In the temple of trivia

A wildly popular Russian trivia game gets a Jewish twist, and draws immigrants closer to tradition.

cat megilla 88 (photo credit: )
cat megilla 88
(photo credit: )
Tucked away at the top of an unassuming staircase, the club room at Beit Hakehilot - a community center for immigrants from the former Soviet Union on Jerusalem's Rehov Jaffa - boasts heavy drapery, decorative plaster molding and a stained glass window inspired by a Gaugin painting. Unframed watercolors of Jerusalem landscapes hang on the walls, while a scattering of office chairs and Formica tables dots the room. A series of imposing faux-marble columns complete the effect - that of an eclectic temple of knowledge at once local and foreign, serious and whimsical, ceremonious and unassuming. On a recent Tuesday evening, about two dozen people, most of them in their 20s, slowly trickled into the room, together with several soldiers in uniform. "Most of the people that come here are young. They could stay home with Internet and TV, but they come from neighborhoods as far as Pisgat Ze'ev, even from Tel Aviv. Why? I don't have an answer," said Jan Privorotski, who was busily jotting down last-minute notes for a game called Shto? Gde? Kogda? (Where? When? What?), which is played every week in clubs across Israel by approximately 150 Russian speakers at a time. For the uninitiated, it is difficult to grasp this game's cult-like status. In Russia and the FSU, the televised version of the game has maintained unparalleled levels of popularity since it debuted three decades ago, and is watched live weekly by about 40 million people. Today, it is played competitively in local, national and international clubs scattered not only in Russia and other former Soviet republics, but also throughout North America, Australia and Europe. An amiable, round-faced man of 42, Privorotski - who is the moderator and referee of the Jerusalem club - has been playing since 1997. Upon arriving in Israel in 2001 with a double master's degree in history and journalism from the University of Kiev, he settled in Jerusalem, where he initially worked as a security guard. Three years ago, he was hired by Midreshet Yerushalayim - a learning center affiliated with the Schechter Institute - which was founded in 1991 to deepen the connection of Russian immigrants with Judaism and Zionism. Capitalizing on the incredible popularity of this Russian trivia game, the directors of Midreshet Yerushalayim came up with the idea of forming a series of local clubs, in which the intellectual challenge of the original game would be coupled with Jewish and Israeli themes. Last week, Privorotski was busy writing questions for Purim, which will be celebrated at the Schechter Institute with a special game in honor of the holiday, centered upon the theme of Babylonian Jewry. More than 300 players are expected to attend. Certain prominent Israeli-Russian politicians have already promised to come. "Today's subject is love and spring," Privorotski announced as the players divided into four teams, nervously gulping cola from Styrofoam cups. The teams dispersed around the room had one minute to answer each of Privorotski's questions. Frenetically taking notes on sheets of blank paper, they put their heads together to whisper and consult. The following morning, Privorotski was back in his office at the Schechter Institute, sitting under a poster detailing the layout of the Second Temple. "In order to play our version of the game well you have to think soundly and quickly," he explained. "You need a base in both universal knowledge and in Judaism, and you need to be curious and interested. The players also come to lectures about different Jewish subjects, they read on their own. My questions - each of which takes me approximately 30 minutes to compose - stimulate further research." His involvement in the game, he said, requires a daily minimum of two to three hours of reading. "Four hours is important, five a dream, six - that would be paradise," he said. Today, Privorotski explained, there is a wide array of sources from which players can learn more about Judaism - in their native tongue. "The game allows people to acquire basic Jewish knowledge, and learn about their roots and about life in Israel," he explained. "But we play in Russian. In order to play in Hebrew, one would have to be born again." Privorotski grew up in Kiev in a Jewish family, knowing close to nothing about his religion. His paternal grandfather, a prominent party official during the Stalinist era, was murdered when someone revealed to the KGB that he secretly kept Jewish ritual objects in his home. Privorotski's father and grandmother spent the following 19 years in exile in the Ural. At 30, Jan began teaching himself about Judaism. Today, he has become an expert in tracing the roots of North American and Israeli Jews, who hire him to scrutinize documents in far-flung archives across the former USSR, uncover their families' lost origins and lead them back on trips to the world he himself chose to leave behind. In one of these archives, he discovered the name of the man who had turned in his grandfather to the Stalinist authorities, and followed him to an address in a neighborhood of Kiev - where he came upon an elderly man shaking with Alzheimer's in the back room of his son's apartment. Last week, Privorotski also published his first novel, which he defines as "a book about history, groups, love, miracles, Jerusalem and lawn tennis." The novel's protagonist is a history teacher who is also a competitive trivia player, and the plot is partially based on real figures from the local Russian-speaking trivia world. Roman Stamov, a colleague of Privorotski's at Midreshet Yerushalayim and himself a sometime player, agrees that the local version of the game "is a very interesting way to learn about Judaism. "In Ukraine," he said, "I hadn't heard about Jewish trivia. It's a little less serious than reading a book or studying in an academic institution. And I think it's especially good for secular people." "Knowledge," he added, is not enough to win the game. "It's a mixture of erudition, logic, intuition and deduction, which also requires a good sense of humor." During last week's game, a warm-up for the Purim competition, Pavel Edlin, the captain of a team called "Jerusalem Chronicles," scrupulously wrote down every word of Privorotski's long, detailed questions, whose meandering structure had the quality of Talmudic digressions. "There are questions that are like a babushka, one inside the other. You have to write each one down," Edlin explained while taking notes. "The questions are filled with humor and sophistication, like riddles that you solve together through team work. It's not really trivia - these are sophisticated questions with surprising answers, that require a combination of specialized and general knowledge and a talent for following clues and hints." A 28-year-old computer expert with a long ponytail streaked with blond highlights, Edlin emigrated with his family from St. Petersburg to Jerusalem nearly 14 years ago. "Everyone in the game has a role, just like in a soccer game," Edlin explained. Edlin's team of players, who are all in their 20s, includes, among others, Galia Pochvalensky, a philologist who is an expert in solving any question that has to do with etymology or linguistics; Sasha Tolesnikov, who has been playing competitively since 1994, when he was a child in the Ukraine; and several other players with an expertise in fields such as chemistry, physics and ancient cultures. For Edlin, who has been watching the televised version of the game since his childhood, playing in Jerusalem is as much about remaining connected to Russia as it is about learning about Israel. "It's a way not to lose touch with what's going on there, because you have to be involved with Russian culture," he said. "It's important for me not to forget the language, not to disconnect." The cat megila The winning team at this year's Purim trivia contest at the Schechter Institute will receive a facsimile of a unique megila produced for the event. Conceived of by Michael Korol, a teacher at Midreshet Yerushalayim, it features close to 400 cats, which stand in for the various human protagonists of the megila. "Several years ago," Korol explained, "I translated a book about animals in the Bible, and I was always interested in the role of animals in Jewish tradition. I consulted with rabbis to find out whether it was all right to illustrate a megila with animals, and received an answer in the affirmative. Since I love cats, I decided to have all the characters in the megila masquerade as cats." The megila was illustrated by artist Ira Golob. It was written on parchment by Menachem Sheinin, an 18-year-old scribe (sofer stam) who chose a typography taken from a Russian Torah book that miraculously survived the Holocaust. "This megila is a contribution of Russian Olim to the world of Judaica," Korol said.