Backgammon ‘Shesh Besh’ smackdown

Upon visiting the high-stakes backgammon competition March 8 at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, witnesses were welcomed by the sound of dice on board, the cursing of bad luck and the occasional exclamation of “shesh besh!”

The phrase — another name for the game — comes from the Hebrew word for six (shesh) and the Turkish word for five (besh). Those two numbers represent the best possible rolls of the dice you could hope for to begin the game, giving you an edge over your opponent. When you roll a five and a six, you better call it out loud, shouting “shesh besh” at the top of your lungs so people are impressed not only with your roll, but also with your ability to call it. 

At stake in the inaugural competition, which was held in conjunction with Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), was an iPad Air, as well as an iPad mini distributed early in the day to the competitor with the best board. Temple congregant Bob Ourian took home the latter with his bright-hued board, made in Isfahan, Iran, and crafted in the elaborate khatam style — inlaid with bone, ivory and wood.

Before the competition began, Nathaniel Malka, a JIMENA advisory board member, said shesh besh is a staple in Sephardic households.

“I have a huge Iraqi family, and when I’m with family, everyone is always bragging about being the best player in the family — if not the world,” he said. “I think everybody in this room goes around telling their family they’re the best in L.A., and the scary thing is, after today, one of them can say, ‘See? I can prove it!’ ”

Sephardic Temple’s president Alex Rachmanony explained, with sage-like wisdom, “There are two ways to play. You can play offensively or defensively.” Rachmanony went on to play in the semifinals by alternating between the two strategies.

Competitors were a hodgepodge of young and old, men and women. During the preliminaries, 31-year-old Sanaz Meshkinfam took on Saul Mathalon, who at 91 was the most mature player competing at the event and who brought with him a whopping 80 years of shesh besh experience. 

Mathalon attended with his wife, Mereille, who, as the tournament progressed, became a highly coveted good-luck charm. When somebody was down on their luck, they’d call out her name — “Mereille!” — and she’d make the rounds, blow on their dice, and, more times than not, work miracles.

“Saul, you’re keeping my confidence in check,” Meshkinfam remarked after all of Mathalon’s checkers were collected in a neat pile and her chips were scattered across the board, signaling a win for the elder. Meshkinfam, an independent consultant for community and government relations, first heard about the tournament through JIMENA. 

“I knew that I’d be playing different generations,” she said about attending the event. Overall, she decided to participate because the game “brings back childhood memories.” 

“Do you know who taught me how to play?” she asked Mathalon during their game. “My grandmother,” she answered. She learned when she was only 6. 

And although shesh besh could be perceived as a man’s game, her grandmother was one tough cookie who knew her way around a board. Meshkinfam, who grew up in Iran, said that the strategies she employed in shesh besh helped her learn some valuable life lessons — like when it’s wise to be on the offensive or defensive, when to oscillate between the two, and that half the game is luck and half is strategy and smarts.

Another player who used shesh besh as a metaphor for life was Albert Cohen. While watching Mathalon slay his opponents, one after the other, he said, “This is the game of life.” 

Soon after, he relayed the story of the time his granddaughter, Amberly Hershewe, a current student at Shalhevet High School, asked Cohen to teach her how to play. Cohen’s No. 1 tip for shesh besh success was: “Don’t be vulnerable, and if you’re going to be vulnerable, calculate your move.”

By the end of day, the community backgammon competition looked like after-hours at prom. Plastic cups filled with half-consumed soft drinks littered the tables as disheveled tablecloths draped off the tabletops. Competitors with bloodshot eyes due to more than five hours of nonstop shesh besh played their final games. 

The event started at 10 a.m. with more than 30 players and dragged on until 5:30 p.m., when the number of competitors dwindled down to two. By 4 p.m., tired players mumbled, standing around, waiting for semifinals to finish and the finals to begin.

Cohen’s skill took him to finals, where he faced John Sherf, a family man who, by the end of day, was glued to his phone, promising his wife he’d be home soon. In a moment of vulnerability, Cohen made a move, making his checker susceptible to his opponent. 

“What are you doing in the last game with a move like that?” the onlookers yelled at him. 

It so happens that Cohen’s risky move is what made him champion. He won the iPad Air and, of course, said he was giving it to his granddaughter. 

‘Schmutz’ and other Jewish Scrabble moves

Next time you’re playing Scrabble, you can put down “schmutz,” “schtum” or even “tuchus” without fear of being challenged. (“Tuchuses,” the plural, is also acceptable.)

These are just some of the new Yiddish words to be added to Merriam-Webster’s “Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary.”

The dictionary’s fifth edition, published this month, includes more than 5,000 new words in total, many of them recently coined ones like “beatbox,” “hashtag” and “chillax.”

But “schmutz” is one of the few newcomers to be highlighted in a promotional video on Merriam-Webster’s YouTube channel.  In it, Jewish comedian Judy Gold, laying on a thick Long Island accent, shares several examples of how the word — which means dirt — might appear in a sentence.

The new additions are hardly the only playable Yiddish and Hebrew words. Even players still relying on the fourth edition, published in 2005, will find each letter in the Hebrew aleph bet (transliterated into English, of course) — except, oddly, for the word “alephbet” itself.

Meanwhile, various spellings of shadchan (matchmaker), mitzvah (commandment), aliyah (immigration to Israel) and tallis (prayer shawl) are accepted. And virtually every word you can think of that starts with a “sh” — shlub, shlep, even shmuck — is not only accepted, but can be spelled with or without a “c” in between.

One Jew-y word you cannot play however, at least not if you’re using the “Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary” as your arbiter (ironically, official Scrabble tournaments use a separate dictionary): “jew.” Capitalized it’s a proper noun — off limits — and while some people use it lower-case as a verb meaning “to bargain,” the lower case form is excluded from the dictionary on the grounds of anti-Semitism.

Which is good for the Jews, but bad if you’re trying to get rid of a J.


