When his family moved to Israel in 1998, Robert August-Dalfen probably never envisioned the day he would wear a banana costume.
But that’s exactly what Robert recently donned along with his wife, Sharon, to promote the new Hebrew version of Bananagrams, the popular American game in which players mix up tiles with letters and form words in a similar format to Scrabble (though in this game, the letters come in a banana-shaped bag).
“My wife was the mover behind that one,” Robert says of the fruit suits. “I didn’t think I would have the guts to do that.”
It all started one a Shabbat afternoon about a year ago at the August-Dalfens’ Ra’anana home. The couple was playing Bananagrams with one of their four daughters, and soon, some Israeli friends came over and joined in.
Robert recalls seeing his daughter’s friends struggle to put the English words together.
“We said, ‘this thing is going to work well in Hebrew. Why don’t we try do it in Hebrew?’” he says.
An accountant by training, Robert was in between jobs and looking for work he could have fun with and be passionate about. So, he called up the Bananagrams corporation, and just two days later signed a deal.
Robert prepared the Hebrew font, and the tiles were then manufactured at the company’s plant in China, before being shipped back to the family home in Ra’anana for distribution to customers in Israel and the U.S. The family, which made aliyah from Montreal, has since watched the mountain of boxes filled with banana bags decline.
The August-Dalfens have sold an impressive 4,000 games out of the 5,000 they were sent in the first shipment, Robert says, with 95 percent of those sales to Israeli customers. The pile will grow again, as they have already ordered their second shipment.
Robert says it’s really a family business featuring his wife and four daughters: Talia, 20, Gila, 18, Chana, 14, and Michal, 10. Sharon and Robert sell the game at malls around Israel and have promoted it through word of mouth, friends, and their website—not to mention the banana suits.
While it’s mostly the parents running the business, (“The kids aren’t all that excited about it to be perfectly honest,” Robert says, laughing), the family enjoys playing the game together.
“My youngest enjoys it the most,” Robert says. “I get a lot of practice because every day she says, ‘Let’s play a game.’” Robert adds that his 14-year-old beats him every time.
Even if your Hebrew knowledge is fairly basic or limited, Robert says a rich vocabulary isn’t required for the game, since many three and four-letter words exist in Hebrew and there are no rarely used letters like in English. “By playing the game you really do improve your vocabulary,” he says. “I can tell you that first-hand.”
The family has mostly targeted English-speaking Israelis, since they are already familiar with the game, and has promoted it among Shabbat observers in Israel since it makes for a low-tech Shabbat game. But since December, the August-Dalfens are doing more outreach to the general Israeli market and also began shipping to the U.S. out of the Bananagrams office in Providence, RI.
“I think this is something that’s going to catch on,” says Robert, who is looking to bring Hebrew Bananagrams into North American Jewish day school classrooms and game rooms at corporations like Microsoft. The family has already prepared an online educational package to accompany the game and is moving forward on a smart phone application.
“It’s been a small success in Israel and hopefully [we’ll] make it a big success where it’ll become a more well known classic game,” he says, adding that he has received “tremendous” feedback from Israelis.
Bananagrams, named Toy Fair’s 2009 “Game of the Year,” is also available in English, French, Spanish, German and Norwegian.
“We are beyond thrilled to release Hebrew Bananagrams,” said Rena Nathanson, CEO of Bananagrams, Inc., in a statement. “Bananagrams is already bigger than our wildest dreams with more than five million of these little yellow pouches floating around the world, and this opens up the fun to a whole new audience.”
A German neo-Nazi gang reportedly created a version of the game Monopoly in which death camps were substituted for railroads.
The game, called Pogromly, also featured a swastika on the start square and offered players the chance to land on squares marked with the SS emblem. The board also included pictures of Hitler and sinister-looking Jews, The Telegraph reported.
The game was discovered in a garage used by the National Socialist Underground, which is accused in the ethnically motivated murder of 10 people. Bomb-making equipment and unused nail bombs also were found there.
From 2000 to 2011, the gang reportedly sold the game sets to raise revenue. The game is believed to be based on the events of Kristallnacht, the November 1938 Nazi pogrom against German Jews.
“Holocaust survivors recoiled with horror at the sight of the Monopoly-like board game replete with swastikas, ‘gasworks,’ concentration camps, burning Israeli flags, and grotesque caricatures of Jews,” Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement.
”The game itself is merely a trivial footnote to the monstrous crimes these individuals are charged with, but the visual impact made by this twisted theme on such an innocently remembered childhood item serves to punctuate the all-consuming hatred that drove these people.”
Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe? That might be the solution to a game of “Clue,” but in the new board game “Chametz: The Search Is On!” the more likely culprit is Professor Slivovitz, who is sullying the house with bits of a dreaded cupcake.
