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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Rabbi Ezra Frazer, third from left, with the rest of the 2012 winners, and PM Netanyahu.

Chananel Malka, left, with his first-place award at the Chidon in 2014.

Rabbi Ezra Frazer with his wife and daughters.

Yair Shahak tried to learn Tanach while holding his newborn son.

Alexander Heppenheimer competing in Israel in 2014.

Alexander Heppenheimer studies Tanach with four of his children.

In 1958, a one-time event was scheduled in Israel with the support of then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. It was a heavily text-based, extraordinarily difficult “Chidon HaTanach,” or Bible Quiz, and was created as a radio celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish state. But what Ben-Gurion couldn’t have predicted was that the entire country would catch “chidon fever,” embracing and supporting the chidon and its champions. One contest was clearly not enough.

Sixty years later, amid all of Israel’s tribulations, chidon lives on. On December 6, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will light the candle for the fifth night of Chanukah, a televised chidon “Champion’s Champion” quiz will take place to mark the historic anniversary of the Bible Quiz project. The quiz will be held at Binyanei Ha’uma, Israel’s International Convention Center in Jerusalem, and will also be streamed on YouTube.

Tanach, which is 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. This particular chidon will cover almost all of Tanach (842 of 929 chapters), with both a written and live component, and includes the entirety of Yeshayahu (Isaiah), Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), most of Yechezkel (Ezekiel), Tehillim (Psalms), Mishlei (Proverbs) and Iyov (Job). These are slightly more obscure books of Tanach from which there are normally only a few chapters selected.

The History of Chidon

To Israel’s pioneers, the chidon created a cultural zeitgeist, said Chananel Malka, the 2014 world chidon champion and the anniversary event’s organizer on behalf of the Israeli Ministry of Education. To Israel’s first citizens, Malka explained that Tanach was a great equalizer, a well-loved symbol of the historic return to the land of our ancestors. “The Bible meant we are the descendents of David HaMelech. The Talmud came later, because it was part of the galut (Diaspora). We were the third kingdom of Israel. All the 2,000 years since the Bible was written, it was like they erased from history, from the first Zionism. The Bible meant everything then,” Malka said.

Sponsored by the State of Israel and the Ministry of Education, chidon competitors have, year after year, become veritable rock stars inside the country. “The government attaches great importance to the Bible Quiz project because the Bible is the book that connects all Jews and unites them around a single book, thus creating unity among the people and strengthening the bonds of the land and the Diaspora,” said Malka.

Malka, who is studying to complete his PhD in chidon history at Bar-Ilan University, shared the story of the first winner. “Amos Hakham was a clerk in an institute for the blind, 30 years old,” he said. During his infancy, Hakham fell and injured his hand and head, and as a result had speaking difficulties. He was not sent to school because his father feared he would be bullied, so he learned at home, developing a high level of Tanach knowledge. He had not learned a trade or craft and, with no formal education, when his father died when he was 22 he became his family’s only breadwinner. Because of his dire economic circumstances he had to borrow a suit to wear to the competition.

“And he won the chidon. It was like a miracle. He became a celebrity. All of the important people came to honor him,” Malka said. After completing formal studies he became a Bible scholar and teacher, interpreting eight volumes in the series Da’at Miqra and writing various articles for the Encyclopaedia Hebraica. Ben-Gurion was a guest at his wedding. Later in his life, Hakham helped create the Braille version of the Bible by reading it aloud to a blind typesetter.

In 1963, a youth chidon event was created, and students from sixth to 11th grade compete annually for a four-year scholarship to Bar-Ilan University. Each year the final competition, often with representatives from 60 countries, is held live, and televised, on Yom Ha’atzmaut. For many years the youth event eclipsed the adult event, though the adult event returned at full strength in 2010 with many former youth competitors from many countries competing as adults.

America Represents

Three American competitors cleared the qualifying round to return to Israel for the 60th anniversary champions event, where 16 former competitors will assemble for the tournament: Yair Shahak, a teacher at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, who both competed in 2014 and won the contest in 2016; Rabbi Ezra Frazer, a teacher at The Ramaz School in Manhattan, who was second in the contest in 2012 and was a youth competitor; and Alexander Heppenheimer, a proofreader for Chabad.org and an IT tech support specialist from Crown Heights, who came in second in the contest in 2014, beaten only by Israel’s Chananel Malka, the event organizer.

“There will be 11 total competitors from Israel, the three Americans, and there is one competitor each from France and Canada. The youngest is 22 and the oldest is 63,” said Malka. The written exam will be first; Prime Minister Netanyahu will ask the questions for the oral component.

“But it won’t just be exams and questioning the whole time. The participants will spend two or three days together. There will be a reunion of all the winners of the Bible Quiz with the former chief rabbi. They will also see the Dead Sea Scrolls,” said Malka.

“This type of ‘Champion of Champions’ chidon has never been done before, so it is both humbling and exciting to participate,” said Shahak, who competed in 2014 and then again in 2016 with his wife Yaelle Frohlich, who was representing Canada.