Crossword Puzzle: July 19, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: July 5, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: June 28, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: June 14, 2013


Crossword Puzzle Answers: May 3, 2013

Crossword Puzzle Answers: April 26, 2013

Crossword Puzzle: April 19, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: April 5, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: March 29, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: March 22, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: March 15, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: March 8, 2013


Crossword Puzzle: March 1, 2013


Six decades later, fibbing flyer sees London Olympics

It took 64 years, with a detour to Israel’s War of Independence, but Mitchell Flint is finally getting to see the London Olympic Games, live and in person.

In the summer of 1948, Flint, with a four-year wartime stint as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific under his belt, graduated as an industrial engineer from U.C. Berkeley. At the same time, the newly declared State of Israel was struggling to defend itself from six invading Arab armies.

“I’m Jewish, Israel desperately needed trained fighter pilots, so I thought I could perhaps do something to sustain the state,” Flint recalled.


New Zealand Jewish sailor in medal contention

New Zealand sailor Jo Aleh is in good position to win her first Olympic medal as her event heads into its final stretch.

Aleh, whose parents Shuki and Daniella Aleh lived in Israel before moving to Auckland, and teammate Olivia Powrie are in second position after six of 10 races in the 470 event. The Kiwis were leading in the early rounds but now trail the British team by a point.

Four rounds remain—two each on Tuesday and Wednesday—followed by a medal race, scheduled for Friday.

Aleh, a former national champion and 2007 world champion, finished seventh at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Her father has flown in from Israel to watch the final rounds and her mother has arrived from New Zealand.

Aleh has two half-siblings who both live in Israel, according to a report in The Forward. After the Olympics, the family is traveling there to celebrate her half-sister’s bat mitzvah.

Aleh says she was inspired to take up sailing after watching the 1995 America’s Cup when New Zealand won sport’s oldest trophy.

Aly Raisman loses bronze in tie-breaker, Gabby Douglas wins gold

Smiling 16-year-old Gabby Douglas took the Olympic Games by storm on Thursday when she won the all-around gold medal ahead of Russian Victoria Komova.

Komova was reduced to tears for the second time in three days when American Douglas pipped her to the title by 0.259 of a point after producing the day’s best performances on the vault and the beam.

Aliya Mustafina, who with Komova was disappointed to take team silver behind the Americans on Tuesday, clung on for bronze despite a fall from the beam. She and Douglas’s compatriot Aly Raisman finished with the same total but the Russian won the medal on the tiebreak rule.

Douglas, dubbed the “Flying Squirrel” for the shape she produces on the bars, was watched from the stands by team mate and world champion Jordyn Wieber, who had come into the Games touted as the favorite for Thursday’s honors but failed to qualify for the final.

[For more Olympics coverage, visit]

Rules and regulations seem to be plaguing the Americans here. Wieber finished fourth in qualifying for the all-around but missed the cut since each nation is allowed only two women in the final. As Douglas and Raisman ranked above her in the preliminaries, Wieber was demoted to the role of spectator at the North Greenwich Arena on Thursday.

Raisman lost out on bronze despite finishing off with the second-best floor routine of the evening under the rule that separates equally-placed contestants by toting up the totals of their three best apparatus.

Douglas, though, was beyond the reach of such concerns, leading from the first of the four rotations when she was the opener on the vault.

A slight hop sideways on landing could have cost her but all her rivals fluffed their landings, with Komova stumbling sideways right off the mat.


Raisman banged her foot on one of the asymmetric bars in the second routine and began to look concerned. Douglas, for all her prowess on the apparatus, was beaten by the two Russians, with Mustafina scoring a high 16.100, but the American stayed in the lead.

With Douglas and the 17-year-old Komova duelling for the gold, their team mates were left to fight for bronze and Mustafina looked to have thrown away her chances when she came off the beam attempting to complete a twisting somersault.

Her score was a low 13.633 and Raisman took to the narrow piece of wood knowing she could take advantage. Her hopes shrivelled, though, when she only just saved herself from overbalancing and then wobbled precariously on a spin and she dropped to fifth place.

Though she recovered with 15.133 on the floor, where she won a world bronze medal last October, it was not enough to put her ahead of 2010 world all-around champion Mustafina.

Komova was last on the floor and Raisman stood with her arm around Douglas as they waited for the giant scoreboard, high above them, to show their fate. Seconds later, only Douglas was celebrating.

As Raisman bit her lip and Komova slumped in a chair and covered her face with both hands, Douglas climbed on to the dais by the vault run-up and waved to the wildly cheering and flag-waving American fans.

Her victory was another feather in the cap of Chinese-born coach Liang Chow who coached another American, Shawn Johnson, to all-around silver and beam gold at the Beijing Olympics four years ago.

Reporting by Clare Fallon; Editing by Pritha Sarkar

Editorial Cartoon: Obvious politics — Minute of silence

37 Israeli Olympians set for London Games

A group of 37 Olympians is ready to represent Israel in the 2012 London Games, which kicked off with Friday’s Opening Ceremony.

Israel is competing in badminton, artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, athletics, judo, sailing, shooting, swimming, synchronized swimming, and tennis.

The only medalist from Israel at the last summer Olympics (2008 in Beijing) was Shahar Zubari, who won bronze in sailing. Each country is permitted to send just one windsurfer to the Olympics, and Zubari edged out local rival Nimrod Mashiah for Israel’s spot.

“For me, reaching the Olympics is only the beginning,” Zubari told the Jerusalem Post.

Other prominent Israeli Olympians include Ariel Ze’evi, who won a bronze medal in judo at the 2004 Athens Games; Alice Schlesinger, a former bronze medalist at the Judo World Championships; Vered Buskila, a silver medalist in sailing at the 2005 European Championships; and Shahar Pe’er, once the 11th-ranked women’s tennis player in the world.

The London Games also mark the 20th anniversary of Israel’s first-ever Olympic medals—Yael Arad’s silver in half middleweight judo and Shay Oren Smadga’s bronze in half lightweight judo, both at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Israeli thanks Australia for backing Olympics moment of silence

Israel’s deputy foreign minister thanked Australia for supporting the campaign to urge the International Olympic Committee to hold a minute’s silence at the London Games in honor of the 11 Israelis murdered in Munich in 1972.

