The front door of the Babian family’s Beit Shemesh apartment is relatively easy to find, covered as it is with exuberant congratulatory letters and articles about Elior Babian.
Inside the Babians’ simple home, where Shula Babian folded piles of white undershirts with her blue-and-white tipped nails, while her husband, Aharon, sat on the living room couch periodically checking his cellphone, the mood was much more quiet and contemplative.
Elior, 16, the second-oldest of the family’s five sons, last week won the Bible Quiz, the annual Independence Day contest that is considered the ultimate test of encyclopedic Bible knowledge. The knowledge he displayed was phenomenal, but his success is even more remarkable when you step into his home, and learn more about his life and that of his family.
This is a family that has had no shortage of personal hardships, with four of the five sons — Elior among them — suffering from a variety of handicaps and disorders. Though both Babians work, their joint salaries can’t cover the crippling bills that have forced Aharon Babian to resort to asking for donations in order to keep a roof over their heads. “I never believed that it would come to that,” said Aharon Babian. “But I have to do it, to pay the rent.”
Babian and New Jersey yeshiva student, Yishai Eisenberg, were co-winners of the annual contest last week — the first time the prize had been awarded to joint winners.
When Babian was named the winner by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the stage of the Jerusalem Theater, he impetuously hugged the prime minister, recalled Aharon, who was sitting in the audience. “It was like a release of the pressure for him,” said his father. “He won, it’s a privilege.”
It was also the first time the Bible quiz was won by a Beit Shemesh resident, noted Aharon, adding that it was a point of pride for a city that has repeatedly reported poor educational scores on the national level.
For the Babians, however, their son’s win was much more than a significant scholastic achievement. Elior Babian has always loved studying the Bible, and received special tutoring from one of his school rabbis to prepare for the quiz, after competing in local quizzes over the last few years. The rabbi “saw his potential,” said his father. Elior “has a great memory.”
But the teenager has had to grapple with his own demons, after being recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, following an extended period of anxiety and depression.
“He had ups and downs this year,” said Aharon. “He’s been a little bit better; he has more emotional strength this year.”
The idea to work toward winning the quiz was Elior’s, said his parents, but they made sure he knew that they had faith in his abilities. “He’s a special kid,” said his mother, tearing up, “with the skills to do well. And it’s my job as his mother to be an optimist on his behalf, to believe in him.”
In the Orthodox world in which the Babians live, it wasn’t always obvious to others that Elior’s schizophrenia, once diagnosed, required the same kind of medical care as any other disease. “It was hard to recognize it,” said Shula. “You see the signs, but you need permission to do what is needed,” she said referring to the psychiatric care and medications that Elior has been receiving. “People helped us, but not everyone…”
For the Babians, Elior’s diagnosis was yet another blow in their spate of health-related and financial crises.
Two of their five sons, including 19-year-old Eliran, the oldest, and Elihu, 10, suffer from pituitary dwarfism, requiring daily injections of growth hormones that aren’t completely covered by the national health insurance. Their third son, Eliav, 12½, has a development disorder and is enrolled in the special-education system. Only their youngest, Elyashiv, 5, is “okay,” said Shula.
The Babians receive some government assistance, but it doesn’t come close to what they need to cover the expenses incurred in caring for their children. They have found themselves trapped beneath a mountain of debt, with only a few thousand shekels a month in income.
Aharon Babian, 48, a Hebrew studies teacher in the local religious public school system, has always worked only as a substitute teacher, lacking a Bachelor’s degree that would solidify his employment possibilities. He was able to support the family years ago, supplemented by his wife’s work as a certified caregiver for seniors. But changes in the public school system lessened the need for substitute teachers, and after he won a protracted disagreement with one school in court, Babian found that he had even fewer hours of employment. Meanwhile Shula developed a back problem and carpal tunnel syndrome in one of her hands that makes it impossible to do the heavy lifting and cleaning required in caring for seniors.
Owing hundreds of thousands of shekels, they needed money urgently in order to make ends meet. Babian decided to ask for personal donations, which he’s now been doing for several years. ”I went to people I know, to Jews,” said Aharon.
It hasn’t been easy for him to ask for help among the Beit Shemesh community in which he lives, said Rabbi Joel Landau, a Beit Shemesh resident who has tried to help the family.
“The pressures are enormous,” Landau said. “That’s the story in a nutshell.”
For Aharon, there aren’t many solutions, either. He doesn’t believe he has the tools to get a different kind of job. ”There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiety,” he said. “I have a huge load on my shoulders. But I don’t want it to be hard like this for my boys.”
Neither does Shula Babian, who dreams of working as a kindergarten teacher’s assistant.
Shula, who moved to Israel from Iran when she was 19, and married her husband before completing her accounting degree, said softly, “We want to succeed on our own.”
Elior certainly did that, in Jerusalem last week. “This was a success for our family,” said his mother, “and that’s what we want our boys to feel.”