Professor Slivovitz (a Passover brandy made from plums) is one of six characters, along with Mrs. Weiss and Col. Moti, who thoughtlessly wander this Passover-cleansed Jewish home with foods such as graham crackers, chocolate chip cookies or hard pretzels. Players ages 7 and older use a process of elimination to figure out who left what food in which room.
Jay Falk of Playa del Rey came up with the game while playing “Clue” with his own children and wondering why there weren’t Jewish-themed games that could engage kids as well as adults. A script coordinator for the CBS comedy “Mad Love” and video producer, Falk dabbles in graphics, so he designed the game and consulted with his local Chabad rabbis to produce the Jewish content. He formed Hazakah Inc., to produce “Chametz,” which was three years in the making.
Falk made sure to make the game Shabbat-friendly — rather than keeping track of the culprits on a notepad, as in “Clue,” players slip markers into slots on cards. The Jewish character and content are slightly unexpected — Rabbi Greenberg (“Clue” has Rev. Green) is clean-shaven, while Professor Slivovitz sports a long, gray beard and, according to the Web site, teaches endocrinology.
Hazakah also produced “Yiddishe Kop,” thinking puzzles with a Jewish bent for ages 10 to adult. “Chametz” is available on Amazon and at most Judaica stores.
It took me six years of being a grandfather to accept the fact that my grandchildren may not be more brilliant or athletic than everyone else’s.
Here’s how I realized it. There’s this thing between grandparents I like to call “first-tell.” Say you meet your friend, another grandparent, and are the first to tell some amazing stories about your grandchildren; if he or she responds by telling you stories that make their grandchildren out to be as talented or more-so than yours, you have every right to assume the grandparent you are talking to is lying. And vice versa: they’ll assume you’re lying if they have “first-tell.” Or, in both cases, you could assume, with great difficulty, that your grandchildren are not above and beyond all others.
What impresses us so much about the abilities of our grandchildren? In my case I must admit it was the comparison of them to me. Ross, at age 3, hits a wiffle ball with a plastic bat better than I could hit a softball with a wooden bat at age 12, even though the bat had Joe Dimaggio’s signature on it. And Max, 6, throws a hardball accurately from third base to home plate. I couldn’t do that until I was in summer camp at age 14 — and then not consistently, costing my green team the championship game against the blues in color war.
But in my defense, I didn’t have a grandfather to drive crazy and exhaust with pleas to “catch with me, grampa,” “pitch to me, grampa.”
One grandfather had passed away before I was born, and the other had lost a leg in some war for or against Russia prior to my birth in 1932. My own father was on crutches from polio he acquired at age 3, and while he could throw very well, since I couldn’t, a game of catch meant him throwing, me catching, me throwing and me chasing the errant ball that I threw back.
The only ball I ever threw both strongly and accurately was a snowball I threw at a target, drawn with chalk on the side door of my synagogue, which was the entrance to the Hebrew school in Englewood, N.J. The snowball would have hit the bull’s-eye had not the rabbi opened the door at that instant to call us all in to class. I lived with guilt for many years — not for hitting the rabbi, but for Sammy Wides’ getting blamed for it (although he took it well and enjoyed the celebrity). In that neighborhood, in those times, I would have been looked down on by the “gang” if I stepped forward, hero-like and said, “It wasn’t him, rabbi, it was me.” (I would have been a total outcast if I said “It wasn’t he.”)
It was less than a week ago that I bumped into a friend with his 6-year-old grandson at the park. Ross and Max were wearing their mitts and I was carrying a bag containing 10 wiffle balls and a bat. It is easier pitching 10 balls and then retrieving them all at once rather than pitching and chasing one ball at a time.
My friend quickly jumped in with “first-tell,” — an unnecessary move, since we were about to see exactly what our grandchildren could do.
“You won’t believe how far Amos can hit a ball,” he said.
“Great”, I replied, deciding I would have my satisfaction when he saw how much better Max and Ross could hit and throw a ball.
“Do you want to pitch?” I offered. He did. I became the catcher.
We all agreed that each child would have five swings, and the other two would play the field. We also agreed that Ross would be the first batter, then Amos and finally Max, who didn’t mind being last when I told him he would be batting “clean up” — a spot usually reserved for the best batter on the team. Max and Ross knew the lingo because they went to many Dodgers games and watched even more on TV. Ross hit two of his five pitches beautifully and although my friend was properly impressed he mouthed, “Wait till you see Amos.”
Amos got up and hit five balls very well, but no better or worse than Max did. Did my friend see what I saw?
Our grandkids are great — but not any greater than each other. I wonder, though, if he was more disappointed than me. He’d bragged about Amos, and I didn’t brag about Max. We both had to learn that our grandsons are special; not because they can throw well or run fast or bat hard, but because they are ours.
