Today, Yair Rosenberg takes Tablet readers behind the scenes of the game-show-like drama of the Chidon ha-Tanakh, the annual International Bible Contest being held (and televised) in Israel this Monday, Israeli Independence Day. I come from a Chidon family, so I know the contest well; in 1979, when I was 8 years old, I was in the Chidon audience in Jerusalem.
It was exciting to watch the contest—and not just because the show opened with a choir performing “Hallelujah,” the Israeli pop song that had won the Eurovision Song Contest just a few weeks earlier in Jerusalem. There, on stage with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was my 15-year-old brother Scott, competing for the prize.
As Yair’s story makes clear, Americans have traditionally had a rough time in the international competition. “I remember thinking I wasn’t going to win,” my brother told me this week, “because others were native Hebrew speakers. They had greater linguistic and cultural familiarity. I thought I’d hold my own but I did not think I would win—and that’s pretty much how it unfolded. I finished right in the middle.” The 1979 winner, Ronen Feldman, was, of course, Israeli.
But Scott was not deterred. In 1980, he competed again (in the English division) in the qualifying National Bible Contest in New York, and he won—giving him a second chance to compete in the Chidon in Jerusalem the following year. “Dad asked me why I was doing it again,” said Scott, recalling that he enjoyed the challenge of the competition, as well as the camaraderie he’d felt with the more than two dozen other contestants in Israel in 1979, who came from South Africa, Chile, Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere. “Also, maybe I thought I’d do better the second time.” But again, the winner in 1981 was Israeli.
By this point, our whole family had gotten involved in Bible contests. My sister Stacey competed in the nationals, taking second place in 1980 and 1981. And then I picked up the baton, competing in the nationals twice—including one year when, after our coach made aliyah with her family, I served as the young coach for other (even younger) contestants from suburban Maryland. I never matched my sister’s placement in New York, and never followed in my brother’s footsteps in Jerusalem, but the competition itself—writing up practice tests on my sister’s manual typewriter, reading Tanakh in my allergist’s waiting room, arguing over tiny details in my parents’ basement during weekly study sessions—was rewarding nonetheless.
Today, my brother is a rabbi at Temple Israel of South Merrick on Long Island. I asked him if he knew he’d choose this career back when he competed in Chidon as a teenager. “It certainly would have tied together some interests I had, so it wouldn’t have come as a shock, but at that point it wasn’t obvious to me,” Scott said. “Mom says she knew at that point that I would become a rabbi, but I didn’t. As usual, the kids are the last to know.”
Wayne Hoffman is executive editor of Tablet Magazine.