“This particular event is a bit different for me because I know there is probably less than a 1 percent chance of me actually winning. I’m a pretty competitive person, but the circumstances surrounding this event for me make it impossible to do as well as I would like. All within the past several months I started a new full-time job, moved to Teaneck and had my first child, a son. Time, therefore, has been quite elusive. Unless you have a photographic memory—and I don’t believe I do—doing well at this type of competition requires a huge amount of time and effort,” Shahak said.

“The main reasons why I chose to take the preliminary exam, and then found out I qualified and decided to go ahead and participate, are, first, this is an historic event, and even if I place last, I will still have been a part of it; and second, I think it’s an important lesson for my students—they get to see that studying Torah is a never-ending journey,” said Shahak.

“Making time for studying Torah in adulthood is difficult with all the responsibilities one has, but there is always some time to be found, even a single minute, in which you can review a verse,” he added.

Rabbi Ezra Frazer, who also lives in Teaneck and is a father of three daughters, has spent more than half of his life involved in the chidon. “It is deeply moving to be asked to participate in this event given the central role the chidon has played in my life,” he said. He competed in both the chidon for youth (1994 as U.S. champion, and went to Israel for the competition in 1995) and the chidon for adults (attaining second place in the 2012 international chidon), and he also ran the U.S. chidon competition program for The Jewish Agency for Israel for seven years.

“The youth experience helped give me an early appreciation of Tanach, and the experience of running the chidon forced me to constantly be reviewing material as I wrote new tests. I am grateful that this experience enabled me to engage in deeper analysis as an adult, in contexts like yeshiva and graduate school. I found it was easier for me to work through difficult commentaries and to anchor my own ideas in textual evidence because I was so familiar with the primary text from my chidon work,” said Frazer.

“I have met about half of the contestants through earlier chidonim, so I know that some of them have a level of mastery of these lesser-known books that make me very unlikely to win,” said Frazer. Instead, he shared he’d be focusing his prep time on trying to learn and understand several books that “always interested me but I have never had the opportunity to teach: Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles), Mishlei and Iyov.”

Frazer added he was looking forward to spending Chanukah with fellow Tanach lovers and soaking up the atmosphere of this event. “I have joked to friends that I feel like the Jamaican bobsled team or the Angolan basketball team that played the U.S. ‘dream team’ in the 1992 Olympics. They were thrilled to be at the Olympics, playing the game they loved on the same basketball court as all-time greats, even though they didn’t expect to defeat Magic Johnson or Larry Bird,” Frazer said.

“Personally, participating in this event is also important to me as a limudei kodesh teacher. I want my students at Ramaz to know that learning Torah is something that I and their other teachers do, not only because we have to prepare lessons as part of our job, but also because we genuinely enjoy it. I hope that some of them might develop their own passion for Tanach and an appreciation for learning Torah even outside their formal classes at school,” he added.

One of the most surprising and wonderful things about Tanach is it is a great equalizer between Jews from all walks of life. A married father of six, Alexander Heppenheimer, a member of Crown Heights’ Chabad chasidic community, entered the contest in 2014 as “a bit of a lark,” he said. His sister had heard it advertised on the radio, on the Nachum Segal Network, and knowing that he had an expert level of Tanach knowledge, suggested he take the exam.

“I grew up in the Chabad school system, for cheder and yeshiva,” he said, noting that the Pentateuch (Teachings), Book of Tanya (the foundational book of the Chabad movement), chasidic discourses and Talmud tend to be the more primary texts in those schools. “They don’t have a lot of space in the day; Tanach is more like a flavoring, as they are the historical books.

“Different students find interests in particular areas and that is certainly encouraged. Most of what I knew of Tanach was from self-learning. But I always had an interest in it even from when I was little. I learned whole parts of it on my own,” he said.

“So I had my 15 minutes of fame. Ever since then I have made a daily practice of studying portions of Tanach, and I promote that among my community in Crown Heights and in my family. I have two different daily cycles, one that is faster with most of Tanach finishing every three months. Another one I finish on an annual basis,” Heppenheimer said.

What does Heppenheimer appreciate most about Tanach? “Within Tanach itself you have Torah, which is the most central, and it’s how to live on a day-to-day basis. The rest of Tanach is about the ethos of how to feel and how to relate to Hashem as a Jew, aside from the day-to-day performance of mitzvahs—how to feel like a Jew. So there’s acting like a Jew, which is Torah, and then feeling like a Jew, which is the rest of Tanach,” he said.

This time will be different for Heppenheimer from the previous competition four years ago, in that he is planning to travel with his family, unlike the last time, when he headed to Israel in a whirlwind fashion just a few weeks after the U.S. competition. “We are making a mini family vacation of it. There will be a lot of chidon stuff, of course, but my youngest three kids have never been to Israel, so we want to take them to the sights. I also have three siblings who live there,” he said.

With a full beard and more outwardly chasidic garb, how did he get along with the other contestants, many of whom were part of Israel’s more modern, secular cultural communities? “We got along famously. In particular, I became friendly with one of the other American participants, who is Modern Orthodox, Yair Shahak. Yair came in first in my American contest, but then when it came to the international rounds, I beat him. He was not feeling well that day,” Heppenheimer excused. But yes, they’re still friends and they all look forward to an incredible experience celebrating 60 years of chidon this Chanukah.

And who knows? One of them might just take home the prize of 30,000 shekels (about $8,000).

By Elizabeth Kratz