Growing up religious in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I didn't have much choice when it came to religious studies: it was full time till I was 18. I always felt it was being shoved down my throat.
So I stayed away from religious studies for about a decade -- from college, through marriage, a year of service in Vietnam and three children.
During that time I stayed close to religion through observance, community and friends, but I avoided any formal religious study.
After we bought a new house and moved to a new neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I came upon a new, small synagogue -- a shtiebl -- close to my house where I could attend the (more minor) evening services on weekends. The rabbi of the shul had a soft and pleasing personality. I was drawn to his softness and started to sit in on some of his Talmud classes. I discovered I had a penchant for the back-and-forth, up-and-down method of the talmudic process.
After about a year of these classes, my mother died. Coincidentally (I think), the rabbi decided to start a daily Talmud class half an hour before the 6:45 Shacharit (morning) services. When I finished sitting shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning, I decided to attend, because I felt it would be a good way to commemorate my mother's name.
I attended these classes for a number of years, studying about 12 to 15 masechtot, or tractates. During that time the classes were moved up to a 6 a.m. start and then, to 5:45 a.m., one hour before prayers. Getting up daily for a 5:45 class was tough -- but the advantage was that I did not have to take away evening time from my wife or four children. This was my own time I was giving up.
Our small daily Talmud study was actually one of many around the city -- and country and world -- that learned a daf or a page, a day (yomi), and over seven and a half years would complete the entire Talmud doing this Daf Yomi process.
Before I had started these Daf Yomi cycles, I had spent a number of years playing at a regular weekly card game, feeling in a rut -- somehow feeling guilty about not learning, yet having no motivation whatsoever. But somewhere along the line, when I started the classes, I had learned that there was a question of the permissibility of winning money from other Jews playing cards. I decided to give up my card game and continue the learning.
Now instead of spending a night out with the boys playing cards, I was spending the morning out with the other boys: Ravina and Rav Ashi (the compilers of the Talmud).
The days became weeks, which became months, then years. In some way, it became addictive.
Before the Daf Yomi classes, when I took stock of my life, I had felt that I was not really accomplishing anything -- despite my career, fatherhood and marriage -- I felt I was failing in my role as a Jew, not fulfilling my role in this world; the role that was required of me.
I remember reading somewhere that you should ask yourself where you would like to be five or 10 years from now -- and were you doing anything to make that dream come true? The answer struck a chord: What you are now is where you will be later. I remember feeling like I was just going along in life, having some vague ideas about where I'd like to be in life, what I would eventually like to accomplish, but I never had any plan to get there.
The Daf Yomi classes set its own goal. By simply going there on a daily basis, I was following a plan to reach an eventual worthwhile goal. After I got into the Daf Yomi routine, when I looked over my life, I felt it was a way for me to really accomplish something in my lifetime.
I finished my first full cycle, completing the entire Talmud, 15 years ago.
I remember the first time I went to the Daf Yomi Siyum, the giant celebration where participants and observers come together to acknowledge this great undertaking. I felt part of the collective exhilaration, like thousands of people graduating a seven and a half year advanced degree program.
Daf Yomi has been part of my daily life for the last 22 years (I've missed classes due to illness but have made them up). These years of study have made me feel that I have accomplished something great in life. I now walk with a different pride, and my self-esteem is greatly improved.
Last night, Tuesday, March 1, I attended my third Daf Yomi celebration. I was one of more than 20,000 people at New York's Madison Square Garden, part of a gathering of more than 120,000 Jews throughout the world (some 2,600 gathered at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall). The program of the giant celebration (which was connected around the world through satellite feed) began with the afternoon and evening prayers, followed by a number of moving speeches. But when the actual Siyum (which literally means "end") took place -- when they read the last few lines of the whole Talmud -- something happened: The whole Garden spontaneously started dancing in every available aisle. People who could not get to an aisle were dancing side to side in their rows and seats.
Tears began streaming down my cheeks. I didn't know why. Was it the exuberance of the spontaneous dancing? Or seeing this huge mass of Jews exhibiting uninhibited joy? Or was it some pent-up emotion for all the years and hours I put into the daily study of Talmud? Perhaps it was the combination of all of the above.
Today, the next morning, the new cycle has started. I got up early and went to class -- because that's just what I do.
Dr. Warren Klein (father of Managing Editor Amy Klein) is a practicing dentist and a practicing Jew.