Hopefully, Amos’ grandfather will also learn that sometimes it’s good to pass up “first-tell.”
When the Dodgers face the San Francisco Giants this weekend in a three-game series beginning in San Francisco this weekend, most Jews will be in synagogue for the holiest day of the year.
What will Shawn Green do?
The first baseman has declined to discuss his Yom Kippur plans with reporters. "I’m not talking about it yet," Green told ESPN on Sunday after the Dodgers played Colorado. "I don’t want the media making a big deal out of it."
But the media is making a big deal out of it, and by Tuesday night, a Dodgers official said that Green will sit out Saturday’s game — but will still play on Friday night, the Los Angeles Times reported. Yom Kippur, of course, begins at sundown on Friday night. The unnamed official said Green felt he’d be letting down his team if he skipped two games.
As of press time, Green had not yet made an announcement regarding his final decision.
The $24,000 "will he or won’t he play on Yom Kippur" question follows Green around like his Jewish fan club ever since he skipped a crucial game on Sept. 26, 2001 — because of Yom Kippur — which ended a streak of 415 consecutive games played. Dodger Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series due to Yom Kippur.
Like Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other milestones of Jewish American literature, Will Eisner’s “Name of the Game” explores the depths of Jewish self-loathing and assimilation. But what separates “Name” — a tale chronicling two immigrant families that merge through marriage for social advancement and then suffer destructive consequences — from the others, is that Eisner’s work is a comic book.
Make that a “graphic novel” — the term attributed to ambitious comics with mature themes and a traditional bound format. Graphic novels have become a multimillion-dollar cash cow. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” revolutionized comics in 1986 with its brooding, cynical interpretation of Batman. Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction Holocaust opus, “Maus,” won the Pulitzer Prize.
“I was frankly enthused when Spiegelman got the Pulitzer,” Eisner told The Journal from his Florida studio, “because it gave the medium the credit it deserves.”
Eisner’s latest is a 160-page saga in which the destinies of two social-climbing immigrant families collide. It’s a stunning study of disconnect, in which characters choose money over love, practice infidelity in the bedroom and in the boardroom, and embrace assimilation over identity. “Name” comments on the American Dream, and the lengths some will go to deny themselves in their quest to obtain and maintain it. It was inspired by folk tales, as channeled through the prism of Eisner’s Jewish American experience.
“Jewish and Russian folk literature, they had a similar thread to all of them,” said Eisner, married to wife Ann for 52 years. “Everybody succeeded in elevating themselves, and that’s through marriage — certainly in Yiddish folklore. Nobody succeeds in fairy tales unless they marry the prince or the princess.”
Eisner, who has been writing and drawing graphic novels since the 1970s, actually created this genre. The first graphic novel, his landmark “A Contract with God,” was originally published by Baronet Books in 1978. The Jewish-themed, Bronx-set story depicted protagonist Frimmer Hirsh’s relationship with his Maker.
Eisner also authored a seminal textbook, “Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling,” and taught popular cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Pat McDonnnell at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Since 1988, the Eisner Awards, named in his honor and held annually in San Diego, have become the industry’s Academy Awards.
However, his major contribution to his industry is his classic strip “The Spirit.”
Conceived in 1939 for a newspaper comics supplement, “The Spirit” told the tale of Denny Colt, a policeman reborn as a Stetson-wearing masked detective superhero. Eisner used the strip to redefine the medium by employing cinematic compositions and pacing, noir design sensibilities and a cartoon realism unseen in comics back then. His storytelling style reflected the moviemaking of his day — Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, bringing to comics what Orson Welles brought to movies with “Citizen Kane”: sophistication.
Both “The Spirit” and its creator were a product of what is now called the Golden Age of Comics — a time when New York Jews ruled an industry that was beneath most non-Jews; the same era explored in 2000 by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” for which Eisner was a consultant.
Since 1978, Eisner has explored his most personal art through his graphic novel format, works that capture facets of his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in 1920s-30s New York. “The Heart of the Storm,” for example, tells his parents’ story — his father was a fine artist from Vienna; his mother of Czech descent.
The Jewishness of Eisner’s tale was never an issue for his publisher.
“They were very supportive and never attempted to make editorial content,” Eisner said, singling out his longtime DC editor Dave Shriner.
Unlike DC’s flagship characters “Superman” and “Batman,” “The Spirit” never materialized in Hollywood, save for an unaired 1984 TV pilot produced by DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Eisner doesn’t believe “The Spirit” translates to other mediums.
Nor does he even want to return to his iconic character in his own medium. His list of upcoming project ideas has grown too long for him to look back.
“There would only be two reasons I would revisit ‘The Spirit,'” Eisner said. “To prove that I could still run a quarter mile and to make money. I don’t need either.”
Learn more about Will Eisner at www.willeisner.com.
