Fun and Games, Then and Now


Have you ever wondered what your fellow baby boomers were playing while you “walked the dog” with your Duncan yo-yo, made a tea party for your Chatty Cathy, or joined the mobs of hula-hoopers on the country’s sidewalks? Have you ever reflected on what toys and games fellow Baltimoreans who relocated from across the globe played when they were growing up? Wonder no more! WWW’s sample survey not only brings some of us down Memory Lane but also reveals a stark contrast between what children consider fun and games, then and now.

A Map for Creativity

Peshi (Paula) Katz grew up in Randallstown, where her father, Rabbi Israel Goldberg, z”l, was the rav of Randallstown Synagogue Center. “We were a very creative family,” reminisces Peshi. “We drew a map of a city in different colors on the back of an old plastic tablecloth – with roads, shops, a gas station, a bank, and probably a shul – and played with our Matchbox cars for hours. We had shoeboxes full of them. They sell rugs like this for kids, now, so we were way ahead of our time.”

One of Peshi’s favorite activities was playing with her off-brand Barbie dolls, Kikki and Maxie, and her Barbie house and boat. She made all their clothes out of scraps of fabric and filled shopping bags full of her creations. Peshi also loved doing the hair and make-up on her Barbie Styling Head. It was a foreshadowing of things to come as Peshi went on to major in Art and Fashion and attended classes at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. She worked in the industry for a while before moving back to Baltimore.

Peshi says her grandchildren are old-fashioned kids. Rather than watch TV or go on the computer, they love playing with their trains and blocks. They are avid readers, too, as Peshi was when she was a child. “My kids are trying to mimic the olden days for my grandchildren, so they can use their imagination. They play a lot with Magna Tiles, Lincoln Logs, and Legos, and ride in their Little Tikes cars and trucks. Playing a game on the computer is a treat for them,” adds Peshi.

“Most of our play was indoors and self-directed,” concludes Peshi. “The parents, nowadays, are much more interactive with their children, and aware of stimulating their learning.”

The Melting Pot Outside

Shani Shuvalsky, who grew up in the Albany Park section of Chicago near the Telshe yeshiva, feels there are major differences between her childhood and that of her grandchildren. For one thing, except for a frum upstairs neighbor and one or two other families within a couple of blocks, there were no frum children to play with. Shani played a lot with her neighbor, whose father was a pastor. On Shabbos, she walked to Bnos all by herself, and got together with her friends on Shabbos afternoon.

She also notes that “everything has to be supervised play, nowadays; kids don’t play on their own as much. By six or seven years old, we were definitely able to play alone outside because it wasn’t such a dangerous time. Our parents were busy taking care of things inside, while we played right outside the house, riding my bike or playing hopscotch. We also watched the younger kids. I was the oldest girl, with four younger brothers, so I was always responsible for them.

“We had no electronic toys,” says Shani. “I remember that, during the summer, the Monopoly game and jigsaw puzzles used to stay on the table forever! I played with my Gitty and Suzy dolls, who were almost as tall as I was, and all kinds of stuffed animals. We played Sorry and Clue, and even word games with pen and paper! We all played Cat’s Cradle and chamesh avanim, also called kugelach, the five stones from Israel.

“No one owned swing sets in those days so we played a lot in parks,” says Shani, who feels that parks remain a big attraction for her grandchildren, even though most of them have a swing set in the backyard.

In the meantime, Shani’s six-year-old husband-to-be, Yakov, the son of Rabbi Moshe Shuvalsky, whose pulpit was in Atlantic City at the time, was walking the boardwalk with his father, fishing, and playing Risk and Monopoly. Mostly, he played with his toy soldiers. Following in his father’s footsteps, he would make a Keil Malei Rachamim when one of his toy soldiers “died.” He would also talk to pretend doctors about their embalming, since that was a big problem in those days for Jewish soldiers. This was his play interpretation of the shailas he heard being discussed in the house.

