Far Rockaway, NY – Back in 1991, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, 56, was approached by Aryeh Markovich on the LIRR. He wanted to know if the Orthodox rabbi would be willing to teach the Talmud on the 7:51 a.m. train from Far Rockaway to Manhattan. (The Talmud is one of Judaism’s main texts, and it takes about 7½ years to complete one’s studies of it, Lerner says.) “I used to see a lot of people playing cards on the train,” says Markovich, 51, president of EyeMark Media. “And it really bothered me. I said, ‘Why don’t we do something for people to utilize their time productively and learn something, too?’ ”
Lerner agreed, and Markovich went up and down the train platform handing out flyers to publicize their class-on-wheels. The next morning, nearly 30 people showed up for their mobile tutorial in the train’s last car.
It’s been going strong ever since, even sparking an additional Talmud group on the 8:15 a.m. train. “It certainly makes [the commute] more enjoyable,” says Eliezer Cohen, 55, who takes the LIRR from Cedarhurst to Manhattan, where he works at Town House Management. He joined the Talmud train group more than 10 years ago. “The Talmud discusses all aspects of life. Therefore there are issues that come up, from the mundane to the very powerful. The political issues of the day, sexual [topics] . . . sometimes there are issues that are hard to discuss on the train,” he admits. “But it gives vibrancy to the commute.”
Students range from lawyers and bankers to people who work at the B&H electronics shop and for the MTA. And you don’t have to be Jewish! “There is a woman who gets on at Jamaica who is Pakistani and likes to listen to the group,” says Cohen.
When it reaches a milestone in its studies, the group celebrates by noshing on cookies, doughnuts and juice, and “sometimes someone will bring herring or a small bottle of vodka to add to the grape juice,” says Lerner, an executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. “We have a lot of guys who are into herring.”
So far, they’ve run through the Talmud twice, and to commemorate these two achievements, the train troop tracked down some of the group’s old conductors for two 200-strong parties — held in the LIRR car.
But Lerner says it isn’t always easy teaching the Talmud on the train. “It’s distracting, trust me. You have to keep your voice low. You have to keep monotone and you can’t get excited, and you don’t have a blackboard. It’s difficult to do. Some people are four rows behind me, and I can’t even see them. It’s very easy to take a nap,” he admits.