South Bay Talmud study group celebrates two big birthdays

What do Sarah's age at the time of Isaac's conception, the elaborate demise of Titus and a vessel of honey held hostage by a deadly snake have in common?

They were among the subjects discussed at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto Sunday, March 17 at the talmudic study group's 21st anniversary meeting and the celebration of member Ruth Firschein's 90th birthday.

"It is said that the normal life span is 80," said Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, who has led the 500-member congregation for 23 years. "Ninety is off the charts!"

But not unheard of.

Lewis reminded the celebrants that Sarah was 90 years old when she learned she would give birth to Isaac. Although the same miracle was not expected of Firschein, Lewis said she had contributed similar joy to the group over the years through her enthusiasm for study and her knowledge of Torah.

"We kind of joke that the only way one leaves the group is to depart from this world," said Lewis, laughing. Firschein tilted her head back and chuckled, her eyes twinkling.

The study group at Kol Emeth is one of the longest running in the Bay Area. According to its members, it is also one of the most consistent, meeting with or without the rabbi, rain or shine.

Steve Shapiro, who has been with the group since it started in 1975, said he has never missed a Sunday session.

"Well, Superbowl Sundays are hard, but I get here," he said.

Like Shapiro, Firschein is also dedicated to the group. She has been coming to study since she moved to the area from Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn, N.Y., 20 years ago.

"I felt like I had come from one home to another one," she said.

Firschein considers the group her extended family and said she enjoys studying Talmud because it reminds her of the stories she learned as a child from her father.

Born in Austria, Firschein joined her two older sisters in the United States in 1918 and settled in New York. She was active in the Jewish community, serving as president of her congregation in Brighton Beach.

After her husband died in 1976, she moved to California to be closer to her children, Oscar (and wife Theda) Firschein, and Micki and (husband Michael) Falk. Her other son, Bill (and wife Elaine) live in Los Angeles. Here, too, she has been active in the community, recently serving as president of the seniors group at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center.

Firschein, who is no longer physically able to attend the class as often as she would like, relies on Yaacov Goldberg to deliver her to Kol Emeth when she is up to the trip.

"I get two Talmud lessons every Sunday," said Goldberg, also a longtime member. "One at class and one with Ruth driving here in the mornings when she shares her insights and stories."

After minyan, the 27 members enjoyed a bagel brunch, a shot of schnapps and a round of birthday songs in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Firschein's daughter pinned a pink and red carnation corsage on her mother's bright purple jacket.

Then it was time to dive into Gitin — the Talmudic tractate that lays out the laws of Jewish divorce, the penalties for civil disobedience and several other subjects offering ample opportunity for interesting asides.

Sheryl Malek, who has been coming to the study group for the past year, said the digressions are what make studying Talmud so interesting.

"They are the heart and soul of it," she said.

When the discussion touched on the destruction of the Temple and the lack of an explanation for why God allowed this to happen, Firschein offered her own interpretation.

"I think as human beings, we're not supposed to know all the answers," she said. "We have God to take care of us."

Dick Franklin, who was introduced as a "newcomer" to the group although he has been coming for 12 years, said he enjoys the study group because Lewis makes the text so accessible. The rabbi reads the passages in Hebrew and Aramaic, then summarizes them in English.

The class ended with birthday cake, prayer and a few words from Firschein.

"Thank you for giving me this honor," she said. "It means so much to me."