Danny Ayalon met earlier this week with Peter Slipper, the speaker of Australia’s Parliament who recently took a leave of absence from his post amid accusations of fraud and sexual harassment. Slipper is in Israel for an official visit.

Also present at the meeting were Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer, widows of two of the Munich 11, who have been campaigning for the IOC to acknowledge the Munich massacre.

Australian lawmakers on June 26 unanimously backed a motion calling on the IOC to hold a minute’s silence. The members of parliament backed the bill by standing in unison in silence.

“The Israeli people thank you and the Australian people for your moral and decent decision to hold a minute of silence in memory of the athletes murdered in Munich simply because they were Israelis,” Ayalon said.

In a statement, Romano and Spitzer said: “For 40 years we have walked alone, and it is wonderful that now the government of Israel as well as other governments around the world are supporting us and understand the injustice that has been done to us. We want to especially mention the Australian government, which was one of the first to call on the International Olympic Committee to hold a minute of silence. All of this support gives us the strength to continue, because we are no longer alone in our struggle.”

Slipper also spoke to Israeli President Shimon Peres. “I reiterated to the president and to the deputy foreign minister the strong links our two countries share, and highlighted the recent resolution passed by the entire Australian government and the Australian House of Representatives in support of a minute silence being held at the London Games in honor of the 11 murdered Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Games,“ he said.

As London’s Jews prepare for Olympics, Munich 11 on their minds

For the British Jewish community, the most memorable moment of the London Olympics may be a somber one.

On Aug. 6, several hundred people are expected to attend a commemoration for the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

“From conversations across the community, the key thing people are engaged in around the Olympics is that they want to see a commemoration of Munich,” said Peter Mason, director of the London Jewish Forum.

While a ceremony organized by the Israelis and the local community takes place during every Olympic Games, this one marks the 40th anniversary of the massacre. The International Olympics Committee continues to reject international calls for a minute of silence during the opening ceremony on July 27.

But the community also has made a point of joining the general air of celebration sweeping London in the run-up to the Games. In the past year, nearly every Jewish school, youth group and charity has run Olympics-related activities. And during the Olympics, London’s Jews will welcome thousands of Jewish visitors with social events, synagogue services, guides to Jewish London and, in the Olympic Village, pastoral care.

The welcoming efforts are being coordinated by the Jewish Committee for the London Games, which was established by the London Jewish Forum and several other community organizations.

For one of the organizations, Maccabi GB, which runs sports programming for the Jewish community, the Olympics has been “a springboard to get people involved. At every opportunity we’ve linked to the Olympics,” said project manager Jessica Overlander-Kaye.

Maccabi GB worked with more than 15 Jewish organizations on more than 30 events, ranging from talks about the roles of Jews in sport to Olympics-themed sports days in Jewish schools, and liaising with students who want to write good luck cards to the Israeli delegation. An annual community Fun Run was expanded this year to reach 2,000 people, including British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

For Overlander-Kaye, become involved in Olympics-themed activities through Jewish groups is “about being part of something smaller and bigger at the same time. It’s an opportunity to be part of the Olympics while connecting to the Jewish community. Viewed backwards, it reflects very well on our community, on our mentality about working from the grass roots, that we encourage people to get active and engaged. We make it easy for people.”

She is particularly proud of the work that Maccabi did this year in encouraging people with disabilities to become involved in sports. In June, the group held an event that saw the able-bodied and non-able-bodied play sports together.

“We linked it to the Paralympics,” she said of the international games held for disabled athletes after each summer Olympics. “The Israeli delegation will have a strong Paralympic team, and this makes sports accessible” to disabled people.

Other groups have focused on educational events. For example, the London Jewish School of Jewish Studies, which runs adult education classes, is offering sessions on whether the Olympian ideal is Jewish and “Who really won on Chanukah?,” while the United Jewish Israel Appeal has developed six workshops, including ones on the Munich massacre and Jewish ideas on strength that have been taken up by youth groups and schools.

The closest many community members will get to the Games will be on July 25, when the Olympic torch, which has been touring across the United Kingdom, will be carried through the heavily Jewish North-West London.

“Hopefully the community will have a good showing,” Mason said. “There is a genuine building of excitement.”

During the Games themselves, the community will open its doors to tourists, from abroad and from elsewhere in the UK, who wish to experience Jewish London. A website was set up by the Jewish Volunteering Network under the auspices of the Jewish Committee for the London Games that lists all major attractions, including kosher restaurants, synagogues and Jewish landmarks. It also has a section on the history of London’s Jews and a calendar of Jewish events connected to the Games.

Some 10,000 people already have visited the website since its launch in January, according to Es Rosen, the website manager and JVN regional development manager.

“We have no idea how many people we can expect, but when people go to an international city they often seek out Jewish tourist sites,” Rosen said. “The Olympics have tremendous potential for Jewish London.”

As the Olympic Village is situated in East London, the relatively small community there has taken on the role of catering to the Jewish needs of the Olympic teams.

Four local rabbis from across the denominational spectrum will join 186 other chaplains serving the athletes, delegation members, staff and volunteers. Rabbi Richard Jacobi of the Woodford Liberal Synagogue says he will be available for those looking “for a sympathetic ear from their own faith, or from faith in general,” in case of stress, a personal emergency or any other need. The pastoral team also is part of the contingency plans in case of a large-scale incident.

“Personally this is a once-in-a-life opportunity to be involved in something that presents London and British Jewry in the best possible light,” Jacobi said. “Many people think that London is dominated by anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and that is not the case. There is a degree of background radiation, but it certainly does not influence people’s lives on a daily basis. People enjoy being Jewish in London.”

Nevertheless, he adds, “The 40th anniversary of the Munich tragedy is also at the back of my mind. If anything were to happen, being part of the response feels very important to me rabbinically and personally.”

