He began an intensive study of Jewish scriptures during his childhood in Brooklyn’s chasidic Borough Park neighborhood, supplementing his yeshiva’s traditional emphasis on Talmud with an interest in Genesis-to-Chronicles. She, a native of Edmonton, Canada, found herself at 12 enthralled by the stories present throughout the Torah.
Yair Shahak and Yaelle Frohlich, Yeshiva University alumni who married four years ago, will make history together in Israel.
Shahak and Frohlich, both 28, will be the first married couple to compete the same year in the International Adult Bible Contest sponsored by the Jewish Agency.
Shahak qualified to represent the U.S.; Frohlich, Canada.
The competition, which was founded by David Ben-Gurion, offers a first prize of 40,000 shekels (about $10,000).
The first round of the competition is Dec. 28, the fifth night of Chanukah.
The opportunity to expand one’s knowledge of Tanach (the Hebrew acronym for Torah, Prophets and Writings) is the incentive to participate in the competition, not the money, said Frohlich, who is studying for her doctorate in 19th-century intellectual Jewish history at New York University. “The amount of material” covered in the competition is finite, but the amount of what they can test you on is infinite. The key is to know the details and understand the details,” she said.
Preparation for the competition shifts the focus of a Torah student from sweeping themes to an emphasis on specific facts, said Shahak, a cantor and professional violinist who is pursuing a master’s degree in violin performance at Queens College’s Aaron Copland School of Music. He won the U.S. branch of the Adult Bible Contest two years ago. Instead of primarily seeing “the forest” of Torah, he said, “you’re trying to see the trees.”
Shahak said his decision to enter the international competition this year was a no-brainer. “I’m pretty competitive by nature,” he said.
The couple have been studying together for several months.
“The chidon [contest] encourages learning by chavrusa,” with a partner, Frohlich said. “It’s really cool to have your chavrusa across the dinner table from you.”
How competitive are they with each other? Not at all, they said. No trash talk. No bets.
“We complement each other,” she said. And they compliment each other, pointing out the spouse’s Tanach strengths. “We’re totally supportive.”
“I’m a performer,” Shahak said. “A little nervousness keeps you on your toes.”
At the competition, which will take place at the National Convention Center in Jerusalem, the couple will be cheering for each other. “An ideal scenario would be a tie for first place,” Frohlich said — an “unlikely” ending.
“We’ll be happy no matter who wins,” she said.