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Where Even A Hack Knows His Bible

Where Even A Hack Knows His Bible

New Yorker Yair Shahak, second from left, tied for first in Israel’s recent international Bible competition.  PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHIDON HATANACH
New Yorker Yair Shahak, second from left, tied for first in Israel’s recent international Bible competition. PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHIDON HATANACH

Yair Shahak, a cantor and graduate student of violin in New York City, had just tied for first place in the recent International Adult Bible Contest, a live Israeli TV and radio event that features the prime minister and is held in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma convention center before thousands of people.

Then came the real Bible contest.

A couple of days later, Shahak and his wife Yaelle Frohlich, who also qualified for the competition but did not make it to the final round, were taking a taxi to the Old City from Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood.

The driver, in his 40s, “who self-identified as secular,” turned around and exclaimed in Hebrew, “You won the Chidon [Hebrew for quiz],” said Shahak, who returned with Yaelle last week from an extended post-competition vacation. Elon, the cabbie, had apparently watched the final round on TV.

“He wished me mazel tov,” Shahak said. Then the driver proceeded to quiz his fare about Shahak’s biblical knowledge.

Such is fame in Israel, where everyone studies Torah for years in school and the Chidon winner is an instant, but short-lived, celebrity, Shahak said.

During the couple’s week in Israel, at least a dozen people recognized Yair on the street, offering congratulations, he said.

Yair and Israeli Yifat Silman finished first in the final round of 16, each taking home a plaque and “large, beautiful” Hebrew-language Tanach (the Jewish scriptures), and splitting a combined first- and second-place prize of 70,000 shekels (each earned about $9,000.)

The money was hard earned, said Shahak, who had to go through preliminary rounds of 50 written questions and a minute-long round of oral questions, before reaching the final round of four contestants whose questions were read by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The questions,” about minutiae from throughout the Torah, were “mostly very difficult,” he said.

Yaelle, a Ph.D. student at New York University who as a competitor sat in the auditorium’s front row, said she was “thrilled” by her husband’s victory.

Both 28, they were the first married couple to qualify for the Chidon in the same year — he, a native of Brooklyn, for the U.S.; she, from Edmonton, for Canada.

Yair aced every question during every round. “He broke a record — as far as we know,” Yaelle said.

And Elon’s question?

The cabbie asked Yair to identify the Torah’s cities of refuge, where someone who had accidentally taken a life could safely flee. (There were six, including Hebron, Shechem and Ramoth.) That hadn’t been part of the Torah on which he would be quizzed during the contest, Shahak said. “But I answered it.”

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