Many of his congregants are volunteering in the Olympic Village or as “hosts” posted at strategic points in London to help tourists. Like many other local synagogues, his shul will host two Shabbat services particularly aimed at visitors, and in the Olympic Village Orthodox and non-Orthodox services aim to alternate.

Finally, the East London communities plan to hold their own events commemorating the Munich massacre. One ceremony will be on the afternoon of Tisha b’Av, on July 28, and a religious service at Waltham Forest Hebrew Congregation will be in September. Jacobi says these events would have taken place even had the IOC agreed to hold a minute of silence.

“In the midst of everything else, a minute isn’t particularly long to appreciate what these events meant,” he said. “It is important that everyone had the opportunity to come together as a group, learn more about it and associate more with it.

“We think people—mainly Jewish but also others—feel it should be remembered. It’s part of Jewish and Olympic history.”

Calming those wedding-day jitters, virtually

The situation couldn’t be more stressful: convince your ex-boyfriend to sing at your sister’s wedding after the band quits; keep the groom’s sister from making it “her” day; assure the groom’s mother that it is OK to have a store-bought wedding cake; make sure the bride’s divorced parents don’t kill each other; don’t let the bride know the groom had a stripper at his bachelor party; and above all, keep the bride calm.

It’s a good thing all this insanity comes with a “quit” function.

Wedding-themed video games for PCs and mobile phones are a small but growing segment of the industry that offers a fun, tension-relieving distraction for women planning a wedding. Yes, the plots are simple, but the games themselves rely on brainpower and observation — a marked difference from the first-person shooters often found in the groom’s Xbox 360.

“My Bridezilla”

In the wireless phone game “My Bridezilla” (AMA), you play Michelle, the scientist sister of the bride-to-be and default maid of honor. Your sister visits you at the lab and, while walking off in a huff, crashes into a cart of chemicals that turns her into a green monster whenever she gets mad. The player selects a line of dialogue to continue the action in this interactive adventure game. The wrong conversation will anger the bride, and too much anger turns the bride into Bridezilla, which forces you to replay the scene. In the final scene, the groom’s sister becomes the spawn of Satan, and it’s your job to get the bride so angry she turns into Bridezilla for the final showdown.

Given that the soon-to-be newlyweds are named Elizabeth Olivia Greenberg and Jake Winston Weiss, it’s odd that the couple is getting married at Sacred Hearts Chapel. What, no synagogues or hotels in this virtual town?

“My Bridezilla” also features two minigames: One involves tackling people who try to steal food, dresses and flowers; the other takes a little more brainpower as you create cakes and antidotes in the lab. Once you beat the main game it unlocks the minigames, allowing you to play them as often as you want without replaying the entire game.

“Dream Day” Trilogy

The “Dream Day” trilogy (Oberon) — “Dream Day Wedding,” “Dream Day Honeymoon” and “Dream Day First Home” — is a “Where’s Waldo” homage to the big day for your Windows-based PC (98-Vista). This first-person puzzle adventure tests the player’s memory by locating different items as well as solving hidden-object puzzle and memory games.

“Dream Day Wedding” has gamers visiting the florist, gown shop, bakery and other shops to find objects to make your friend Jenny’s wedding day a dream. Minigames between shopping trips helps unlock a secret honeymoon level, and the “Choose a Story” feature allows you to explore how the couple met, fell in love and got engaged. And what would a wedding game be without a few crisis moments to solve?

Once you get the happy couple hitched, it’s off to “Dream Day Honeymoon,” where you help the happy couple solve their honeymoon troubles by uncovering hidden treasures in beautiful and romantic tropical locations.

And in “Dream Day First Home,” Jenny and Robert return from their honeymoon and need your help choosing the house, shopping and redecorating.

While all three titles are highly addictive, anyone who gets a headache from staring at a screen too long might want to set a timer — you can only search for a bowling pin in a jewelry shop for so long before you go cross-eyed. No word yet on “Dream Day Delivery.”

“Wedding Dash”

Fans of the reality TV series, “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?” will eat up this game version of a wedding planner’s day from hell. “Wedding Dash” (PlayFirst) is from the makers of “Diner Dash” (it even features a cameo by Flo the Waitress) and is available for both PC and Mac.

As Quinn, you have to help the bride and groom put together their perfect wedding. But you have to deal with drunken guests, tipsy cakes and girls that put the “b” in bridesmaid, all the while trying to earn money to keep your business afloat. Piece of cake.

The game is gentle on the first-timer by starting out slow, but “Wedding Dash’s” ending — like plenty of titles aimed at guys — is not so clearly defined and it’s easy to get lost in the game play.

“My Fantasy Wedding”

For those who prefer planning their own wedding instead of someone else’s, there’s the PC game, “My Fantasy Wedding” (ValuSoft). Those who are in the midst of planning an actual wedding might find little entertainment in picking the groom, cake, bridesmaids and dress. But this game lets you also pick the location (so can have that beach wedding you dreamed of). In the end, you can watch the wedding of your dreams take place.

Although there’s no rabbi, chuppah or family drama, this is still fun for gals who have a few years to go before their nuptials.

“Cake Mania” and “Cake Mania 2”

“Cake Mania” (Sandlot Games) is an arcade-style game featuring culinary school grad Jill. Her grandparents’ shop is closed and it’s up to you as the master baker to help them reopen. Grow your cake-making business by setting up sites in different locales (Why does anyone need a bakery at the circus or in the middle of a casino?) and keep your customers happy. Buy enough upgrades to make wedding cakes and really start bringing in the “dough.” Warning: Cupids have a very short temper.

Available for the PC and mobile phones, “Cake Mania” might have enough action to keep even the most impatient fiancÃ(c) occupied as you’re picking out the perfect invitations.

While these titles won’t do much to help you plan your wedding day, they offer a much-needed break for a bride-to-be’s brain (and that of her bridal party). Hey, it’s cheaper than therapy.

