Last year, for the first time since 1988, an American won the International Bible Contest in Israel. How did Yishai Eisenberg, a freshman at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, accomplish the feat? Simple: From the American competition through the Israeli finals, he didn’t get a single question wrong. In advance of today’s contest in Israel–which just concluded with Canadian Eitan Amos taking the crown–I spoke with the two top American finishers in 2013, Eisenberg (tied for first) and Shalhevet Schwartz (tied for fourth), about their experiences and the secrets to their success.
So, how does one go about memorizing entire books of the Bible? “I read the Tanakh, and that was pretty much it,” said Eisenberg. “The studying itself is very simple: you just have to read and re-read Tanakh, but you have to be very persistent about it.” Whenever he had a spare moment, whether at home or at a bus stop, he would pull out his Tanakh and begin reviewing it. Eisenberg also had an advantage: he lived in Israel from age 7 to 13, so his Hebrew was excellent, unlike many overseas contestants who had to work to overcome the language barrier presented by the biblical text.
Schwartz, who won the American senior Hebrew division as a 9th grader, had a variety of study strategies. “It was a lot of reading through the text a bunch of times, doing lots of practice questions, having my father grill me on stuff, and making lots of lists of common words and genealogies,” she recalled. She also had a few tricks up her sleeve. On the advice of Rabbi Ezra Frazer, director of the U.S. Chidon, Schwartz studied each of the books of the later Prophets out of different editions of the Bible, and in different places. “I would have my JPS Tanakh on my couch downstairs where I would learn Hoshea,” she said, “and I would have the Breuer Tanakh on my upstairs couch where I would learn Amos, and I would learn Malakhi out of a Da’at Mikra in my school Beit Midrash on the left side.” The result? When presented with an obscure quote from one of those books and asked to identify its source, she would visualize the text and immediately know which book it came from based on the font and style of the Tanakh in her mental image.
Both Eisenberg and Schwartz come from Chidon dynasties of sorts. Eisenberg’s grandmother, who helped him with his studying, is a Chidon coach in Silver Spring, Maryland. In 2013, his older sister barely missed making the international contest in Israel herself, and this year, his younger sister will be contending in the American nationals. Likewise, Schwartz’s father and both of her older brothers also participated in the competition. Doing the Chidon herself, she said, “was always just sort of assumed, like anything else in my Jewish education.”
On stage in Israel, where the final rounds are televised live across the country and streamed online, both Americans recall feeling the pressure. The 16 finalists even played clapping games backstage to help themselves de-stress. “I just didn’t want to get that first question wrong,” said Schwartz. “I didn’t really care about after that. You get the first question wrong and it’s really embarrassing.”
“It was very nerve-wracking,” admitted Eisenberg, and only got more so as contestant after contestant was eliminated, and the competition came down to a series of tie-breaking questions between him and Israeli Elior Babian. “It wasn’t easy, but maybe that itself helped me focus—that I was very nervous,” he said. When the judges finally threw up their hands and declared a tie, Eisenberg and Babian embraced on stage.