By: Izzy Feman  | 

YU Student to Participate in Jeopardy! College Championship

We have all heard of Jeopardy!. Most of us have even spent time watching it. But few have ever dreamed of actually playing on the show. This January Netanel Paley, a YU senior majoring in Biology and minoring in Music, will participate in “Jeopardy! College Championship” against contenders from colleges across America. The tournament will begin with fifteen participants in the first round, with nine moving on to the semifinal round and three advancing to the third and final round. The grand prize is $100,000. As finals wind down here at YU, Netanel will be flown out to Los Angeles to compete against his collegiate adversaries. The tournament will air on television beginning February 13th.

As a kid growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, Netanel always wanted to be on Jeopardy!, the famous game show that he and his family watched consistently. The opportunity for this dream to become a reality presented itself to Netanel when, in a fit of whimsical inspiration (or, perhaps, as a crafty procrastination method), Netanel chanced upon the Jeopardy! website and signed up for notifications about any upcoming tryout opportunities. Several weeks later Netanel received an official Jeopardy! link directing him to apply for the “Jeopardy! College Championship” online test. Netanel took the test in impromptu fashion, on his laptop on the third floor of the library during a study break. Jeopardy!’s system of choosing participants, even from amongst those who had high scores on the initial quiz, is randomized. This meant that, to a certain extent, those who were selected to continue was based upon luck, rather than sheer virtue. But it seemed that luck was on Netanel’s side, as a few weeks later he received an invitation to participate in a live tryout.

So, while most of us were preparing for Simchat Torah and the last days of Sukkot, Netanel was busy this past Hoshana Rabbah playing a mock game of Jeopardy! in a New York City hotel with two other college students. Despite a rather cocky opponent from “some liberal arts school,” as Netanel recalled, who got off to a fast start, Netanel quickly caught up and performed especially well on the “local names of countries” section (geography is a topic which Netanel grasps uncannily well). There was also a fifty question written quiz and a two minute personal interview, apparently intended to test both the raw knowledge and personality of would-be contestants. It seems Netanel “passed” all of these tests, as he received a call back in early December inviting him to Los Angeles to participate in the esteemed game show.

Netanel is no stranger to high-pressure-game-show-like situations. While most of us were still choosing between high schools, Netanel was winning academic bees left and right, becoming both a state finalist for the National Geographic Geography Bee and a regional finalist for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2009. Netanel’s interest in trivia contests continued into high school where he participated in his school’s College Bowl and Torah Bowl teams. Netanel described how this type of memorizing, unlike cramming for an Organic Chemistry exam, comes naturally to him. “I just seem to have a good memory for remembering random stuff,” offered Netanel, with his trademark modesty, in an exclusive interview with the author of this article. “It’s not like my memory is that great for school.”

Yet what makes Netanel’s participation in Jeopardy!, a nationally televised program, even more exciting for students at YU is his overt religiousness. His large blue-and-white srugy, untucked tzitzit, and fly-away payis not-so-neatly tucked behind his ears would fit well on a Samarian hilltop or in the most hipster (or Hasidic) section of Williamsburg. But his appearance is recognizable enough to even the typical American, affording Netanel a great opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem. Being the first Orthodox Jew on Jeopardy! in a few years, Netanel admitted that he feels as though he is representing the YU community and Orthodoxy in general. He described that if he gets a couple of seconds to speak to America on national TV, he would like to spread some Jewish pride by proclaiming loudly his gratitude for having been brought up a religious Jew. “Ideally,” considered Netanel, “I would like the chance to say something on air about how proud I am to go to a Jewish institution and to be able to study both Judaic studies and general studies at the same place and the same time without compromising either one.”

All contestants on the show are required to wear their college sweatshirts, which makes Netanel’s representing YU all the more pronounced. This fact was not lost on President Richard Joel, who offered to give Netanel a free sweatshirt in exchange for the good ole’ fashioned yiddishe nachas (Jewish pride) which YU and the greater Orthodox community will receive from having one of its own in the spotlight.

When asked about what he plans on doing with the $100,000 prize money if he wins, Netanel responded that “besides for paying for school and stuff like that I would really like to take an expedition to Ecuador and spend a couple weeks birdwatching in a cloud forest over there.” Ecuador is known for having one of the highest variety of birds concentrated in one area, a fact which Netanel, with his passion for biology and all living things, is keenly aware of. As for what exactly a cloud forest is, Netanel promptly explained, with his typical unassuming air, that a cloud forest is “typically a tropical or subtropical forest situated at a high altitude, characterized by a low cloud cover and an abundance of moss.”

Watch out, Jeopardy!. It looks like a certain neo-Hasidic cloud forest enthusiast is pretty prepared for this thing!

Click here for another article with a full breakdown of Netanel's quarterfinal match and his prospects before participating in the second round semifinals.