Just embrace the madness

There’s a time in every relationship when its strength gets tested. For God and Abraham, it was that whole sacrifice your son bit. For Esther and Ahasuerus, it
was the “please don’t kill me and everyone I know” thing. For Mr. and Mrs. Zebra, it was are you coming on this cruise with me or do you want to stand in the rain all day and argue about it? For many couples, the not-so-shining moment is the NCAA basketball tournament.

March Madness makes many a Jewish girl go mad. Nuts. Full-on meshugge. Her boyfriend-turned-backseat-play-by-play analyst is more committed to his bracket than to her. He can list the starting lineup of the Butler Bulldogs, but he can’t remember which of her friends is Lisa and which one’s Michelle. He memorized Mississippi Valley State’s freethrow stats, but he still calls using speed dial ‘cuz he never learned her number. He can hum every bar of the CBS Sports theme song, but he has no idea what song was playing when they first kissed.

March Madness is a man’s Pied Piper; he can’t help but follow it closely. Girls, if you get upset, stomp your foot and complain that he cares more about

Newest mah-jongg players ‘crak’ stereotypes. Bam!

Elaine Sandberg fits the mold of what you would expect to encounter when you consider someone who plays American mah-jongg. She’s Jewish and just past retirement age.

But the 70-something L.A. mah-jongg instructor, who has taught the game for Holland American Cruise Lines and recently at American Jewish University, is hoping to help mah-jongg crack age and racial barriers. As the game has grown in popularity over the past decade, Sandberg is seeking to broaden its appeal with her book, “A Beginner’s Guide to American Mah Jongg: How to Play the Game and Win” (Tuttle, $14.95).

While some people might be more familiar with mah-jongg from the solitaire version found on computers and the Internet, it’s the classic American game that attracted Sandberg. She played for the first time 15 years ago with the Brandeis National Woman’s Club, shortly after moving to Rancho Park from Brooklyn.

“They offered a class, and I wanted to learn,” said Sandberg, an avid bridge player who turned to the club to make friends.

After that first game, she became a mah-jongg addict and spent months playing to develop her competitive skills. Now a tournament player, Sandberg started teaching the game about five years ago.

She said that until recently little had been written on the American version of the game, and she didn’t feel comfortable giving the titles to her students.

“If it was ever going to take off, there had to be some better learning materials,” Sandberg said.

Mah-jongg is a four-player gambling game similar to gin rummy. It originated in China in the mid- to late 1800s and has several national variants, including Vietnamese, Filipino, Taiwanese, Malaysian and Japanese versions. The original classic Chinese game has regional variants like Hong Kongese or Cantonese and Sichuan.

Joseph Park Babcock is credited with introducing a Westernized version of mah-jongg to the United States in the 1920s with his book, “Rules of Mah-Jongg,” which helped kick-start a short-lived nationwide craze that included Eddie Cantor singing “Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong.” The fad faded by the 1930s, but a group of mostly Jewish women formed the National Mah Jongg League (NMJL) in 1937 and published the rule book, “Maajh: The American Version of the Ancient Chinese Game,” which helped standardize the game into the American mah-jongg played today.

While the 1920s mah-jongg fad was accepted by nearly every segment of the American population, it became increasingly known as a game that Jewish women played in the decades that followed.

Sandberg’s interest in mah-jongg came at a time when American enthusiasm for the game was starting to pick up again in the 1990s. No longer relegated to Hadassah gatherings and bubbe’s living room, “maajh” has been in the midst of a revival since before the turn of the millennium.

In 1999, Lois Madow founded the American Mah-Jongg Association as a challenge to the dominance of the national league. The group, which bills itself as the “mah-jongg association for the new millennium,” organizes several tournaments throughout the year for cash prizes.

Today even the stereotype of the typical American mah-jongg player is being challenged. It’s no longer an “old-lady’s game,” Sandberg writes.

In her book, Sandberg mentions one student who told her, “My mom used to play mah jongg two or three times a week. She played for 30 years with the same friends, and I could never understand why.”

Nostalgia can play an important part for Jews wanting to learn. But it doesn’t account for its spread to other segments of the American population.

NMJL says it has experienced a 20 percent growth in recent years; it currently has about 275,000 members. The organization’s president, Ruth Unger, links the game’s growing popularity within larger segments of the American public to more Jews retiring in ethnically diverse communities.

“We’re moving to more inclusive places,” she said, referring to retirement villages and planned communities, where Jews are spreading their love for the game.

During a recent fall class in mah-jongg at American Jewish University, Sandberg explained the basics of the game to several continuing-education students in their 50s and 60s.

She said a common misconception is that mah-jongg is boring. But once you play it, Sandberg said, “it’s thrilling; there’s nothing more exciting than when, with your heart racing, your adrenaline pumping and your palms sweating, you call ‘Mah-jongg.'”

The game can be played with tiles or cards. Like gin, you’re trying to combine the faces to make a specific hand.

The basic tiles contain three suits — dots, bams (short for bamboos) and craks (numbered one through nine in Chinese characters) — as well as other tiles like dragons, winds, flowers and jokers. In total, there are 152 tiles, and 14 of them are needed to win the game.

By picking and discarding, you make specific combinations, which correspond to certain hands. The hands are printed on a card every player must own, but to keep things interesting, the associations change the hands annually, so you’re not playing the same games from year to year.

With Sandberg’s guide in hand, this 20-something reporter took a seat at a table with three students from her class. Players laughed and joked as they picked tiles and played. Sandberg floated around the table, ensuring none of the players made any rookie mistakes.

Sandberg’s book supplied easy-to-understand hints and tips for beating opponents. A “wall game,” one in which there was no clear winner (like a cat’s game in tic-tac-toe), became the only viable — and successful — strategy.

The game requires the right combination of skill, luck and brains. In order to learn and play effectively, Sandberg said, “learn the game and play the game. Only then will you become a mah-jongg winner.”

Elaine Sandberg’s next beginning mah-jongg class will start in February at American Jewish University. To contact Elaine, email

” target=”_blank”> or ” target=”_blank”>

Has your gift list got game?

