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‘Jeopardy’ for Jews: Who Wants To Be the World’s Next Top Torah Scholar?

Israelis usually win the International Bible Contest. But one year, two young Americans defied the odds in a televised showdown.

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Chidon contestants at the Jerusalem Theater on May 10, 2011. (Muki Schwartz/Israeli Ministry of Education)
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This coming Tuesday, on Israel’s Independence Day, the finals of the Chidon HaTanakh—the International Bible Contest—will take place in Jerusalem and will be broadcast live across the country. It’s a major television event, a game show where Torah trivia is the only subject; think Jeopardy for Jews. As in every other year, several Americans will be among the contestants seeking to translate their mastery of the minutiae of the Hebrew Bible into victory. And as in every other year, they will be expected to lose.

Since the international competition’s inception more than five decades ago, only three Americans have ever taken home the top prize. Almost always an Israeli has been crowned champion. The spectacle of students from around the world repeatedly being trounced by the locals has long been the source of both amusement and controversy in Israel. Neriah Pinchas, who won the Chidon in 1980 and has written the questions for the contest since 1987, recalls how Prime Minister Menachem Begin was confronted by a reporter during a Torah study group at his home and asked what purpose was served by an international competition in which the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Pinchas recounted: “They asked him, ‘Why do we need an international Bible quiz if the Israelis always win?’ ” Begin answered, fittingly, by citing a biblical verse: “Look, when a kid from Canada or Australia or Switzerland takes first place, we will have a problem,” he said, “because it says, ‘ki mi-Tzion tetze Torah, u’devar Hashem miyerushalayim’ ”—for the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3). “It doesn’t say ‘ki mi-Montreal’ [from Montreal], it says ‘ki mi-Tzion’ [from Zion],” Begin observed. “So if a foreign contestant wants to be victorious, they can come to Israel and make aliyah, and only here will they win!” After all, the Bible says so.

The competition’s deep disparity between Israeli contestants and their foreign counterparts was memorably lampooned in the 1970s by Lul, one of Israel’s most famous comedy troupes. “We are here at the end of the Chidon finals,” opens the breathless announcer at the start of the sketch. “From among the 60 contestants, three remain.” There is the Scandinavian contestant with 37 points and the Sudanese contestant with 42. Then there is the Israeli representative “with 473 out of 400 possible points.” The final question is worth 13 points. “Everything,” concludes the broadcaster, “is wide open.”

The truth behind Israeli dominance at the Chidon, however, is somewhat more prosaic than Begin’s biblical account. In America and abroad, the Chidon is a rather obscure contest that takes place far away and is only one of many extracurricular activities that vie for students’ attention. In Israel, the Chidon is an annual televised extravaganza attended by the country’s leadership and a source of great honor and prestige for the victors, particularly in the religious Zionist community. As a result, while overseas contestants typically have to make time to study for the finals on their own, Israelis who show particular promise are often given time off by their schools to prepare. Some of these contenders have been groomed almost since infancy to tackle the contest—Pinchas, the former champion, began learning Tanakh with his grandfather at age 3. And of course, there’s also the language barrier: It is much easier to assimilate hundreds of chapters of biblical Hebrew—often from some of the Tanakh’s more abstruse books—if one grew up speaking the modern variety.

But in 1988, two American teenagers would defy the odds and challenge this state of affairs. One was a future superstar Harvard law professor. The other was a future Rosh Yeshiva, or rabbinic dean, at Yeshiva University. They were both serious contenders to win the contest, but only one of them would ultimately succeed. Their unlikely story began in New York City.

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“The big deal about Jeremy Wieder winning,” said Shalom Holtz, an associate professor of Bible at Yeshiva University who ran the U.S. competition from 2003 to 2006, “was that there’s this inside understanding that the Israelis always win.” A native of Monsey, N.Y., and the son of a physics professor, Wieder had attended Yeshiva of Spring Valley and Ashar, followed by Yeshiva University High School for Boys. It was his first time participating in the Chidon. “He was very nice and unassuming,” recalled Jeremy Spierer, another contestant from that year, “but he kind of knew everything.” And yet, even as Wieder would make history in Israel as just the second American champion of the international competition, he had been only the runner-up in the United States in the previous year’s qualifying competition, the national Chidon.

