We use modern technology to study an ancient text. Online Biblical and Talmudic texts, translations, dictionaries, and commentaries help us to understand and delve into the depth of Gemara.
From l to r: Suzanne Griffel, Dan Cedarbaum, and Arthur Elstein.
When we moved to Chicago in 2016 to be near our son and daughter-in-law and their four children, we didn’t know many other people. Moving, especially as seniors, into a long established community is not always easy. Friendships go back many decades and often people have neither the time nor the emotional room to welcome newcomers.
After a year of loneliness, a young couple we had known before we moved to Chicago welcomed us into their sukkah, along with a friend whom they thought we’d enjoy. Arthur is a retired psychology professor, recently widowed, whom we found not only delightful, but with whom it turned out we had much in common. Among Arthur’s activities was a weekly Gemara Hevruta, a Talmud study friendship group. I was reluctant to invite myself to join the Hevruta but fortunately my wife Nancy realized that being part of Arthur’s group was exactly what I needed. When Nancy suggested to Arthur that perhaps I could come to a few sessions, Arthur enthusiastically welcomed me into his group. Arthur and Dan, a philanthropist and supporter of many Jewish causes, had been learning Gemara together for two years, so I was number three in the Hevruta. Although I had been studying Daf Shevui, one page of Talmud per week, online for several years, it had been a while since I had seriously studied Gemara in a real live human group. I knew that my skills were a bit stale but I also knew that most people in Hevruta are pretty forgiving
Arthur and Dan had gotten about three-quarters of the way through Tractate Brachot, dealing with blessings, so I joined them there. Within a few months after I joined the Thursday morning study sessions, Norbert, a retired philosophy professor, Suzanne, a part-time congregational rabbi, and Ari, a retired Jewish day school administrator, joined the group.We had been meeting in a coffee shop but moved to Norbert’s apartment to accommodate his mobility issues. In addition to offering his hospitality, Norbert’s 20th floor condo overlooks Lake Michigan and the skyline of downtown Chicago and as we walk into his apartment, our study sessions begin with a magnificent vista.
The rhythm of our Gemara Hevruta sessions has come to follow a pattern. We begin each week with Hevruta, sitting in the living room to shmooze, to get caught up on what’s been happening with us, to discuss the events of the past week, and to offer our suggestions on how to fix the Jewish world. The general consensus is that if people would just do things our way, the world would be a much better place.
Over the course of the past year, our conversation in the Hevruta part has varied from personal, to professional, to communal. And for the sake of comity, we have an unspoken agreement not to talk too much about politics.
After half an hour of Hevruta, we move into the dining room to sit around the table to study Gemara. We don’t have assigned places, which gives me the impression that in our Hevruta everyone is equal in Gemara study, although each of us brings something different to the table. Suzanne is a very fluent reader so we are happy having her guide us in the words of Gemara. Dan has a deep background in Jewish studies and a prodigious memory. Norbert shares with us his tremendous philosophical insights—a rare addition to a Talmud study group. Ari, Arthur, and I bring psychological and personal insights to the text, adding depth to the conversation.
While I only see the other five members of the group on Thursday mornings for an hour and a half, our time together has become a very important part of my week and I look forward to it. I enjoy gathering up my materials in my file and I even enjoy the drive to Norbert’s in Chicago traffic. Of course what I enjoy most is seeing my new friends. While our friendship is limited in time, place, and purpose, it has come to fill a void I was feeling upon arrival in our new city and has given me a sense of belonging. The expression, “Torah iz dee beste sechora,” “Jewish learning is the best reward,” is really true.