With Chanukah gift shopping well underway, three video game systems are jockeying for the top position on teen wish lists. Demand for PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii is outstripping the available supply, and analysts predict the shortage could lead to increased demand for Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

But how will you know which system is the right fit for your family?

Arena Interactive Lounge has recently added a couple PlayStation 3 and Wii consoles to the 50-inch HDTV DLP flat-screen televisions that populate its 3,000-square-foot gaming center in West Los Angeles. For $12 an hour, you can test drive one of the two in-demand systems, or for $6 per hour you can give the year-old Xbox 360 a shot.

Arena is the brainchild of 28-year-old Ron Rosenberg, an observant Jew who grew up in Pico-Robertson and attended Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva University High School. The USC grad opened his modern lounge last year, around the same time as the release of the Xbox 360. Sound-system-embedded Pyramat couches add to Arena’s living-room-away-from-home vibe, and game reviewer Scot Rubin hosts his weekday radio show, “All Games Interactive,” from this 21st century take on the arcade.

Rosenberg said gamers have expressed disappointment with the launch of PlayStation 3, equating its hype to last summer’s film, “Snakes on a Plane.”

“Sony came out with a product that wasn’t ready. There’s maybe three titles worth playing, but then again, there’s no multiplayer format,” he said.

Critics like New York Times gaming columnist Seth Schiesel have faulted Sony’s rush to get the PS3 to market for the holidays, citing the example that its much-vaunted Blu-Ray movie feature requires high-definition cables that are sold separately.

Mounting negative reviews and a glut of consoles on the resale market have weakened enthusiasm for the product since its violence-plagued launch on Nov. 17. A drop-off in demand for the PS3, which retails for $499 to $599, saw Thanksgiving weekend sales on eBay drop from a high of $1,500 to a near-retail low of $650.

Rosenberg believes that savvy consumers will ignore holiday hype and wait for PlayStation 3 to work out the bugs before a larger rollout in the spring.

“In a year the PS3 will be rocking,” he said.

According to a recent ZDNet poll, readers said they would prefer Nintendo’s Wii as a gift over the PS3 or Xbox 360.

“The Wii is a dark horse,” Rosenberg said. “It is fun. I could see my wife, who never touches a video game, and me playing this for two hours together.”

He said that industry insiders initially laughed at the wireless Wii Remote earlier this year at E3, the annual video game trade show held in Los Angeles, but added that few are laughing now.

The Wii’s intuitive controllers shy away from the rows of buttons found on the PlayStation and Xbox controllers. Instead, the Wii Remote — along with the analog joystick add-on, the Nunchuk unit — senses its own position in a three-dimensional space, allowing players to swing it like a golf club or fishing pole and have its motion replicated on screen.

Rosenberg said he broke a sweat as he played “Wii Sports,” one of 34 titles available this month. Building on the popularity of titles that demand more physical activity, like “Dance Dance Revolution,” the Wii is designed to break with the coach-potato status quo and get players up and moving.

“Everybody in the family can get into this,” he said.

Wii retails for $250, and Nintendo is hoping weekly shipments through December will keep pace with holiday demand.

But Rosenberg said that consumers shouldn’t count out the Xbox 360, especially in a market where demand for its competing systems, peripherals and games will keep prices at a premium.
The Xbox 360, which launched Nov. 22, 2005, features more than 100 titles and retails between about $300 and $400.

Rosenberg predicts Xbox 360 will continue to reign supreme at Arena Interactive Lounge until at least next spring due to its plethora of titles and the quality of game play.

“Every game coming out on the 360, which is an inferior machine to the PS3 power wise, looks much better,” he said. “They’ve had time to work with the system. But in a year, the PlayStation 3 will kick the 360’s butt.”

For more information about Arena Interactive Lounge and “All Games Interactive,” visit

24-Hour Party People

There’s a guy in line behind me whose name I can’t remember but who is a good friend of a 50-year-old I once dated whose name I also can’t remember, which is kind of ironic — I stopped dating him because he’s too old, and it’s my memory that’s failing.

But that’s neither here nor there tonight as we wait outside in the wet foggy cold for one last winter holiday party. While something like 80 percent of Americans are enjoying their eggnog and recovering from time spent with their dysfunctional families, we Jews are smushing into a West Hollywood hotspot.

I’m here with my friend Jon, my former trainer, whom I’d “won” at a Jewish Federation auction. It’s a good thing he’s with me because that will help me get through meeting every guy whose name I can’t remember. (“This is Jon,” I will say, hoping the other person will then introduce himself.) Jon also is on hand to shield me, as needed, from the plethora of men here.

There’s 1,000 people, a fair amount of sleaze, and I’m almost afraid to walk alone in the throngs. The ratio is 2-to-1 men. Still, I confess I’m happy with the crowd. Sometimes it’s nice to go to a Jew party in Hollywood: Among the short, the dark-haired, the rhythmically challenged, I might rate a 9, as opposed to a mere 6 among the Amazonians of Shiksaville.

Jon gestures over to a Steve Wright-look-alike at the bar.

“There’s that frizzy-haired guy we see at every party,” he says disdainfully.

Just then it hits me: If we see Frizzy-Haired Guy at every party, doesn’t that mean that he sees us at every party? Am I the type of person who is at every single party? It’s true that I’ve already been to the Progressive Jewish Alliance party, and will probably also attend the Chabad, Kabbalah Centre and various house parties, but does someone walk into a party, spot me, and say, “Oh no, she’s here; I guess it’s that kind of party?”

I see other familiar faces, too. There’s the Israeli guy I walked out on at my date at the Coffee Bean. There’s this girl whose e-vites and e-mails I’ve been assiduously avoiding for years. There’s that NRA sympathizer whom I got into a fight with at a Shabbat meal. And there are also my friends, lots of them, and we gather in the less-crowded rooms upstairs for some air. It seems one of those nights when there are so many people — too many people — no one will meet a soul, so you might as well just have fun.

“Let’s play a drinking game,” I tell my friends. “For every person whose picture you’ve seen on JDate, take one sip.”