The U.S. Chidon is divided into four divisions: two each for middle-school and high-school students—one in English and the other in Hebrew. Typically, the top contestants come from the senior Hebrew division. And in June 1987, the winner of that division with a near-perfect score was Noah Feldman. A Massachusetts native, Feldman grew up around Cambridge; his parents taught at Harvard and MIT and were deeply involved in the Harvard Hillel community, where Feldman’s father served as the first chair of the Orthodox Minyan board. At the Ramaz School in Manhattan, where the American nationals took place, Feldman lost half a point when he was asked for the dimensions of a specific set of curtains in the Tabernacle, but gave the measurements for the wrong set. “I was off by a cubit and a half, or something like that,” he recalled.

It was enough to beat Wieder, however, who came in second. “I was very impressed with them both,” said Dr. Mitchell Orlian, a professor of Bible who ran the competition from 1982 to 2000. “I couldn’t say who was better and who knew more, because they were very, very close.” But the American nationals, which cover approximately 100 chapters from relatively accessible biblical books, are a cakewalk compared to the Israeli competition, which covers around 400 from some of the most difficult ones. And so with a year to go before the showdown in Jerusalem, Wieder and Feldman got to work.

The following September, Wieder entered Yeshiva University as an early-admissions freshman and set aside regular time in his daily studies for Chidon preparation. A professional synagogue Torah reader, Wieder already had some familiarity with the five books of the chumash, which made up one-third of the content covered by the competition, but he also had much more to learn. “I probably spent most of the year, at least an hour a day, just going over and over the material,” he said.

At the same time, Feldman began his senior year at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he was excused from Navi [Prophets] class in order to study for the Chidon, and spent the 42-minute period memorizing the material with the traditional tune for Torah chanters. He also discovered some helpful test prep books in an unexpected place. “In the last couple months,” he recalled, “I found in the library at Harvard a great cache of questions and answers that were designed for Chidon that dated back to the ’50s, and I used those to try to hone my technique.”

Finally, in April 1988, it was time to fly to Israel.

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While viewers at home experience the Chidon as a one-day affair on Israeli Independence Day, international contestants actually arrive two weeks in advance for a set of community-building and social activities. This is because the purpose of the global Chidon is not simply to showcase young Torah scholars, but also to build a sense of shared Jewish kinship around Israel and the Tanakh. Participants tour the country, meet famous rabbis and dignitaries—including the prime minister—and spend time on an army base with Israeli counselors who were former Chidon participants themselves, as part of what is informally known as “Camp Tanakh.”

Here Wieder (who arrived late from college) and Feldman met their competitors from around the world, including for the first time a student from behind the Iron Curtain, who came with his teacher from Hungary. The two also met Shawn Zelig Aster, today an assistant professor of Bible at Yeshiva University and then the Canadian champion. As they interacted with the other overseas contestants, Wieder watched Feldman demonstrate his prodigious propensity for languages. “He was talking to all the foreign students—non-Anglo, non-Israeli students—and he was picking up language,” recalled Wieder, “which was rather amazing to watch.” It was a skill that would serve Feldman in good stead many years later, when he became an adviser on the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution. Feldman remembered being struck by Wieder’s personal and intellectual maturity. “At 18, if you said, ‘Oh yeah, that guy will soon be the youngest Rosh Yeshiva in the history of RIETS [Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school],’ you wouldn’t have said something that was surprising,” Feldman said.

The Americans quickly came to realize just how large the Chidon loomed in the Israeli consciousness. “In America, it was literally like, ‘Hey, Noah: There’s a Tanakh test! You like Tanakh, why don’t you go take the test tomorrow?’ ” said Feldman. “It just didn’t have anything like the same cultural meaning or associations.” The Israelis, they soon saw, were playing for keeps. One had a photographic memory and would move his finger in front of his forehead while pondering a question, as though thumbing through material. Several of the Israeli contestants would answer questions by reciting by heart the entire passage of the Bible in which the relevant word or phrase was found. “They were a little intimidating,” acknowledged Spierer.

Yom Ha’atzmaut arrived and with it the finals that would be televised and broadcast across Israel. Thousands of spectators poured into the Jerusalem Theater, where years earlier, David Ben-Gurion famously sat and checked participants’ answers in his Bible throughout the Chidon. But for all the pomp and circumstance of the televised rounds, much of the competition is actually decided before they take place. Days prior, the participants are given a written exam of 50 to 60 questions, and their score from that test rolls over into the final competition. Because many of the TV questions are generally designed to be much easier, so no one is embarrassed on stage, this means that those who lose too many points on the advance exam—typically foreigners—have little chance of making up ground later and taking the crown.