A month ago the hopes, dreams, spirit and hard work of an immeasurable number of Jewish athletes, coaches and support personnel from around the world appeared to be going to waste. Due to the unrest in the Middle East, the 16th World Maccabiah Games were in jeopardy.
But as the week of games came to a close, many felt that they had been saved by something unforeseen, something not easily explained. And all were glad to have attended.
"My mom was against me going, but my dad really wanted me to, and they actually had big fights about it. But in the end it was my decision, and I’m glad me and dad won," said Anaheim Hills’ Danielle Perkel, 16, a member of the U.S. junior girls soccer team.
Perkel, a center midfielder whose team won a gold medal, said she was moved by the whole experience.
"Once I got there and saw Israel," she said, "it was the most amazing experience I ever had. Just the history, and everything the Jewish people have been through, and now we have our own country — which will last forever — is something that will live with me forever. The Maccabiah has truly been a life-altering experience. It has given me a whole new perspective on Jewish people, as well as myself."
Discussing what it means to be in Israel and part of Maccabiah is practically a sport in itself. Having never before been to Israel, Roman Veytsman and Shawn Weinstein, both members of the U.S. junior basketball team, said the games get everyone to realize how alike people are.
"Being here at a time when we’re constantly hearing about how badly Israel needs us is indeed very special," said Weinstein, 15, an incoming junior at Peninsula High School in Rancho Palos Verdes who averaged close to 22 points a game during her play for the U.S. squad, which won the gold medal for the first time since 1993.
"Israel is almost indescribable in that it’s so beautiful, and every day we saw something more fascinating. From the touring to the trading to the Israeli people, everything and everyone has been tremendous. My parents wanted me to have the experience and encouraged me from the start. I knew things would be fine, and, sure enough, I never once felt unsafe," Weinstein said.
An incoming junior at El Camino High School, Veytsman, 15, said, "I knew it would be special being here, but the feeling I had marching into Teddy Stadium for the opening ceremonies will live with me forever."
The games, which were shortened in length from 10 to seven days, took place from July 16 to 24. In a normal year, the Maccabiah Games are one of the world’s five largest international sporting events.
Sixteen years ago, there were 390 athletes from 18 countries. This year’s games, despite numerous cancellations, featured more than 3,000 athletes from approximately 35 countries, competing in 38 sports. Israel alone had more than 1,500 participants.
In the athletics, the United States won gold medals in open and junior basketball, junior girls soccer, water polo and beach volleyball. Overall, the United States finished second to Israel in the count, winning 74 medals (21 gold, 23 silver and 30 bronze). Israel won a whopping 244, including 96 gold.
The undisputed star of this year’s United States team was West Hollywood swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, who won three gold medals at last summer’s Olympic Games in Australia. Krayzelburg, who passed up going to the world championships in Japan to participate in the Maccabiah, was selected to carry in the flag for the United States at the opening ceremonies.
"It’s one thing to represent a team, or your school, but to represent your country and all the Jewish people from the United States is a tremendous honor of a completely different kind," said Krayzelburg, who despite an injured shoulder won gold medals in the two events in which he participated: 100-meter backstroke and the 4 X 100M medley relay.
As the starting point guard on the U.S. men’s open basketball team, Tustin’s Doug Gottlieb said he came to Israel partly to win the gold medal his team failed to win in 1997. The last open hoops gold medal won by the U.S. team was in 1985, 16 years ago.
"I felt that, from last time, we had some unfinished business (the U.S. team lost in the semi-finals to Great Britain in 1997), and I wanted to experience winning with some of my former teammates and coach Herb Brown," said Gottlieb, who this past year played professionally in Russia. "The gold medal game against Israel was very tight again, and to pull it out was a tremendous feeling."
Gottlieb, who played college ball at Oklahoma State, added that being in Israel is a very special thing indeed.
"You can’t judge Israel by what you see on television, because if you do, you would never come here, and would miss one of the greatest countries in the world," said Gottlieb, who was once voted the best quote in college basketball. "I’ve been here five times, and I’ve never felt unsafe. What is really special about these games is all the people really chose to come, and there’s nothing like being in Israel and competing in the Maccabiah Games to make you really feel what it’s like to be Jewish."
At the closing ceremonies, Matan Vilnai, Israeli minister of science, culture and sports, expressed thanks to the athletes who came to Israel.
"You can’t imagine how important it is for us that you came to Israel to take part in this Maccabiah," said Vilnai, who was one of the Israeli officials who insisted that the games take place. "Take back to your countries the knowledge of what life is really like here in Israel. We will see you at the next Maccabiah in 2005, or even before, if you choose to move here and make Israel your home."