My friend Tom pipes in: “For every girl — or guy — you’ve gone out with, that’s two sips.”

“What about people you’ve slept with?” Tom’s friend asks.

“That’s a whole drink, my friend,” Tom says.

“As long as you’re driving me home,” he replies.

“What about a girl you’ve gotten a marriage proposal from?” Eric asks me quietly as the others scope the room. It turns out that this woman — he once went out with her, sort of — cornered him a few minutes ago and told him she thinks she loves him and wants to marry him.

“I think you’ve automatically won the game,” I tell him.

Just then Sharon walks by.

“Hey Eric, do you know Sharon?”

They do that dumb thing where they act like they don’t know each other because they obviously do, and Eric shoots me a look.

Too late I realize that this is the girl who cornered him. But I know her. I know she was probably drunk and probably kidding — but still I see how that kind of situation might be a little “Fatal Attraction.”

Enough games. It’s time to head downstairs again, where Jon and I dance for half a song at a time till the DJ ruins perfectly good ’80s music with cuts of house music (are we so old?). By about 2 a.m., Jon and his friend want to leave, but I haven’t met one new person all night. I have a rule of three: Three new guys a party.

Someone is taking a picture of me. So I go over and introduce myself. Conversation runs dry like a martini, but still, that’s No. 1.

Israeli guy comes over with his friends; he’s forgiven me for running out on our date — actually, I think he likes me more — but he introduces me to his South African friend. That’s No. 2.

I’m tired. I sit down — my heels have only a four-hour standing time on them. Then a guy named David approaches. Unfortunately he’s wearing a chain, but still, he’s No. 3.

Jon and his friend and I head to a deli for a post-mortem on the party: it looks like quite a number of others are there doing the same thing. Around California the holidays are winding down, but could it be that for us Jews, the fun times have only just begun?

A Jewish Spin On Gift-Giving

Everyone has the same shopping countdown this year: Dec. 25th is also the first night of Chanukah. With holiday-season commercialism rising exponentially each year, the plethora of items for purchase can be blindingly confusing for even the savviest shopper. Whether it’s finding something for your non-Jewish co-worker or your husband’s Tanta Miriam, the pressure’s on.

Easing the strain of finding the perfect gift for everyone on your list, however, are products like The Box of Questions. These boxes come in four varieties — Thanksgiving, Shabbat, Christmas and Chanukah — and are attractively decorated to suit their respective themes. Each contains a set of 35 thought-provoking questions about its event, like, “What does the Christmas spirit mean to you?” and “If you could invite anyone in the world to your home for Shabbat, who would it be?” There are also little prizes, such as a dreidel, thrown in.

The boxes come with instructions, but these are more like suggestions on how to facilitate the discussion.

The ladies behind the boxes, Heidi Haddad and Cece Feiler, were searching for a way to entertain their families during an indelibly long wait for their orders to arrive. They came up with round after round of challenging questions about what makes family so important or what values people cherish the most and why. The activity was a big hit, so Cece and Heidi decided to share their method for having great family discussions by taking the trivial out of the pursuit.

Now known as The Box Girls, Haddad and Feiler donate all proceeds from the sale of the boxes to various charities. The boxes are sold at high-end retailers, such as Saks and Fred Segal’s, for $19.95 and are also available online, at — Staff Report

The martini on the cover of “The Hanukkah Lounge: Instrumental Jew Age Music” (Craig N’ Co, $14.98) should give you some idea of what to expect from the songs inside — it has a blue olive with a Star of David toothpick sticking out of it.

The entire CD should help turn any Chanukah party into the most swinging event of the season. Craig Taubman’s version of “Maoz Tsur” is as smooth as a gob of sour cream on a latke, with a drumbeat and clarinet background that will definitely get your head moving.

The chimes in Scott Leader’s “Hanukkah o Hanukkah” make the song sound like something one might hear at a day spa during a massage. Don’t be surprised if your guests get up and dance a little salsa to the Afro-Semitic Experience’s “Descarga Ocho Kandelikas.” Even the simplistic “I Have a Little Dreidl” gets a grown-up treatment — it sounds almost dreamlike. And, of course, what Chanukah CD would be complete without the candle blessing?

The collection is part of the Celebrate Series (” target=”_blank”> — SL


You know how Harry Potter has a scar emblazoned on his forehead from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Dan has a big T for Trouble on his, marking him as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Dated.

Let me start in the middle: I go to this party at an awful place in Santa Monica, in some dark and crowded and loud basement bar, and I feel like I’ve accidentally, anachronistically stepped into a college party circa 1992 except that everyone here is old — by old I mean my age — and it’s hard to have a proper conversation.

Of course you don’t go to a bar for proper conversations — I’m not that old — but you can hardly see anybody or anything except the mosh pit of bodies swaying in 2-by-2 dancing/flirting/making-out duets. Maybe it’s just one of those nights when I feel terribly left out of everything no matter where I go. (I’ve just come from a Shabbat dinner with lots of married couples and kids — try finding an outfit that fits both these occasions.) Or maybe it’s Dan.

I met Dan a few weeks ago at an awesome party downtown. It was held on the entire floor of an industrial building on Spring Street, where a dozen or so artists were showing their work — mostly photographs and paintings but with a couple of jewelry and clothing designers interspersed. The lighting and the ceilings were low in a way that made everyone look more scintillating than they might in a retro basement bar in Santa Monica. Of course, it could have been the flutes of wine or the chocolate truffles. Or could it really have been Dan?

I wasn’t even looking to meet someone. I was actually dating someone else.

Which is why Dan and I could talk like normal people, and not single people on the make, dressed up in our best costumes and our most sparkly personalities, working furiously to obfuscate our skeletons beneath endless layers of jaunty jingles. So we talked about — what else? — relationships.

My one-two analysis: Dan has commitment-phobia, candy-store syndrome, and/or model rocket-scientist disorder. The thing is, like with milk or eggs, he can predict the exact shelf life of his relationships, but he goes for it anyway, pretending it’s real because he wants the comfort. He’s the guy that, out of the blue, when things were going perfectly well, says that things are not going well at all and disappears like he’s in the FBI Witness Protection Program. Dan is like many of my male single friends — friends I swear I’m going to dump because of the pain and torture they subject on womankind.

