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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The World Zionist Organization will hold the U.S. finals of the Chidon HaTanach for adults on Sunday, November 10, at the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan. Tanach enthusiasts over the age of 22 took an online screening test in August to reach this stage.

Eleven finalists—among them Noah Burstein of Teaneck and Yonatan “Yoni” Ray of Bergenfield—were the high scorers and will compete in the public finals. Two winners of this contest will be flown to Israel to compete in the exciting televised international contest on Chanukah in Jerusalem.

Tanach, a word often used interchangeably with the word Bible, is an acronym composed of Torah (“Teaching,” also known as the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”). It contains the canonical texts that comprise the Hebrew Bible, which is made up of 24 books composed mainly in biblical Hebrew. The Chidon HaTanach, which has both youth and adult competitions run by the World Zionist Organization, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. That makes it, essentially, the ultimate Jewish trivia game that makes the oldest book in the world fun and engaging.

But it’s not easy for the competitors: It’s a test of pattern recognition, skill, memorization and language comprehension. New and experienced learners have proven time and time again that the foundational lessons of the Tanach are complex enough to keep one’s attention for a lifetime.

Teaneck’s Rabbi Ezra Frazer, who was a winner of the youth Chidon HaTanach and competed multiple times as an adult as well (and was, in fact, the U.S. coordinator of the youth Chidon for the Jewish Agency for a number of years), is looking forward to serving as a judge for the upcoming event. “Unlike the youth one, where scores of finalists are invited [in recent years it has been held at Manhattan Day School], they just invite the top 10—though it’s 11 this year, due to a tie for tenth place—people from the whole U.S. and run the finals as a live game-show,” he told The Jewish Link. In addition to the two New Jersey residents, the other contestants hail from New York, Georgia, North Carolina and California.

Frazer shared that this Bible Quiz will feature a free, fun, live experience for interested community members to enjoy the knowledge of the contestants, with the added bonus of entertainment from singer Eli Marcus. (Space is limited, so guests must RSVP here: azm.org/bible-contest.) “I’m excited to see a chidon here in New York that is focused on creating an engaging experience for everyone in the audience. Our goal is not only to push the contestants to master the Tanach but also so that anyone who is interested in Tanach or Israel will have an entertaining afternoon in an atmosphere of ahavat haTorah and ahavat Yisrael,” said Frazer.

Noah Burstein, one of the two New Jersey residents competing next week, shared his enthusiasm for Tanach and his lifelong love of learning. A practicing lawyer for the past 43 years as well as an ordained rabbi, Burstein shared pride in an early accomplishment—serving as editor-in-chief of the Hebrew-language journal at MTA before he attended Yeshiva University.

Like his father—a Holocaust survivor, a talmid chacham who taught Torah and Hebrew studies in Germany after being liberated from Dachau—Burstein has always had a strong affinity for languages. “As a linguist I have mastered several Indo-European languages, and several Semitic ones, including Arabic and Aramaic, the latter because I have come to believe that the Hebrew writings of our heritage cannot be understood without reference to the languages and cultures surrounding ancient Israel,” he told The Jewish Link.

Burstein said it was his family at home who encouraged him to take the chidon exam. “One of my grandchildren mentioned it and dared me to enter the contest. One way or another, my wife, children and grandchildren all became involved in this project and we had Team Zaydie. Win or not, I saw the chidon as a great opportunity to review parts of Tanach I had not read in a long while,” he said.

Burstein, who has lived in Teaneck for the past 35 years, has many family members and friends who live in Teaneck and Bergenfield who will be cheering him on.

Burstein added that his Tanach prep for the exam was different from his previous, more general Tanach learning. Rather, it involved a focus on unusual facts and details. “I came to the conclusion that the trivial facts contained in narratives or prophetic discourses were indeed not trivial but were invested with meaning.

“I wanted to know the peshat, the “simple,” [or] “plain” meaning of the texts. I discovered that my perspective on such matters was now very different from that which I had when learning these texts as a child, as a young adult or even as a person of middle years. One has to appreciate things like choice of word, placement of phrases and events, the unconventional or erratic phrase, the mystery that wakes you up at night, the why and the wherefore, and take the long, deconstructive view,” he said.

Yoni Ray, a Chicago-area transplant to Bergenfield, has been involved with the chidon since childhood, initially learning Tanach at Hillel Torah Day School; he was a regional youth chidon competitor in seventh and eighth grade before attending Ida Crown Jewish Academy. While studying engineering and eventually working in the sciences has limited his formal classroom learning of Tanach, he has continued to learn Tanach as part of a regular learning schedule.

“Since I finished my year in Israel, [Tanach study] has mostly been done on my own. I enjoy Tanach since it is the basis of everything else we have in Judaism, and the better one knows it the better one can see connections between its stories, lessons, language and how it informs the broader corpus of Jewish learning and Jewish life until this day. Aside from that, I interact with Tanach most by doing shnayim mikra (weekly parsha study) for the last 20 years with the trop (cantillation notes), and my hobby as an occasional ba’al korei (Torah reader), in which those two skills complement each other and make me more proficient at each.”

Ray’s wife Rena, a graphic designer who contributes Jewish-themed craft articles to The Jewish Link, also took the exam and finished not far behind him. The Rays have three young daughters who are all very excited for their dad and look forward to cheering him on.

By Elizabeth Kratz