Final results for the U.S. team can be found on the Internet by going to
Chatter Matters is the kind of present one person gets and the whole family benefits from. The board game is the brainchild of Kathryn Retsky, former director of the Stephen S. Wise Temple Parenting Center. Each player rolls the dice, moves along the board, and picks a card. The point is not winning or losing, but conversing. The cards pose questions such as, “A dream comes true. You are invisible for a day. What will you do?” The conversation that follows allows adults to hear their children’s responses and vice versa.
Participants — grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren — open up to each other. Dilemmas, concerns, wishes and dreams get put out, quite literally, on the table. More topical game cards ask questions such as, “If someone in your family was running for political office, what winning campaign slogan would you suggest?” These connect the outside world to the inner world of the participants.
The game is set up so that every answer is right and each player feels successful. Conversation is stimulated a new ideas are shared. Retsky, who is now authoring educational CD-ROMs that promote understanding of children’s health and development, hopes Chatter Matters will provide a thought-provoking vehicle to open up the hearts and minds of each player.
Her company, Parenting Solutions, has joined with Mattel to produce the game, which is available at Toys R Us and Target.
Finally, a gift that really does keep on giving.
My son and I have been wandering around the mall all afternoon looking for Pokémon cards. When we called last night, everyone had them, but today, nobody does.
In one of the stores, I see two worried-looking parents, with their very pouty 7-year-old son, talking to the store manager.
“Is the yellow Pokémon Game Boy game, played with the yellow Game Boy Color, the same as the yellow Pokémon Game Boy game played with the regular Game Boy? And can you play the yellow Pikachu edition on either one?” they ask, bewildered.
After the store manager quells their fears, telling them that basically the games are the same, the parents drag their now-poutier-than-ever-son out of the store with an audible sigh of relief.
At least they are not alone in their confusion.
The phenomenon of Pokémon has taken us all by storm — concerned parents, educators, religious-school administrators, rabbis. We wonder, ‘how far do we go with this Pokémon craze, a craze seemingly more powerful than anything else in years? How much do we spend, where do we set the limits of play, and ultimately, is this phenomenon good or bad for our children?’
“The challenge with Pokémon, as with anything else,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, author of ‘Children of Character: Leading your Children to Ethical Choices in Everyday Life,’ “is how do we incorporate our Jewish values, handed down thousands of years, and relate them to specific, American cultural experiences on a day-to-day basis. I don’t see them as opposite. I see them as completely compatible. How do we bring harmony to both?”
Harmony is not a word Linda Pacheco would use when talking about Pokémon.
Pacheco, principle of Mt. Washington Elementary, a public school 15 minutes east of downtown, found that the Pokémon card game caused so much commotion, in and out of the classroom, that she had no other choice but to ban it from school.
“The cards were everywhere,” says Pacheco. “They had books of their collections and they would sit on the wall and spend hours after-school looking at their cards.”
For Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David Judea, Pokémon presented another problem. Instead of Shabbat being a time to focus on family, community, God and Torah, children at B’nai David were focusing on trading Pokémon cards.
“Children would come to shul with their backpacks full and begin negotiating, exactly the way adults buy and sell stocks the other five days of the week,” Kanefsky recalls. “It was impossible to draw them out of it.”
He eventually sent home a letter to the parents banning Pokémon from shul. “For me it was a Shabbat issue — about there being no commercial transactions — and a distraction issue,” he says.
As a father of a 6 and 10-year-old, Kanefsky confesses he sees no value in the game, but he did state that Pokémon presents a wonderful opportunity for parents to teach the more subtle lessons of stealing.
“In Leviticus, Chapter 19, Verse 14, it says ‘you should not place a stumbling block before the blind,'” Kanefsky points out.
In the halachic interpretation, he says, it’s a figurative blindness, meaning you should not lead the unwary astray. In Pokémon terms, it means not taking advantage of someone’s ignorance, not intimidating someone younger than you, not exploiting your position with a friend.
“Holding back information [about the value] of a card is also stealing,” Kanefsky says.
“When it comes to Pokémon, identify your own values,” Reuben advises parents. “Then act based on those values. For instance, if you want to teach compassion, encourage your children, who have cards, to share with those who don’t; if you want to teach integrity, talk to your kids about being honest when trading. Have your children ask, ‘What would the world be like if everybody acts the way I am acting?’ This is an important lesson to impart.”
One parent who found that Pokémon presented an opportunity to teach life lessons was Encino dermatologist Dr. Helene Rosenzweig, mother of a smart and spunky 6-year-old named Michael, whose love of Pokémon started on his birthday.
“I got good cards,” he says, recalling that auspicious day.
Michael soon began collecting Pokémon cards and trading them with his friends. He even learned the game, which is no easy task for a 6-year-old. But what started out as a “cool game,” soon bordered on an obsession. Now Rosenzweig says things have cooled down somewhat for her son, “If [the cards are] not around, he can live without them.”
