Any compendium of Yiddish jokes is chock-full of items about Jews on a train. They talk, they eat, they sleep — all in the buildup toward some punch line about how Jews traveled in the old country. It was the “Jews on a train” phenomenon that Romanian-born Rabbi Moshe Shapiro was hoping to address when he launched the Daf Yomi, a page-a-day schedule for learning Talmud, in 1934. The idea behind it, he said, was that when two Jews met randomly in their travels, they could discuss the day’s Talmud portion together.
The Daf Yomi has become famous through the participation of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews around the globe, and more recently for celebrations in arenas and stadiums upon completion of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle. For the past 15 years, classes held on one of New York’s commuter trains has brought the same learning to a more intimate group. The class meets every weekday morning on the 7:10 train that takes riders from the Inwood area of Long Island to Manhattan.
In contrast to the massive global celebrations aided by satellite broadcasts, an estimated 150 attendees recently celebrated the train class’s second completion of the cycle. The group, which included class participants and their families and friends, packed into an extra train car that the Long Island Rail Road added just for the occasion. They had an extra few conductors and another engineer, too. The group members were taught the day’s class, as they are every day, by the National Council of Young Israel’s executive vice president, Rabbi Pesach Lerner. They also heard an invocation by Cantor Yitzchok Freund — with the assistance of an amplifier system lent by the Orthodox-owned B&H Photo — and celebrated over boxed breakfasts.
“It’s like the verse says, ‘U’vlechtecha baderech’ — ‘You should learn as you’re on your journey.’ People actually live this and fulfill the words of the Shema,” said Rabbi Aryeh Markovich, who founded the class.
“I used to see people wasting time, specifically like playing cards and chitchatting and reading newspapers, that could be used in a productive way,” Markovich said of his impetus for starting the class. He came upon the Daf Yomi idea after several failed attempts at other formats for train classes. The reason that a Daf Yomi class works, Markovich said, is that “it’s something that unifies Jews all over the world, and it’s something that can’t be easily done by someone who isn’t knowledgeable. You need a teacher of some sort. It’s ongoing, it’s every day, and that builds up momentum and keeps you coming every day.”
Participants who have been coming to the class every day for 15 years have seen a lot of change. “Of my original group, half of the people aren’t there anymore; they changed jobs or retired,” Lerner noted. And in the beginning, only rabbis taught the class, but since the first completion of the cycle, “other people have taken on giving the class as substitutes,” Markovich said.
One obvious result of the class is that more people know the entire Talmud, but the course has had a broader impact: It brings together members of various synagogues. “My dream was that people would become friends, and they would go to each others’ simchas, and it would bring an achdus [unity], and that’s happened,” Markovich said. “I think we’re our community,” Lerner said. “If someone has a wedding or a simcha, he invites much of the class; if someone’s sitting shiva, we go; if something good happens, have a Kiddush on the train, and bring cakes and orange juice.” An indication of the class’s diversity, Lerner said, can be found in the options available at these mid-commute mini-celebrations. “We have one Sephardi on the train, he’ll bring arrack… years ago, when it was smaller, one guy used to bring herring, but it got too big.”
And the effort has grown, with three different Daf Yomi classes available on different trains for those who head to work earlier or later. There’s also a Talmud class on its own schedule, and a Tehillim Yomi, or daily Psalms, class for women (one woman attends the Daf Yomi regularly).
Markovich sees the Daf Yomi participants as trailblazers of a sort, and the class requires additional commitment from members because they’re on their own for two weekend days that don’t involve a commute.
“A lot people are learning on the train, and I think it brought a certain acceptance that learning on the train is a good thing — and some people learn by themselves… it’s brought a tremendous importance to learning, and not to waste time, to utilize the time that you’re not interrupted,” Markovich said.
Steven I. Weiss writes the blog Canonist.com and is the editor and publisher of CampusJ.com.