A couple of days ago ds14 participated in a school-wide gemara test. I didn’t initially realize how significant this was, since he has so many tests and I assumed it was just one more. But when he mentioned this test several times and commented that he’s been studying a lot for it, I realized it wasn’t a standard test and asked for more details. That’s when I learned that once a year, the entire high school participates in this gemara competition.
There are two parts to the test. The first is a written test of 30 difficult questions; all the high school students do the same test and everyone who scores above an 80% advances to the next level. There was so much tension about this test – ds called us as soon as he came out of the testing to tell us he was finished and thought he did well. He said everyone who walked out of the room was practically bouncing from the relief of having finished.
Then in the early afternoon, all the tests had been graded and the results of who would be proceeding to the finals was announced to the entire student body, with lots of cheering for each person after their name was announced. Of the ninth grade, ds14 and his study partner were the only ones who scored high enough for the next level of testing. He was excited (though nervous) and it sounded like everyone else was, too! I thought it sounded like a lot of pressure but most of the pressure was the first level – it’s kind of like you proved yourself just by being able to advance, regardless of how well you do at that level.
The next part of the testing was that evening. The way it worked was that verbal questions were asked of each student; when someone missed a question he was out of the competition. They started with questions that were of medium difficulty, and during the first round five of the ten contestants were eliminated. They continued with questions of increasing difficulty but no one was getting any answers wrong. Finally, they announced that they hadn’t anticipated that everyone would do so well, and didn’t have enough questions to keep going at that pace. So, they continued, they would ask questions and the first one to raise his hand would be given the chance to answer first (instead of going in order and asking each student a different question). The first one to give the right answer would be the winner.
They asked the first question, and two students raised their hands – ds and an older student. The older student didn’t answer correctly, so it went to ds14. Ds gave his answer, explaining the answer thoroughly. But he couldn’t remember the Hebrew term to sum up this concept (a hazard of being a non-native Hebrew speaker). Another student saw ds was stuck for the word and provided it. The room broke out into cheers when it was announced that his answer was correct, but ds thought he wasn’t going to get full credit for his answer and that as a result he hadn’t won.
The round continued, and ds raised his hands for the next couple of questions but wasn’t called on. Since the rules were that the first person to raise his hand got the chance to answer first, he asked them why they weren’t letting him answer. They told him, “Because you already won first place so we’re continuing the questioning to determine the second and third prize winners!” He had no idea! Everyone had realized except for him. He told me later he was sorry he didn’t realize all the cheering was for him.
The contest was a really big deal – it’s only happened once before that a ninth grader won this competition and it’s an honor for a student of any age to win – and everyone was very excited for him. His classmates were extra pleased since the entire class of whoever won was to be treated to a barbeque. He received a full set of Talmud as a prize, which is now gracing our bookshelf at home.
Of course we’re also very proud of him! He studied hard and applied himself, and though there’s always the luck factor in this kind of competition (eg who raises his hand faster), he knew the material well. When he called to tell me that morning that he was going to be in the finals, I had a feeling he was going to win. It’s not that I expected it – to me the effort he put into studying was the most important part, not his performance during the testing – I just had a feeling about it. Right after I got off the phone with him that morning, a clear picture flashed through my mind of him winning and bringing home the Shas (Talmud).
I’ll share about his background in gemara studies for those who may be wondering. He was homeschooled through sixth grade and since we philosophically believe it’s better to hold off on gemara studies until boys are cognitively more developed, our boys start studying Talmud at a later age than the norm (most boys in school begin in fourth or fifth grade). He entered school for the first time when he was in seventh grade, so that was his first official exposure to gemara. For the first year he wasn’t getting much since he was learning Hebrew and didn’t understand most of what was said. When he was in eighth grade his Hebrew comprehension was much better so that was when he was more engaged by his gemara studies. Now he’s in ninth grade, as I mentioned earlier.
This was interesting and validating for me for two reasons: 1) according to mainstream belief, he should be at a disadvantage with his schooled peers; 2) Israelis are often said to be at a much higher level than Americans when it comes to Torah study, with the assumption that Americans will find it difficult to catch up, much less hold their own. I’m grateful that neither of these have proven true for ds!