To an outsider, the celebration would seem like nothing more than a good excuse for a shot of vodka. Or two. But for me, it was much more than that. It was a highly unusual experience.
It was a rather small party. Two people… and then me. I felt a little guilty at first, crashing this private party of close friends. As I found out later on though, these “close” friends weren’t so close after all; Maxwell Salberg was from Chicago, David Notowitz from Los Angeles. In fact, the two had met in person only once before. The party was a “Siyum”, the celebration marking the completion of a significant Jewish text, and the three of us joined together for this momentous occasion – by Skype.
Despite an uninspiring Hebrew school experience, Max knew there was more to life than what meets the eye and was determined to learn more. After a brief and unsatisfying exploration of Buddhism, he turned to learning about his Jewish roots. He studied with a number of Rabbis and did a short stint at a yeshiva in Israel. His experience shocked him. Judaism, it turned out, was completely different than he had ever imagined. The Rabbis he encountered brought Judaism to life, turning ‘ancient’ and ‘out-dated’ texts into relevant life lessons. Max described the experience with a mixture of awe and excitement. “The best part about learning with these Rabbis”, he said, “was that they actually encouraged me to argue with them. Is that not the coolest thing ever!?”
Max’s various learning experiences left him wanting more. He desperately wanted to master a Jewish text. While visiting Shabbat.com, a Shabbat-hosting and Jewish networking site, Max saw an ad for Partners in Torah’s over-the-phone study program. It was just what the doctor ordered.
Max, a film-writer by trade, was matched to study with David Notowitz, a skilled video producer. After their first study session they both realized that they had much more in common than being in a similar profession. They both had a thirst for Jewish knowledge and exploration. Though technically David served as the ‘mentor’ and Max the ‘student’, they each took turns teaching and learning from the other during their year or so of studying Mishna together.
I was invited into the picture just as Max’s dream of completing an entire tractate of Mishna was about to come true. David invited me to be the ‘guest speaker’ speaker at this three-person, three-city event.
The party started with a l’chaim over three different brands of vodka to congratulate this flourishing learning duo. Max proceeded to read the last few lines of Tractate Kiddushin, with David caringly interjecting occasional background information and explanation. It was slow-going at first – Max’s Hebrew reading skills are still improving, but as he approached the final words he picked up speed like a marathon runner about to cross the finish line. The adrenaline rush from this major achievement made Max sound like a Hebrew maven and a skilled Talmudist.
Max completed reading the last few words of the Mishna. David explained their meaning and significance. And as if on cue, all three of us simultaneously shouted “MAZEL TOV!”, and of course, had our second shot of vodka.
Now it was my turn to speak. I had prepared a short thought about the significance of a siyum, but I had a hard time getting the words out. I don’t cry at Bar Mitzvahs or at weddings, but this celebration was different. All I could think about was this awesome accomplishment and about the special bond that evolved between these long-distance strangers, one with absolutely no prior textual experience.
What is both remarkable and humbling to me is that, as unique as Max and David’s siyum was, theirs is only one of many hundreds of siyums taking place this year by people who have had little-to-no prior Jewish learning experience. They’re doing this in conjunction with the upcoming Siyum HaShas, the celebration marking the completion of a seven-and-a-half year daily study regimen of Talmud known as daf yomi. That event, to be held in Metlife Stadium on August 1st, 2012 will be the largest celebration of Jewish learning and Jewish unity in American history. Close to 100,000 people are expected to attend.
In the past, attendees of the Siyum HaShas came almost exclusively from the Orthodox community. This time though, through a special initiative called MySiyum.com, thousands of Jews across the spectrum of religious observance will be attending the Siyum HaShas, many of whom will be attending as an expression of Jewish unity. What greater opportunity could there be to drop the divisive labels that exist between Jew and fellow Jew than attending this unprecedented gathering of Jewish men and women? When else could one have a chance to recite Shema Yisrael in unison with close to 100,000 fellow Jews? Probably never.
Even more impressive is the fact that a large number of those attending from outside the observant community will themselves be completing a Jewish text in honor of the occasion. Some will be completing a section of the Talmud, some just a page of Talmud. Others will choose from among a host of other texts and study together with an over-the-phone (or over Skype) mentor, courtesy of MySiyum.com. No matter what text they learn, whether it takes them seven and a half years to complete, seven months, or seven days, the Siyum will bring Jews of all backgrounds together in a remarkable display of Jewish unity. It will surely be an event for the history books.
You’re invited to join the party on August 1st. If you’re interested, please visit www.mysiyum.com/tickets. You’ll have a chance to meet Max and David in person and be part of a very intimate party of 100,000.