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Jewish Journal

Malina ‘Bet’ and Won

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 8, 2003 | 8:00 pm

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, left, with Joshua Malina

"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, left, with Joshua Malina

Only after "The West Wing's" Joshua Malina won $50,000 for Bet Tzedek Legal Services on celebrity "Jeopardy!" May 2 did he stop worrying.

He'd been agonizing since the show's producers called him last month, prompting what he calls a "two-week anxiety attack."

The winner was guaranteed $50,000 toward the charity of his or her choice; the losers, $20,000. "But, I was just obsessing about looking stupid on TV," he said. "It was, 'Was I willing to risk humiliation for tzedakah?'"

Charity won out, as it has all of Malina's life. The 37-year-old actor grew up in an observant home in New Rochelle, N.Y., where his parents donated a significant part of their income to charity. His first tzedakah memory: savoring the "plunking" sound of dropping coins in his first-grade pushke.

More recently, Malina has been a firecracker for Jewish causes such as the New Israel Fund and Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal counsel to the poor of Los Angeles County. He said he picked Bet Tzedek to receive his "Jeopardy!" loot because, "It spreads good will for people to see an organization with a Jewish flavor that helps the entire community."

He crammed for the show by memorizing the state capitols and "holding a ballpoint pen to practice buzzing in the answers at home," said Malina, who plays White House Deputy Communications Director Will Bailey on NBC's "The West Wing." "I also heard that they dumb down the questions considerably for celebrities, which calmed me a bit. But I kept envisioning what would be my most embarrassing scenario: A Jewish question I couldn't answer."

When reporters quizzed Malina on his most dreaded final Jeopardy category, his snappy reply was, "Christian holidays." But once the taping got underway at Sony several weeks ago, the actor aced almost every question.

By the time Final Jeopardy! rolled around, Malina was so far ahead with $24,000 ("Survivor" host Jeff Probst was in second place with $3,000) that he bet just $18, or chai, his tip to Jewish viewers.

While Malina was thrilled to win, he's still obsessing about the four questions he missed, including one about Moses.

"That was one of those, 'I am a shmuck' questions. It was just the shanda [shame] of the entire event. Now I know I'm going to get a call from my Uncle Mike, who'll give me flack. But I'll remind him, 'Hey, I was on television. It's a lot easier from home."

For information on Bet Tzedek, call (323) 939-0506.

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