was my friend’s wedding, so I ended up going right after Thanksgiving. I realized later that if I had gone that day it was Amy Schneider’s first set of tapings. [Schneider recently ended a 40-game winning streak, the second-longest in “Jeopardy!” history.] I would have been one of the first people to go up against Amy.

It would have been an honor and a joy to have her stomp me to the ground. But it was also fun to go after her when everyone was just so excited.

Was there a moment while you were playing where you realized, hey, this is going my way?

In the first episode, I didn’t know that I won until the very last possible second because I won on making a big bet on Final Jeopardy and having the person who was ahead of me not know the answer. It was completely shocking. I had thought, I’m really proud. I played hard and I’m leaving with my head held high.

And then it was like, Oh, you are not leaving. You’re coming back for the next day — which is really right away because they tape five episodes in a day. They whisk you away to go change into your next outfit and have your makeup touched up and guzzle down some water and then you’re right back out doing it again.

You were a quick draw on a question whose correct response was the Yiddish word “bupkes,” meaning “nothing.” Can you share a little about your Jewish background, and were there moments where you felt that being Jewish gave you an advantage?

There was a whole Bible category on one of the nights so that was definitely like, thank you, Hebrew school.

I’ve been in Brooklyn since the year I graduated from college, so eight years. But I grew up right outside Philadelphia, on the [suburban] Main Line. My family has deep roots in Philadelphia and they are not that thrilled that I repped Brooklyn on the show! I grew up going to Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley and then I went to Amherst College, where I was actually the vice president of Amherst College Hillel.

You mentioned you’re not used to experiences that are just fun. It sounded like part of that is about pandemic life. But I was also wondering if your work as a Jewish activist, and the response to it during your “Jeopardy!” run, was also on your mind.

You know, my work on the Jewish left really rose out of the same roots that my “Jeopardy!” gameplay grows out of: I just love to learn about the world, and the more that I learn, the more I feel an obligation to do what I can to make the world a better place. Living out my Jewish ethics means working to build power so that everyone, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, has what they need to thrive and live a good life.

There are trolls in IfNotNow’s Twitter mentions, a small and vocal group of people who say really negative things. That was priced into my decision to do something public. I was totally expecting it.

I will also say that I got a real perspective into how messed up the kind of hate that comes our way actually is. The contestant who beat me on last night’s show messaged my fiance to say that he was just appalled at the things that he was seeing. And that actually he was going to be making a donation to IfNotNow in my honor.

It made my heart swell to see that kind of solidarity. I think it can be really difficult as Jews to really comprehend that there are people who are in solidarity with us. It’s something that comes up all the time that people feel really alone. And this was a moment when someone showed me in a really concrete and gracious way that we’re not.

The community of “Jeopardy!” contestants is famously collegial. How do you think the Jewish community can learn from the “Jeopardy!” community?

What makes the “Jeopardy!” world so great is this sense of curiosity and wanting to learn and be there for each other. And so much of the conversation that I’m seeing in the Jewish world right now is so deeply anti-intellectual in a way that I find really heartbreaking.

I see Jewish organizations — big and small, secular and religious — rejecting the painstakingly crafted research of a whole swath of human rights organizations just out of hand, without even bothering to make arguments about what it’s saying on the merits. They just reject it out of hand, and in a way that really sows confusion, for non-Jews and Jews alike, about what antisemitism is. So they’re calling things like this Amnesty International report antisemitic or saying that it will increase antisemitism just to look squarely at what the Israeli government is doing to Palestinians.

This whole conversation is basically posing a false choice: that people can support Jews against antisemitism, or they can support Palestinian liberation from Israeli oppression. The idea that you have to pick one is so dangerous to me and so sad because we actually can stand for Palestinian freedom and stand for our freedom and safety as Jews.

That sense of, we have to put ourselves in competition is the total opposite of the spirit that I’ve encountered in my brief time in the “Jeopardy!” world, which is that people are incredibly supportive. People want to learn and people are just decent to each other.

It’s funny that this is your takeaway because “Jeopardy!” actually is a competition with a single correct answer.

It’s a competition — but it’s also a place where people respect the rules of the game, and if you get the answer wrong, you don’t tell the hosts that they’re making it more dangerous for Jews to live in the world. In some ways, that sort of clear competition creates a clearer way to support one another.

Is there anything else you’d want Jewish “Jeopardy!” viewers to know about you? 

I was so honored and felt so loved by the various Jewish left institutions that cheered me on. I want to mention one other organization that shouted me out, which is the Western States Center, where I’m a Defending Democracy Fellow right now. One of my freelance jobs is working with them to support organizing against white nationalism. I take the threat of a politics that is animated by antisemitism and is rapidly ascending to power in the Republican Party very seriously.

But I have a lot of other things about me, even Jewishly. I’m a really big amateur genealogist and I gave a presentation to my family about our ancestors going back several generations in Latvia and Poland. I love to do Shabbat potluck dinners with my friends when it’s COVID-appropriate. I keep meaning to join Kolot Chayeinu [a progressive synagogue in Brooklyn] but I haven’t yet. I will!

My family’s motto when I was a child, which I’m pretty sure my dad got from my bubbe, was “Books are our friends.” I grew up in a family that really encouraged me to read and my dad’s trained as a scientist, so I could ask him any questions about how things worked, and he would give me a scientific explanation. I’m lucky to have gone to excellent public schools and a college that took me seriously. And, yeah, I’m just curious about lots of things.