Forty seniors participated on Monday in Israel's Bible Contest for Seniors.
Their love for the Bible grows stronger with time, the verses come more easily to their lips, and the various commentaries evoke memories of the past.
On the day before the competition, Beit Tovei Ha'ir's Asher Suzin met with four of the contestants to hear about their love for the Book of Books and the memories of the childhood homes for which they still yearn today.
Even though Bible contests have become popular over recent years, the traditional Bible Contest for youngsters is not enough for a large part of the public.
To fill the gap, the Tovei Ha’ir Residence in Jerusalem decided to hold a Bible Contest this year for seniors.
Bracha Tsuberi (75), who made it to the finals together with 13 other contestants, did not win in the end; yet, when we spoke to her this week she was very excited and studying almost incessantly. Since she taught Bible, Judaism and other subjects for more than thirty years, studying the Bible is second nature to her.
However, Tsuberi's connection to the Bible started long before she became a teacher.
“I made Aliyah from Sana’a, Yemen in 1943, before the establishment of the State. I was three and a half years old when we came here, and we walked in the desert for nine months. My sister and I shared the same donkey, and when they would take her off the donkey I would fall off too because of the sudden imbalance,” she remembers with a laugh.
“On the way, we slept in huts put up by the German army who had taken this route before on their way to conquer Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“The Russians and Americans bombed Germany, and Rommel was forced to retreat; as a result, he and his army left dozens of deserted huts on their path. We were lucky to sleep in them, and we felt like the People of Israel who came out of Egypt and slept in Sukkahs on their way.
“The Joint Distribution Committee provided us with everything. When it was hot, we rested during the day and we walked during the evening and night. After a while, we reached an Egyptian port and sailed from there to the shores of Atlit.
“In Atlit we were sent to Kfar Pines. Back then, it was a deserted hill of barren land that tanks had driven over. They gave my father a basic package of goods and said to him, ‘Good luck. Here is your home.’
“The package turned out to be a folded tent. I remember that we wandered around here and there until we chose a nice little hill. As my father was clearing the land on which to set up the tent, an old piece of paper rolled around near his feet.
“He picked it up cleaned it off and discovered he was holding the first page of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. ‘In the beginning God created…’ Father looked up towards the sky, clapped his hands and said, ‘This is a sign from heaven of a good beginning.’”
Her father’s great love for the Torah left a deep impression on Bracha. To this day, she credits him with her affection for biblical verse.
What brought you to compete in the Bible Contest?
“I grew up in a home that spoke the language of the Bible,” Tsuberi said. “As children, before we went out to play we would sit around the table, set with fruits and nuts, and study with Father. He taught us the cantillation notes and we learned whole chapters by heart.”
“Even today, I still remember almost the entire five books of the Bible by heart and part of the Prophets. Even as a teacher, I was devoted to the Bible and its study.
“Every year I watch the Bible Contest with enthusiasm, and I participate in Bible study for women every Sabbath. Often the teacher begins a sentence and I complete it, so my friends pushed me to go to the competition.
“My daughter-in-law saw the ad for a Bible Contest for seniors over 70 and told me that she sent in my name. Since then, the whole family is rooting for me. I passed the first rounds easily but my memory is not what it used to be.
“It is not as easy as it once was and I have not read some of these chapters for over twenty years. I am taking the quiz for a purely spiritual purpose and in my parent’s memory and if I don’t win, then that is for the best too.”
Three degrees in Bible studies
Another contestant is Aryeh Strakovsky (75), who retired from his position in the Bible Education Branch of the Ministry of Education.
For a long time, Aryeh published a short leaflet entitled Jewish Culture; however, over the past few years Aryeh has gradually become blind. Today, because he has not yet learned Braille, he relies on his memory and on audio files that help him read and study.
“I remember that when I was a child, Amos Hacham won the first Bible Contest, and ‘Ha’Olam Hazeh’ chose him as Person of the Year,” Strakovsky said. “As kids, we were tremendously excited.”
“There was a sense of deep respect and admiration for the Bible after that first competition, and already as a young boy, I was attracted to the magic and study of the Bible. I competed in the municipal and regional rounds of the Bible Contest.”
Aryeh has earned three degrees in the study of the Bible, and despite his retirement he teaches Bible in various places such as Machanaim, a Beit Midrash for Russian speakers. Aryeh tells us that he really loves the Bible and for years has written on relevant topics. He is participating in the competition thanks to his wife, who saw the ad and decided to encourage him to study for it.
“I am learning for the purpose of teaching and that is the best way. A tip to anyone who wants to study regularly: find someone to teach and then you have the incentive to learn the material very well.”
A grandfather remembers his grandfather
Professor Menachem Tsangan (89) was given the title of ‘oldest contestant.’ Even though he did not win, he remained a good sport throughout.
Tsangan was born in Holland in 1928 and his family moved to Belgium when he was five so he could study in a Jewish school.
“My family and I lived in Belgium until the Second World War broke out; we could no longer remain there as we were ordered to report to a work camp,” Tsangan said. “My family found a non-Jew who presented himself as a smuggler: we hoped he would help us get to France but instead he informed on us for money and we were handed over to the German army when we reached the border.”
“Following a short time in jail, the warden convened the prisoners and announced that the adults would be sent to forced labor camps and that the children, aged 4-15 (myself included) would be transferred by the Red Cross to Switzerland.
“We were transferred to a hospital managed by nuns. We were the only three children from our town who had managed to survive, so the nuns took pity on us and asked us what they could do to help.
“I remembered that it was almost Rosh Hashana so I asked for a prayer book. The next day they summoned me to the office of the head nurse. I thought they might be planning to hit or torture me because of my strange request, but to my great surprise, a priest was waiting for me with two prayer books.”
“The priest told me, ‘You have a beautiful religion and make sure you preserve it…’ I was cheeky enough to ask him, ‘Aren’t you supposed to preach the opposite?’ The priest answered, ‘I prefer that you be faithful and knowledgeable Jews rather than frightened and ignorant Christians.’”
Towards the end of the war, Menachem, then 17, succeeded in crossing the border. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Chemistry in Brussels and after marrying Miriam (of blessed memory), he came to Israel and was one of the founders of the experimental nuclear reactor in Yavne.
What made you want to participate in the Bible Contest?
“This gives me closure,” Tsangan explained. “I had a strong connection to the prayer book that accompanied me during my years at the orphanage. I later exchanged it for the Bible, which I studied in depth to make up for the years of Jewish studies that I missed.”
“The Bible motivates me: it is a life-long love that I inherited from my mother and that is deeply rooted in the few memories that accompany me all my life. I still see in my mind’s eye the image of my grandfather of blessed memory, sitting and studying Bible.”
As the article was going to print, the contest winner was announced: Ezra Cohen, 72, won the contest and received a prize of 18,000 NIS.
Ezra is a veteran Jerusalemite from Iraq, who came to the country as a child. He creates competitions himself for pleasure.
Ezra fought in the Six-Day and the Yom Kippur wars, and worked in a bank for most of his life.
“I thank the Creator that I had the privilege of this moment,” said Ezra emotionally after the victory.
“Even as a child, I tried to study the Bible and especially the Five Books of the Torah. The Bible is the foundation of the People of Israel and the entire world, and we must study it diligently at every age. Learning and knowing the Bible is an asset and we must carry on with this work.”
Ezra also thanked his family for the support and the Tovei Ha’ir Residence for the opportunity to return and read the Bible many times.