Like other parents caught off-guard with the intensity by which their young children have embraced Pokémon, Rosenzweig has made an effort to learn the names of many of her son’s favorite characters and tries to talk with other parents about the aspects of fairness and trading among kids too young to know the meaning of “market value.” She also discusses these things with her son.
“I talked to him about what makes something valuable, say, why a Charizard card is more valuable than a Pikachu,” Rosenzweig says, revealing that a Charizard card can sell upwards of $75 to $100.
“He said to me, ‘But what if I love Pikachu, and I want to have thousands and thousands of Pickachus?'”
“So for him, [he learned that] value lies in the eye of the beholder,” she says.
After seeing her otherwise shy son approach older kids, to ask if they wanted to trade with him, Rosenzweig concludes that “Pokémon is a great equalizer.”
Sharon Mor, an educational director at SCORE!, a supplemental educational center in Pasadena, echoes the same sentiment. “I credit Pokémon with bringing people together… I haven’t seen anything like this in years.” Because of it’s across-the-board-appeal, the center’s team of directors has sponsored two Pokémon tournaments for their clients, and are restructuring for a third. Although they make clear that Pokémon will never be a substitute for their curriculum, they believe the card game utilizes critical thinking, reading and math skills that can help kids in school.
“Kids come in here who hardly know how to read, and they can read the Pokémon names.” says Mor.
“I think for some students there’s a stigma attached to math in school — it’s not fun. They don’t realize they are using the same math skills while playing Pokémon,” Felix Flores, another director says. “I’m surprised to see how many children understand and can play the game.”
Certainly, Fusajiro Yamauchi did not foresee the fuss surrounding the Pokémon phenomenon when he began manufacturing Japanese playing cards in Kyoto in 1889.
Jump ahead to 1996, when Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Japan — whose current president is Mr. Yamauchi’s great grandson — developed a Game Boy game called “Pokémon,” based on the Japanese card game “Pocket Monsters.” In 1998, Nintendo introduced Pokémon for Game Boy to North America, and in January 1999 — yes folks, it’s only been one year — Wizards of the Coast licensed the Pokémon trading card game from Nintendo for American audiences. Since the debut of the Pokémon trading card game, more than 3 million starter-sets have been sold. Now, that’s a lot of pocket monsters.
The game, which is based on a mathematical strategy, has a deep complexity that surprises most adults. It helps if you’ve seen the daily WB animated TV series or played the Nintendo games, but no matter, Pokémon is a world unto itself, inhabited by 150 Pokémon characters, which are fiercely powerful when it comes to doing battle. Trainers, which are our kids, utilize these powers to win the game. Contrary to popular belief, there is no exchange of cards during a game, rather, a depletion of points, leaving an opponent’s Pokémon monsters helplessly stranded on the bench, until there are no Pokémons left.
At Temple Israel of Hollywood, where a class of fourth graders has gathered to talk about Pokémon, their excitement is palpable. Although Laura Bramson, director of the re
ligious school, has not banned Pokémon altogether, she does not allow it to become a distraction either. “If the kids play with them in the classroom they’re taken away and returned at the end of the class.” she says.
For the fourth graders, who are evenly divided between boys and girls, not even the absence of their precious game cards dims their enthusiasm.
“It’s exciting because it’s fun,” says Lindsay Pollock, a sensible girl, with a sizable collection, “and the reason why it’s fun is because there’s such a big variety of them.”
“I like to collect them because it’s a really big fad,” says Mahira Sobral, herself a past Beanie Baby collector. “When it runs out, I’ll have basically all the cards I have now.”
And what is she going to do with them when they are no longer popular?
“I’ll do something like put ‘Fad 1999’ on them,” she says.
When asked if they have ever used their knowledge to make a trade with a less experienced player, they all shook their head no, but they did say they themselves have been taken advantage of.
“I had one of the rarest cards in the world and I traded it for a very unrare card. I didn’t know then but I ended up getting very ripped off.” Danny Weber, a redheaded Pokémon aficionado, says.
“Some of mine were stolen, about 10 cards, so I decided not to bring them to school at all, unless I’m going to trade, then I just bring that card.” says Jimmy Kaplan, a young man who obviously has a bright future in the commodities market.
At this point in the interview, the teacher checks his watch, so it’s important to move on to the most important question of the afternoon: How many are going to see the new Pokémon movie, opening Nov. 10?
They all talk at once.
“If you go early enough, you can get some cards.”
“It ‘s going to be so cool.”
“It’s going to be a super good movie,”
“There’s two new Pokémon”
“Hundreds of people are going to go see it.”
In spite of what adults believe about Pokémon, and no matter what they say or do, Pokémon remains a powerful force in our children’s lives. But our children, who have lived through more fads in their short lives than we could have ever imagined in ours (anyone remember marbles?) also see it for what it is: a popular fad that will disappear one day like so many monsters left on the bench at the end of a Pokémon game.
