Jews gather around the globe to celebrate the study of Talmud

new york | When Henry Lowenthal used to prepare for business trips, he’d pack a bag full of typical travel sundries — along with a photocopied packet of pages from the Talmud.

As a top financial officer of greeting card giant American Greetings Corp., he traveled a lot, and he didn’t want to miss a single day of Talmud study.

Even now, Lowenthal, 73 and retired, travels frequently. But he no longer needs photocopied pages to keep his learning up to speed.

Instead, he slips a CD-ROM that contains the entire Talmud into his laptop computer and studies away.

Lowenthal, a Baltimore resident, joined some 27,000 others — mostly Orthodox Jews — at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, March 1, to take part in a celebration marking the completion of the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud, one page a day for 2,711 consecutive days.

All together, more than 100,000 Jews gathered across North America Tuesday night to mark the completion of the 11th cycle of the Daf Yomi — the practice of reading one page of the Talmud every day — since it emerged in 1923.

Celebrations at the Garden and the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey were the largest, packing in some 46,000 Talmud enthusiasts, according to Agudath Israel of America, which organized the events.

Daf Yomi groups also celebrated in Albany, N.Y.; Baltimore; Chicago; Salt Lake City; Birmingham, Ala.; and other U.S. cities.

In Los Angeles, more than 2,600 people filled the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the early evening event drew a mostly Orthodox crowd who plugged into the East Coast gatherings by satellite.

Michelle Kleinert, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jewish community liaison, sat in the women’s section at the Disney hall, as did twin sisters Shoshana and Hadassah Klerman. They were among busloads of teenagers from local Orthodox high schools who attended the event.

“You think that, OK, the Holocaust happened and these kinds of things happen and people try to wipe us out, but we’re still here.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the event “one of the most significant events in American Jewish history; it shows the renaissance of the Jewish people after the Holocaust not only in population but in terms of a recommitment to their heritage.”

Howard Gluck, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney, came with his two sons even though he did not undertake the lengthy Daf Yomi course.

“I wanted my children to be part of a very unified day celebrating the completion and the starting of the Talmud,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing to have a program where the same page is being studied in Los Angeles and New York and in Poland and in Moscow and in Israel. The main thing is, we are all part of one family, the Jewish people.”

Another 100,000 took part in ceremonies elsewhere in the world, including Israel, Venezuela, South Africa, Argentina, Russia and Australia.

Lowenthal agreed, saying that although his Talmud CD is “a passable substitute,” there’s nothing like the real thing.

Nonetheless, he is one of thousands of learners who are taking advantage of technology to bolster their study of the ancient Jewish text, which codifies the rabbinic discussion and commentary on Jewish civil and religious law.

After the last of the Talmud’s 2,711 pages was taught, the Madison Square Garden ceremony, which had been somber to that point, took on a wedding-like tone, with loud music and energetic dancing.

A sea of bobbing black hats animated the arena. Hundreds of men slapped their hands onto fellow revelers’ backs and formed a giant human train that circled the second promenade, causing the floor to shake.

Half an hour later, the crowd returned to their seats as the cycle began anew, with the teaching of the first page of the first order, Berachot.

The practice of studying a page of Talmud each day originated in 1923 at the First International Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna. It was designed not only to bring uniformity to the study of Talmud, but unity to Jews worldwide. It seems to have worked.

“Wherever you go in the world, you can find a Daf Yomi shiur and join them, and they’re at the same page you’re at,” said Lowenthal.

Asked how it felt to be among so many who were simultaneously completing study of the Talmud, Lowenthal began to cry.

“It’s so emotional, I can’t describe it,” he said.

JTA intern Jordana Rothstein, David Finnigan of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Shira Schoenberg of the Jewish Advocate in Boston and the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix contributed to this report.