Childhood in Israel’s Infancy

When Esther Badian was growing up in Tel Aviv, the State of Israel was only 10 years old and no one had money to buy many toys. She did have a doll and a board game, but mostly she and her friends played thinking games that they invented themselves, like word games, geography, and history games. She lived in a 16-family apartment house with many kids (families had at least six or seven), from ages eight to 14. “We all played together outdoors without adult supervision.” Esther enjoyed machanayim, kugelach, communal picnics, and hours and hours of Chinese jump rope.

“If it was a nice day and we heard on the radio that the waves weren’t too high or dangerous, we hopped on the bus with sandwiches and drinks and went to the beach,” reminisces Esther. “It was only one bus ride away.

“We also created our own ‘museum.’ Everyone brought some kind of object from their house – like postage stamps, dolls, vases, and pictures. These came from around the world, since their parents were from different countries, such as Morocco and Iran. We used to arrange the objects nicely under the table and even had a tiny light to spotlight the display. We advertised to all the neighborhood kids to come see it. We charged one grush (cent) for admission, and the children had to crawl under the table to see all the objects.”

Because Esther lived in a war zone, she, her brothers, and her friends played war all the time. Their little toy Israeli soldiers would capture the Arabs and conquer their cities. Esther lived through a few real wars in addition to terrible terrorist attacks. She was 10 at the time of the Six Day War, which was scary, she says, but did not leave her traumatized. “We were thrilled that Israel won the war and we got back Yerushalayim and the Kotel; we were on a high.” During the war, her family joined the other 15 families of her building lived in a one-room basement bomb shelter during the entire six days of the war. “We didn’t play in the shelter, because the adults were nervous and listened to the radio every hour on the hour to hear the news. There were two different sirens, and we went outside when we heard the siren that denoted ‘calm time.’ By the fifth night, my mother said, ‘Enough is enough. We are going upstairs and sleeping in our beds.’ I still laugh when I think of how the siren went on in the middle of the night, and we jumped up and flew down the 51 steps to the basement in pajamas – shoes on, shoes off – to get back to the shelter. We couldn’t take showers and we didn’t cook during that time; we lived off of sandwiches.”

Comparing her childhood play to that of her grandchildren, Esther remarked, “I feel sorry for them because they spend more time in school than adults spend at work. My six-year-old granddaughter in New York has to leave home at 7 a.m. to go on the school bus, and she comes home at 5 p.m. When is she supposed to have childhood? When she gets to second or third grade, she will have an hour of homework to do before eating dinner and going to sleep. There is no down-time to unwind. When I was a child, we would come home from school at 1 p.m., some days of the week. I don’t think we missed out on anything in our education. We know more Tanach than the average American, and we learned all the secular subjects. We also had a lot of chugim (extracurricular activities), like dance and choir, that we could take after school.

“It’s unbelievable how our education in Israel back then taught us to learn how to learn, so we could study things on our own,” concludes Esther. “We learned how to analyze, think, ask questions, and clarify, just not repeat stuff that we learned. Our education spilled over to our play as we were able to create our own thinking games.”

Cricket Players around the World

While Esther was growing up in Israel, her husband, Zvi Badian, was playing “football” (aka soccer) in the small northern town of Durham, England. He also played cricket and squash, in addition to reading a lot and playing board games, chess, checkers, and a game he invented, called paper cricket. His fond childhood memories also include soldier games with a group of friends in Flass Vale, a beautiful wilderness area close to his childhood home.

“When I was young teen, we had a Welsh mountain pony that we kept in a field near my house,” recalls Zvi. “It was really my sister’s pony, but I would feed it and got to ride it sometimes, as well. When we moved to the States, when I was 16, we didn’t bring it with us.

We didn’t have many toys; we were able to keep ourselves occupied without them. Although there was adult supervision during school recess, outside of school, there really wasn’t. It was a safe place to be; there was basically no crime.” 