On that particular night, Dan’s problems didn’t bother me, because I had someone else. But then a little while later, I didn’t.

So when Dan called a few weeks later to invite me to this party in Santa Monica. I remembered his periwinkle eyes and his scruffy brown hair and the way he constantly touched my arm for punctuation. I said yes.

I finally locate him among the throngs, and we start talking. The problem is, we continue our conversation where we left off a few weeks ago: He regales me with his dating problems. How this one girl in Northern California is outdoorsy and smart but she lacks passion. How this other girl in Los Angeles is an aerobics instructor with an awesome body but not an intellectual.

“I want someone who is smart and challenging and has interests and is Jewish,” he says. “Is that too much to ask for?”

“Me!” I want to say. “Me! I’m smart, I’m Jewish, I’m passionate, I’m outdoorsy, I’m cool. What’s wrong with me?”

But I know: We’ve entered the friend zone. I’m like the fat girl in high school that boys confided in but never dated. Except that in high school I was the girl that everyone dated and didn’t confide in. So, I don’t know what to say when Dan points out the hot waitress. Okay, it’s hard to ignore her: fake boobs, butt tattoo, nimble waist that is so out of place in this dump — but am I such stuffed cabbage that I have to hear about the next entrée?

I’ve always heard stories of couples who were friends before they started dating, or people who claimed to have married “their best friend.”

But how is that possible? How can you see a person stripped of all their games, their pretensions, their public face, and still go through with it anyway?

Even in the darkness of this alcohol-drenched room, I can see Dan clearly: I’d never get anything more than an extended one-night stand that seemed like a romance. And he’s told me way too much about his technique and the endgame.

So I said my goodbyes and left Dan to go after the hot waitress. That’s what friends are for, right?


Maccabiah Games Bring Golden Times

When amateur soccer player Michael Erush went to Israel in July to play for Team USA in the 17th World Maccabiah Games, he was hoping to come home with gold. But following the Israeli team’s victory, Erush was content with the American silver-medal win.

“I always want to do the best,” the 22-year-old said. “We had one of the best Maccabiah men’s soccer teams, and we lost to a very good Israel team.”

However, his Maccabiah experience didn’t end with the medal ceremony. Erush extended his stay after an Israeli soccer franchise was so impressed with his level of play, that he was offered a 10-month contract for the following season.

He is currently shopping around for other offers, but his dream of turning pro could eventually become a reality in Israel — due to the Maccabiah Games.

“I’m still looking to different career paths,” said Erush, a research assistant for an private firm. “I might go back to school and get my MBA, or I might go play soccer…. I just want to keep my options open.”

Erush was one of more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from 55 countries, stretching from Brazil to India and Australia to Finland, who gathered this past summer in Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games. In the first games in 1932, 390 athletes from 14 nations participated. Now, the games are the third-largest sporting event in the world, outside of the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. Held every four years, this summer’s Maccabiah Games, which took place July 10-21, were the largest since its founding.

Competitions took place in approximately 30 categories, including track, tennis, swimming, baseball and even chess. The most dominant countries were Team USA and Israel. The American medal count was 222, with 71 gold, while Israel won 593 medals, 227 gold.

The hope of the organizers is that the games foster a sense of Jewish unity, awareness and pride among the athletes from around the world. In that spirit, this year’s games were the first to feature delegations from China, Macedonia and Grenada.

More than 90 athletes from Southern California were represented in such sports as track and field, basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby and water polo. Among 20 medalists from the Southland, six won gold; nine, silver; and four, bronze. Some athletes took home multiple medals.

It was “an unforgettable experience, absolutely breathtaking,” said Danielle Arad, 17, of Yorba Linda who won four silver medals in the open swimming competition. “The hospitality and open arms that we received from the common citizens and Israeli athletes competing in the games allowed me to feel at home.”

For Shirin Lisa Golshani, 17, a Beverly Hills resident, walking into the packed stadium with Team USA during the opening ceremonies in Ramat Gan and being surrounded by Jews who had come from all corners of the world “was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

Golshani, who brought home silver and bronze from the girl’s youth karate competition, said that it “made it all the more greater of an experience because I was able to share it with my second family from karate.”

For USC graduate and businessman Ari Monosson, this year marked his second trip to the Maccabiah Games. During his first games in 2001, the 27-year-old runner won both a silver and a bronze medal. And while his dreams for gold this year were did not come true, his silver-medal win with the U.S. 4×400 relay team in no way diminished the experience. Monosson said there is nothing quite like the Maccabiah Games, and he recommended that Jewish athletes try out for the next games.

“Participating in them will be a life-changing experience,” he said. “There are moments and memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

For rugby player Kevin Armstrong, 26, the long journey began with a discouraging setback. He broke his arm in the first 20 minutes of the first game. However, he still enjoyed both watching his team take a silver and being surrounded by Jews from around the world.

“On the field, it was business as usual, but off the field, it made the world seem very small, [especially] when you realize how people from across the world are very similar to you,” said the Angeleno.

Injuries and illness nearly kept Santa Monica residents Melody Khadavi and Fran Seegull from the games. The volleyball players each missed a month of practice in the United States due to different maladies, and when they landed in Israel, the combination of jet lag, hot temperatures and long days spent touring before the games caught up with them. But perseverance and antibiotics pulled the pair through the competitions to beat Canada for the bronze.

In the junior competitions, the gold-winning junior baseball team included Los Angeles resident Noah Michel. Alexander Hoffman-Ellis of Santa Monica High School helped the boys junior basketball team cruise to a gold. The girls junior soccer team brought home the gold with the help of coach Wendi Whitman of Long Beach.

For Erush, the next move is still up in the air. The soccer player said that may include the next games.

“Who knows,” Erush said. “I would love to win the gold and have silver, too.”