A Biblical Battle of Wits

YU Alumni Are First Married Couple to Compete Against Each Other in Chidon HaTanach

Next week, two Yeshiva University alumni will make history as the first married couple to go head-to-head in the 2016 International Adult Bible Contest (Chidon Ha-Tanach).

For Yaelle Frohlich ’10S ’12BR, a doctoral candidate specializing in 19th-century Jewish intellectual history at New York University, and Yair Shahak ’11YC ’11BR ’15BZ, an ordained cantor pursuing a masters degree in violin performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music, the showdown might be inevitable. A shared passion for Jewish studies is part of what brought the two together initially as undergraduates at YU.

YU alumni Yair Shahak, left, and Yaelle Frohlich are the first married couple to compete against each other in the International Chidon HaTanach.
YU alumni Yair Shahak, left, and Yaelle Frohlich are the first married couple to compete against each other in the International Chidon HaTanach.

“During one of our first truly meaningful conversations, I mentioned to him how much I loved reading Tanach, and that there were still more biblical books I needed to read,” said Frohlich. “He encouraged me. I asked him whether he had ever gone through the entirety of Tanach, and he held up four fingers, indicating that he’d completed it four times. We were barely 20 years old at the time, and this response surprised me—actually, it blew me away. I knew from my own experiences of challenging individual Tanach study that his answer was highly unusual, and unbelievably impressive.”

For Frohlich, her love of textual study began at the age of 12, when she began reading the weekly parshiyot of the book of Berishit in English. “I was completely enthralled, even though I had always known the basic details of the story,” she said.

That year, after transferring to a new school for junior high, she began gaining textual skills in biblical Hebrew and Rashi commentary and eventually went on to take the highest-level Judaic studies courses available to her in seminary, which included weekly quizzes that were similar to the Chidon tests.

Shahak’s lifelong fascination with Tanach is intertwined with his interests in music and language; in addition to studying to become a cantor at YU’s Philip and Sara Belz School for Jewish Music, he also taught modern and Biblical Hebrew at Yeshiva College for five years, where he won the college’s Professor of the Year Award in 2013. “I have always loved and studied Tanach because of the complex, multilayered biblical Hebrew language it uses,” he said. “Another reason is the musical variety in the biblical cantillation across the different parts of the Bible; Tanach is a fusion of my love for languages and music.”

When Shahak competed in the United States National Adult Chidon Competition in 2014, which he would go on to win, Frohlich helped him study, reviewing material and asking him questions. Though she didn’t consider competing at the time, she began to realize during the process that she knew many of the answers as well. This year, the pair decided they would both participate—Shahak, originally from Borough Park, New York, will represent the U.S., while Frohlich, a native of Edmonton, Alberta, will represent Canada.

“I am so excited that we get to experience the 2016 Chidon together,” said Frohlich. “It is a meaningful experience to infuse our daily lives with the study of Tanach, to talk about insights and theories about the text over Shabbat dinner. It is also meaningful to me personally to reread books I haven’t studied in depth for a long time, and to become familiar with books that I still hadn’t gotten to—despite my resolution and Yair’s encouragement from years past to finally read them! Now, at long last, I am finally sitting down with Tanach and reading these books.”

The couple’s immersion in Torah and Judaic studies is an integral part of their life together: in addition to pursuing their respective degrees, they are frequent educators at the Rimon Center in New Jersey and also often travel for Shabbat to the Mordecai T. Mezrich Center for Jewish Learning in East Windsor, New Jersey, and the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway Jewish Center in the Bronx, where Shahak serves as cantor.

Competing against one another in the Chidon is in some ways just another step along that journey. “Doing this together means we have not only an in-built support system when we go to Israel, but an invested study partner,” said Frohlich.

“I’m extremely competitive, but I’ll be thrilled if Yaelle beats me,” added Shahak.