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Saturday, December 07, 2019

The U.S. Adult Chidon HaTanach, or “Bible Quiz,” finals were held this past Sunday at West Side Institutional Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Several hundred Chidon fans joined together to watch nine finalists whittle down to two American winners, who will head to Israel on Chanukah for the last step in this year’s competition. Rabbi Shnayor Burton of Brooklyn and Yoni Ray of Bergenfield, New Jersey—respectively with first and second place separated by just one point—were the top two scorers. Teaneck’s Noah Burstein finished admirably in third place. Only the top two, however, will represent their country at the International Chidon HaTanach in Israel on December 24. The event is televised; often, the prime minister administers the final set of questions to the competitors.

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 and includes 24 books. Sponsored by the State of Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Education and the World Zionist Movement, Chidon is run for both adults and youths.

“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 Chananel Malka, the international coordinator of the Chidon, who was also the 2014 winner of the international competition. He served as a production coordinator and judge at this event.

The competitors took a written test earlier in the morning that contributed to their overall score, and the live component of the competition was permeated with a celebratory tone. “You are all winners because you have studied the Tanach,” said Simcha Asaf Leibovich, the representative of the World Zionist Organization in North America.

The often extraordinarily difficult questions asked to competitors in three rounds were interspersed with musical performances by chasidic singer Eli Marcus and the Ramaz School Chamber Choir. Many members of the audience were there to cheer on family members who were competing, including children and grandchildren of Teaneck’s Burstein, at 70 the oldest Chidon finalist, and teens who have competed in the youth Chidon HaTanach were there as well, perhaps envisioning themselves gracing the stage someday. Representatives of the State of Israel were also on hand to bring greetings and wish the competitors well.

“We are here to celebrate the book that binds us together, as a nation, and as a people,” said Israel Nitzan, Deputy Consul General of the Israel Consulate in New York. “It is the book that teaches us about our shared history. The Bible is in our shared language, Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, an old language that miraculously was revived by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

“The Bible also gives us the proof of our sacred link to our land, Eretz Yisrael, and tells us about the promise of the ingathering of the exiles that we have witnessed in the last century—the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel—which is the essence of Zionism. It is also our moral compass. It gives us moral codes to which we Jews have adhered for thousands of years,” he said.

“I never paid much attention to the multiplicity of detail,” mused Burstein, the third-place finisher, who noticed that he would not soon forget his experience of the Chidon. “The thought of the traditional teachers seems to be that one looks for the moral message in the plethora of stories and events, the sad and the exultant, and that this message is somewhat part of the same pattern of messages that form the religious and ethical scaffolding of the Bible,” he told The Jewish Link.

One of the most fascinating things about the Chidon is how it unifies Jews from every denomination. Teaneck’s Rabbi Ezra Frazer, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi as well as a former youth and adult chidon competitor, as well as Rookie Billet, former principal of the Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein-guided Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, were part of the judging panel along with representatives of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), the New York Board of Rabbis, and a Bible scholar from Hebrew Union College. The emcee of the event was Robert Harris, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rabbi Yair Shahak, who, in 2016 became the first-ever American winner of the International Adult Chidon HaTanach, created the exam that the competitors took this year. He was on hand to confer with the judges and wrote every question in both interlinear Hebrew and English. Shahak, who is chair of the Hebrew department at The Frisch School, said he particularly enjoyed presenting the 2019 winner, Shnayor Burton, with his commemorative Tanach. “It was a surreal and rewarding experience for me, as a past winner and this year’s exam creator, to pass on the title of U.S. National Champion to such a deserving and dedicated fellow learner and lover of Tanach,” Shahak told The Jewish Link.

Particularly interesting about the Chidon questions are how puzzling they are, and how the questions are often written so that multiple answers might come to mind. Only a seasoned learner who has reviewed the text recently or has an excellent memory will be able to answer the question with certainty, particularly if there is a time limit. For example: “Who said, ‘I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish it with you as an everlasting covenant’?” Nearby audience members were heard murmuring “Hashem?” “David HaMelech” or “Moshe Rabbenu,” before the competitor answered correctly: Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16: 60).

“The difficulty and scope of the questions made the event intense,” said runner-up Ray, who had already begun thinking about his preparations for the competition in Israel. “For the next round I will try to focus on studying subtle textual nuance and style in order to identify quotes in context.”

Rabbi Frazer, who has likely attended more Chidon events than many, said a standout for him of this contest was the audience’s participation at this event. “One highlight for me was when Professor Harris, the emcee, invited the audience to call out answers to the third round and you saw how many audience members were engaged in the competition and were passionate and knowledgeable about Tanach,” he told The Jewish Link.

The December 24, the International Chidon HaTanach will be streamed live on Facebook. To learn more, visit https://www.facebook.com/chidonhatanach.biblequiz.

By Elizabeth Kratz