If there’s anything they know for sure, it is this one sad fact: Pokémon will go the way of all other fads — Furbys, Beanie Babies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — and something new will take its place.
In the meantime, they’re going to have some fun.
“The reason why they’re so interesting,” says Lindsay, pausing thoughtfully, “is because there’s not that many things that are really popular and last for such a long time. Some things are popular for shorter amounts of time, and then they run out. But this is really unusual, because it’s been going on for a few years now.”
“Yeah,” someone calls out, “like ice-cream.”
In a Chicago Tribune interview last October, shortly before pro basketball was shut down by a bruising lockout, players’ union chief Billy Hunter waxed sentimental about his lifelong passion for defending the underdog. By way of illustration, he recalled how, as a teen-ager in 1950s-era Cherry Hill, N.J., he used to trade blows with bigots who harassed his best friend for being Jewish. Hunter himself is black.
It was an intriguing reminder of a bygone era of black-Jewish intimacy. But Hunter wasn’t really discussing social history. He was talking, in code, about basketball today. It was a message to players and team owners: Don’t let this labor dispute turn into an ethnic clash.
There was ample reason to worry. Close to 85 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association are black. Nearly half of the 29 teams’ owners are Jewish — far more than in baseball or football. Most top NBA officials are Jews, beginning with Commissioner David Stern. No other arena in American life, except popular music, brings Jews and blacks together in such an intimate, high-profile engagement.
It’s an engagement with deep roots. In its early days, basketball was dominated by Jewish players, nearly as much as black players dominate today. And for the same reason: It was a poor boy’s ticket out of the ghetto. An urban game, requiring no grassy fields or expensive equipment, basketball is open to anyone with a ball and a hoop. “The early great players and progenitors of the sport were Jewish,” says New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick.
Then, Jews moved out and blacks moved in. Today, the game resembles nothing so much as an old downtown neighborhood that turned from Jewish to black, leaving behind a Jewish economic presence as landlords and shopkeepers.
Not that the players are living in poverty. But the undercurrents of resentment are there. Last fall, they reached a peak. It wouldn’t have taken much to ignite an ugly black-Jewish confrontation, given the high stakes and raw feelings of the $2 billion basketball contract dispute — not to mention the famously foul-mouthed crudeness of some players. A few players and their advocates actually began grumbling about the owners’ “plantation mentality.”
In the end, no one crossed the line from black-white race-baiting to singling out Jewish owners. Not publicly, anyway. Across the country, Jewish fans, sportswriters and team owners silently braced for anti-Semitism throughout the six-month lockout. It never materialized.
The credit is partly due to Hunter, the union chief. “Billy stood up and said race was not an issue,” says Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith.
Hunter took a series of small, symbolic steps to forestall ethnic friction. He named the league’s only Jewish player, Orlando Magic center Danny Schayes, son of the legendary player-coach Dolph Schayes, to the negotiating team. Hunter and Schayes both made a point during the talks of peppering their conversation with Yiddish-flavored jokes. Hunter even boned up on the history of black-Jewish ties; aides say a book on the topic has been sitting prominently on his desk for weeks.
“There was some talk on the margins about this being a race thing,” says the union’s press spokesman, Dan Wasserman. “But the simple fact is that Billy Hunter slam-dunked that notion.”
Part of the peacekeeping credit belongs, too, to Commissioner Stern, if only for making the pot so rich. A lawyer by training, Stern took over the NBA in 1984. Since then, he’s utterly transformed the game. By marketing it as celebrity entertainment, complete with stars and sex appeal, he’s moved it from a distant third place in popularity, after baseball and football, to rough equality. And basketball’s revenues have quadrupled.
Most of the players appreciate that, insiders say. “Some complain,” says the New York Post’s Mushnick. “But who made them millionaires?”
Players aren’t the only ones to benefit from Stern’s economic revolution. Team franchises, once money losers, have become fantastically lucrative. The profits, in turn, have lured a whole new generation of investors. “He’s been the single-most effective executive in the history of the sports business,” says Edward Bleier, president of Warner Bros. and close observer of the game.
One result, some say, is a coarser game. Basketball owners, far more than baseball or football owners, are new to the sport, don’t know the inside of the locker room, don’t understand their teams. That, combined with the increased individualism fostered by Stern’s star system, has led to a decline in team morale.
“There’s very little sport left in sports,” says Mushnick. “It’s about money. It’s about a popular culture in free fall. The team doesn’t count anymore. It’s the individual.”
Another result is that certain basic questions about Jewish life in America are getting harder to ignore. What role should Jews be playing in public life? What role should wealth play in Jewish life? Most of all, who are the Jewish role models for tomorrow’s young Jews?