But that year, the written exam—traditionally the most brutal part of the process—was uncharacteristically painless, and a handful of students emerged with perfect scores. “I got lucky,” said Wieder. “The Israelis knew the material better than anybody else, and the only reason why I had a chance was because the written exam that year was multiple choice and relatively easy.” Of the dozens of contenders, overseas and Israeli, only the top 16 from the exam get to compete in the televised rounds. Both Feldman and Wieder made the cut.

On stage, the foreign contestants each injected some character into the proceedings. Aster placed a small Canadian flag at his place on the dais, in full view of the audience and cameras. Feldman aped the Israeli practice of answering questions through the recitation of large chunks of the biblical text, rattling off a section of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) to the delight of the judges.

Slowly contestants were eliminated. But thanks to the easy written exam, several contenders still retained perfect scores going into the final round, so that everything came down to the final question, traditionally posed by the prime minister—in this case, Yitzhak Shamir. (In 2010, Avner Netanyahu had his own chances ruined when he stumbled on the question asked by his own father.) Wieder was calm. “I like to say that on the final question, the pressure was all on the Israelis and not on me,” he said, “because nobody expected me to do anything.” The last query presented the contestants with 10 biblical citations of the word shalom (peace) and asked them first to identify where they came from and second to provide information about each instance. Wieder got 19 of the 20 answers correct. When the dust settled, he had tied for first with a young Tunisian-Israeli woman named Zehava Hadad, while Aster had placed fourth and Feldman fifth.

The result was so surprising that multiple conspiracy theories soon surfaced alleging collusion behind it. “When Jeremy tied with the Israeli girl from Be’er Sheva,” recalled Spierer, “the Americans thought really Jeremy had won, but they [the judges] were too embarrassed to let him win and made it a tie.” On the Israeli side, the opposite accusation was leveled by one of the runners-up. “This Israeli guy alleged publicly that he had been robbed, and that basically the political establishment wanted it to go to a non-Israeli and wanted it to go to a woman,” said Feldman. The Chidon denied any such schemes.

For his part, Wieder maintains that the victory was a “fluke” brought about by the overly forbearing written exam. “Almost any other year, there’s no chance I’d have been in the running for the final question,” he claimed. But fluke or not, Wieder became first American to win since 1973, when Leora Reich of Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn took home the gold. And Wieder’s feat would not be repeated until 2013, when Yishai Eisenberg, a freshman from Yeshiva University High School for Boys, would tie for first place.

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“I think you can see a lot about a person by 18,” Feldman told me, looking back on his experience. “You can’t see everything, but you can see a lot.” Both he and Wieder had displayed flashes of their futures in their quest for the Chidon championship, and both would take what the Chidon gave them into their chosen fields, where each have achieved excellence in very different arenas.

Wieder went on to receive rabbinic ordination and soon became the youngest rabbinic dean in the history of Yeshiva University. Unusual for a rosh yeshiva, he also completed a doctorate in rabbinic literature at New York University. Today he teaches Talmud and Bible, and credits the Chidon for giving him a strong grounding in Tanakh—particularly in the lesser-known areas of Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings)—at a time when he was tilting more and more toward studying the Jewish oral tradition of the Mishna, Talmud, and their commentaries. “Having learned the material left a lasting impact for me,” he said, “and having this knowledge store of Tanakh outside of Torah is something I consider extremely valuable, just in my learning in general.”

Feldman would attend Harvard, where he graduated with the highest GPA in his class. He then studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, completed Yale Law School, and clerked for Justice David Souter of the Supreme Court. After stints teaching at NYU and advising the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, he joined the faculty at Harvard Law School, where then-Dean Elena Kagan—now a Supreme Court justice—dubbed him “one of the stars of his generation.” For the past six semesters, he has co-taught a class on Jewish law and legal theory.

Surveying a career that has often dealt with the nexus of politics and religion, Feldman considers the Chidon to be “one of the most important educational experiences of my life.” First, “the Chidon was the main reason that I was able to go on to read medieval Hebrew poetry,” which is rife with biblical allusions. (Feldman wrote his senior thesis in college on the subject.) Similarly, the knowledge paid dividends when Feldman tackled English literature and other literary corpuses filled with references to the Bible. Finally, he said, “there’s the internal religious-slash-spiritual value of being able to feel connected to this incredible foundational text.” For Feldman, the Chidon “just opened whole worlds.”

Imbibing the Bible as a teenager, it turns out, made winners of everyone.

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‘Jeopardy’ for Jews: Who Wants To Be the World’s Next Top Torah Scholar?

Israelis usually win the International Bible Contest. But one year, two young Americans defied the odds in a televised showdown.