NEW YORK — This married couple is most definitely not on the same team and they couldn’t be happier.
On December 28, Yeshiva University alumni Yair Shahak and Yaelle Frohlich will face off in Jerusalem at the 2016 International Adult Bible Contest. Brooklyn-born Shahak, winner of the 2014 US National Adult Chidon [Quiz] Competition, will represent the US. Frohlich, who was born in Edmonton, Alberta, will represent team Canada. It’s the first time a married couple has ever participated in the same bible contest.
“I am competitive with myself but we aren’t competitive with one another — but we also never really had to test this before,” Frohlich, 28, said.
“We’ll be thrilled for the other to win,” Shahak, 28, said, smiling in agreement.
The couple, married four-and-a-half years, spoke to The Times of Israel via Skype. Sitting at their kitchen table, often finishing each others sentences, the pair spoke of discovering their mutual love of Tanach (the texts from the Five Books of Moses through Chronicles) nearly nine years ago, back when they were both undergraduates at YU.
Once a week Frohlich made her way to YU’s third floor radio studio. There she hosted her show “Kosher Fairy Tales and Decent Exposures” on the university’s student radio network, WYUR. The show, which took fairy tales and recast them in a Jewish light (think Zeldarella instead of Cinderella) had a small but loyal following.
Meanwhile, Shahak would be practicing his violin in one of the second floor music studios. Every once in a while when he finished practicing he’d walk up the short flight of stairs, pop into the studio and say hello.
And so it went until the year-end WYUR awards party. The two finally had a chance to exchange more than a few words. Frohlich casually mentioned how much she adored reading Tanach. She wondered, had Shahak ever read it?
“He held up four fingers, indicating that he’d gone through the entirety of Tanach 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 — I hadn’t yet even gone through the entire thing — that his answer was highly unusual, and unbelievably impressive,” she said of Shahak who won the National Adult Chidon Competition in 2014.
Frohlich actually started studying Tanach when she was 12. She was enthralled. After transferring to a new school for junior high, she started learning biblical Hebrew and Rashi commentary. In seminary she took the highest level courses possible in both Chumash and the Early Prophets (Joshua through Kings II). Weekly quizzes on the content of each chapter and other material, including quotations and descriptions, were de rigueur.
Later Frohlich, who is pursuing a PhD in 19th-century intellectual Jewish history at New York University, discovered it was similar to the material on the contest’s quizzes.
Shahak grew up in Boro Park in what he called a “haredi-ish” family. He was always drawn to outside knowledge — whether chess theory, Tolkenism, or Tanach.
‘I knew from my own experiences that his answer was highly unusual and unbelievably impressive’
“Every year or so I’d pick something from the outside and dive into it,” Shahak said, adding that his family always expected he’d attend YU. “I grew up with the Boro Park mentality but also with the concept of learning subjects not taught in my haredi yeshiva. I also have a large family in Israel who served in the IDF. There was always this dichotomy.”
An ordained cantor, Shahak serves at the Mordecai T. Mezrich Center for Jewish Learning in East Windsor, New Jersey and Young Israel of Pelham Parkway Jewish Center in the Bronx.
On weekends, when the couple isn’t studying, they teach at the Rimon Center in East Windsor, often leading the center’s explanatory Shabbat services. Shahak is also pursuing a Master’s of Music in Violin Performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College.
At first, Frohlich hadn’t considered competing, but studied with Shahak and noticed she often knew the answers to questions on Chidon study materials. So she decided to apply as a Canadian, her country of citizenship.
“I would be testing Yair and I realized I knew a lot of the answers. I thought it would be something fun to do,” Frohlich said.
With the competition just a little more than two weeks away, the couple are in their final stages of studying. They know the moderator can ask, and will ask, “literally everything and anything.”
“A little nervousness is good, too much is paralyzing. You just have to focus on what needs to get done,” he said.
Frohlich on the other hand is admittedly the more nervous of the two.
“I’m inclined toward being nervous, but I don’t think nervousness is productive. I will still cram, in spite of everything. Even though I know it’s not supposed to be productive,” she said.