The challenge was raised publicly last September by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, in a speech in Chicago. He blasted Jewish team owners for buying sports teams “as toys” instead of donating their money to Jewish education.
Characteristically, Schorsch bungled his facts and asked the wrong questions. In fact, Jewish sports executives as a group are unusually devoted to Jewish causes. Most are major UJA donors. David Stern has been honored by both UJA and Israel Bonds and personally sponsored a Soviet refugee family. New Jersey Nets owner Henry Taub is a former national chairman of the United Israel Appeal. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin actually changed his team’s name from the Bullets after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Still, Schorsch was onto something. The growing emergence of Jews as team owners symbolizes a deeper change in Jewish life. It’s an unhealthy change, in the most basic sense.
“Sports was a key medium of Americanization for East European Jews,” says University of Minnesota anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell, author of a forthcoming book about gender and assimilation. “It was a way of overcoming traditional anxieties about the Jewish male body, and the notion of the Jewish male as a victim unable to defend himself. The powerful male body became a potent issue of acculturation for American Jewish men.”
Today, Prell says, we’re moving backward. “What you’re looking at today,” she says, “is the transformation of sports from something Jews did to something Jews own.”
Is that what we want?
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.
I love basketball. Not as in, I love Neil Diamond,I hum along when he’s on the radio. No.
More like, when I know my team is playing and I’mnot watching, I get the agitated look of a kid with chicken pox onHalloween. During basketball season, my life is scheduled aroundgames; people look at me askance when I grab the sports section andleave the rest of the paper.
In high school, my brother was a star athlete,building camaraderie with his peers, figuring out how to losegracefully, how to compete, how to snatch victory from the jaws ofdefeat — and generally manifest all other inspiring sportsclichés. Meanwhile, I took ballet lessons, a one-way ticket tosapped self-esteem and bad feet. The most lasting message from thatritual abuse was: “Hips and breasts sure get in the way! Stand in astraight line and avoid all facial expressions! Mesomorphs to theback, please.”
Now, I’m making up for lost time. With every gameI watch, I’m trying to learn the things I missed out on during mysports-free childhood. What’s most compelling for me is not theathletic prowess I see but the mental fortitude, the lack of fear,the drive to win, the player who never chokes, who always makes freethrows during crunch time, who actually wants to take the lastshot.
When I start to lose in life, I tend to throw inthe proverbial towel. It never dawned on me to fight my way back froma deficit. I don’t like to think of myself as a “loser,” but whenfaced with a challenge, what comes most naturally to me is to take tomy bed with a box of Pop Tarts or just have a good, old fashionedanxiety attack. Basketball is changing that by modeling the oppositebehavior: It’s Michael Jordan dominating a playoff game with the flu;it’s Muggsy Bogues becoming a point guard at 5-foot-3; it’s MahmoudAbdul-Rauf being a sharpshooter despite the fact that he hasTourette’s syndrome.
My fascination with basketball was born when I sawthe documentary “Hoop Dreams.” I wanted to find out how the two highschool players featured in the film were doing in college. A coupleof months later, I was a full-fledged fan, fluent in basketball’sparticular argot and easily tossing off phrases such as “shootingfrom downtown,” “going coast to coast” and the advanced “Come on,that was a ticky-tack foul!”
Men test me. They think I’m faking it, as if I’veread some directive from Cosmo that tells me to learn about sports sothat I can “relate” to them. Loving basketball has nothing to do withwanting to impress men. Still, I can’t help but derive pleasure whenI prove that my sports knowledge is both complete andimpassioned.
As a Jewish woman, it’s even more satisfying. Irelish flying in the face of the prissy Private Benjamin stereotypeby yelling things such as “If you’re gonna foul him, foul him hard,Shaq!” I’ve even purchased my own basketball, which I doggedlyattempt to dribble and shoot for hours on end when the good playershave vacated the local blacktop. Someday, maybe I’ll be good enoughto join a pickup game, or even earn the right to trash talk. (Ballettrash-talking just doesn’t work. “Hey, Mikhail, get those plies outof my kitchen. Your pas de deux is more like a pas de don’t.” Seewhat I mean.)
It may sound absurd, but basketball has given mean opening to converse with legions of people I ordinarily wouldn’t– most notably, my brother. Before, our most richly huedconversation sounded like a scene from “The Ice Storm.” Now, we can’tget off the phone, trying to figure out what has gone so terriblyawry for the Golden State Warriors.
For those who have never really watched a game,especially women, I can’t recommend it enough. Like anything, themore you learn, the more you see. Ask a sports fan to watch a gamewith you, to explain how to decipher a team’s box scores in thepaper, to fill you in on any team scandals or personality conflicts.At the very least, you’ll become versed in another slice of the humanexperience. You haven’t got much to lose.
After all, you always miss the shots you don’ttake.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething
contributing writer for The JewishJournal.