In 1958, a one-time event was scheduled in Israel with the support of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion — a heavily text-based, extraordinarily difficult “Chidon HaTanach,” or Bible Quiz, created as a radio celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the reestablished Jewish state. But Ben-Gurion couldn’t have predicted the entire country catching “chidon fever.” One contest was clearly not enough.
Sixty years later, chidon lives on. On Dec. 6, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the candle for the fifth night of Chanukah, a televised “Champion’s Champion” program will be held at Binyanei Ha’uma, Israel’s International Convention Center in Jerusalem, and streamed on YouTube. This chidon will cover almost all of Tanach (842 of 929 chapters), and includes the entirety of Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, most of Yechezkel, Tehillim, Mishlei and Iyov.
The history of Chidon
To Israel’s pioneers, the chidon created a cultural zeitgeist, said Chananel Malka, the 2014 world contest champion and the anniversary event’s organizer. To Israel’s first citizens, Tanach was a great equalizer, a symbol of the historic return to the land of our ancestors.
“The Bible meant we are the descendants of David Hamelech,” said Malka. “The Talmud came later because it was part of the galut. 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.”
Sponsored by tsrael’s Ministry of Education, chidon competitors have become veritable rock stars. “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,” explained Malka.
In 1963, a youth 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 years, the youth event eclipsed the adult event, although the adult event returned at full strength in 2010.
Three American competitors cleared the qualifying round to return to Israel for the champions event, where 16 former competitors will assemble: Yair Shahak, a teacher at the Frisch School in Paramus, who competed in 2014 and won in 2016; Rabbi Ezra Frazer, a teacher at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, who was second in 2012 and was a youth competitor; and Alexander Heppenheimer, a proofreader for Chabad.org and IT tech support specialist from Crown Heights, who came in second in 2014, beaten only by Malka.
“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. Netanyahu will ask the oral questions.
“But it won’t just be exams and questioning the whole time,” said Malka. “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.”
“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 in 2016 with his wife, Yaelle Frohlich, who represented 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,” he acknowledged. “I’m a pretty competitive person, but the circumstances surrounding this event 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.”
“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 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.
‘Deeper analysis as an adult’
Rabbi Ezra Frazer, who also lives in Teaneck and has three daughters, has spent more than half his life involved in the chidon. He competed in the chidon for youth (1994 as U.S. champion and went to Israel for the competition in 1995) and adults (second place in 2012). 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,” said Frazer. “I am grateful that this experience enabled me to engage in deeper analysis as an adult, in contexts like yeshivah 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.”
“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 said, he would focus his prep time on learning several books that “always interested me, but I have never had the opportunity to teach: Divrei Hayamim, Mishlei and Iyov.”
Frazer added that he was looking forward to spending Hanukkah with fellow Tanach-lovers and soaking up the atmosphere. “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.
“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.”
‘How to live on a day-to-day basis’
Tanach is it is a great equalizer between Jews from all walks of life. A married father of six, Heppenheimer, of the Chabad Chassidic community in Crown Heights, 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 suggested he take the exam.
“I grew up in the Chabad school system, for cheder and yeshivah,” he said, noting that the Pentateuch, Tanya, Chassidic 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 encouraged,” he said. “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.”
What does he 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 in that he is planning to travel with his family, unlike the last time, when he headed to Israel in 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.
Last time, he said he enjoyed getting to know the competitors and even became friendly with one of the other Americans: Shahak, the teacher from New Jersey.
“Yair came in first in my American contest, but then when it came to the international rounds, I beat him,” said Heppenheimer, quickly adding that Shahak wasn’t feeling well that day.
The sense of friendly competition abounds between the participants, and all look forward to an incredible experience.
And who knows? One of them might just take home the prize.