Janine Chapman remembers playing swing ball in her native Johannesburg, South Africa. “We would take an old stocking and put a tennis ball at the bottom of it and hit it against the wall while singing some sort of war cry,” recalls Janine, who moved to Baltimore in 1992. She also played a lot of hopscotch. South Africa did not have TV until 1975, and when it debuted, there was only adult programming. Rounders, a game similar to American baseball, net ball (basketball), and cricket were also popular. She also really enjoyed making tea parties for her dolls, to which parents were not invited.

 “Many people had swimming pools, and in the summer we swam a lot and played other outdoor games. In the winter, the weather was not bad, and we could play outdoors during the day. Parents only kept a close watch when we were in the pool. Otherwise, we were very independent; they only intervened if there was an argument.”

There was no safety issue back then in South Africa. Janine could walk to her friend’s house by herself. She marvels how her Baltimore grandchildren’s games are mostly electronic in the winter, although they are just as happy playing baseball in the summer.

Inventing their own Fun

Rivka Leah Goldman recalls having hardly any adult supervision when she was growing up in Philadelphia, but she and her brothers knew the rules that their parents enforced. “My father didn’t want us to play outside on Shabbos afternoon because we lived in a non-frum area and he was concerned that we would be mechalel Shabbos,” says Rivka Leah, “so we weren’t allowed to leave the house. We lived near the shul where my father was the rav, but most of my school friends lived in a different area that was not walkable on Shabbos. So, on Friday afternoon, we would go to the library and stock up on books; I became a voracious reader. I would read and read because otherwise I was bored.”

Also on Shabbos, Rivka Leah’s brothers would play make-believe war with her. She was the “enemy,” whom they attacked with broom sticks and garbage-can lids. Afterwards, they enjoyed Shabbos party. “We looked forward to eating these special snacks and treats,” notes Rivka Leah. “By today’s standards, it is probably a joke; by our standards, we were excited because we hardly ever had junk food.”

During the week, when the weather was good, Rivka Leah and her brothers rode bikes. “We didn’t have many board games at all,” says Rivka Leah. “I don’t know if we couldn’t afford them or we just weren’t into them.”

Regarding child’s play in today’s times, Rivka Leah says, “Unfortunately, much less is left to the imagination. Kids are more dependent on devices for entertainment, such as watching a video, whereas we had to make more of our own fun by using our creativity.”

Sticks and Stones and Guns

A visit to A-to-Z Savings revealed what growing up in the mid-1900s in Shiraz, Iran, was like. When Avraham Attar was a child, his family was one of six families that lived together in one big house. All the kids played together in the yard, unsupervised by the adults, who were constantly busy with their businesses. Avraham remembers his intense desire for a bike, an item that was very expensive in Iran, so that few young children owned one. “My parents couldn’t afford a bike, but I cried a lot, so I got some money from my mother and I was able to buy a small one.”

Uriel Golfeyz, who also grew up in Shiraz, spent a lot of time playing soccer in the alleyway in front of his house. Indoors, he played chess and seven stones, a game with pieces of wood. “Our parents knew that we were outside, but it wasn’t like here, where we are so cautious – and we have to be cautious here. In the time of the Shah, it was very safe in Iran.”

Uriel notes that, with the start of the Iran-Iraq War, in 1980, the toys and games slowly changed to more “adult” ones. He explains that when Iraqi minefields began claiming the lives of Iranian soldiers, Ayatollah Khomeini sent child soldiers to the border of Iraq and used them as human mine-clearers. They made a path for the real soldiers who would follow behind them. During this period, children started playing war with small toy guns.

Uriel marvels at the wide range of toys that are available for his grandchildren and how educational they are. But what astounds him the most is the fact that there are toy stores. Back in 1960, when he was growing up, there was only one toy store in all of Iran, in the capital city of Tehran, a 12-hour bus ride away!

Play Away

The bottom line when it comes to children’s fun and games is that – whether toys are scarce or bountiful, cheap or expensive, homemade or the latest electronic wonder – children will always have their fun and games, and will remember them for the rest of their lives.


© Margie Pensak 2017


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