(JTA) — Running a not-so-Zagat-rated deli, dropping into a Chinese restaurant for Christmas Eve dinner and acting out a bat mitzvah that involves a vampire — for contemporary board game fans, those can be all in an evening’s play.
That’s because a crop of new games aims to merge Jewish ideas and experiences with the aesthetics and language of games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Dream Apart places players in a fantastical reimagining of a 19th-century shtetl, for example, while J.R. Goldberg’s God of Vengeance draws inspiration from the Yiddish play of the same name. In the games in Doikayt, a collection released in 2020, players can literally wrestle with God.
Known as tabletop role-playing games because they ask players to take on a character, these games and their creators imagine exciting new worlds, subvert classic tropes in fun and irreverent ways, and reinterpret Jewish history and identity.
Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu have exploded in popularity over the past several years, with many — including at least one group of rabbis — picking up the Zoom-friendly hobby during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the new Jewish games aim to do more than just provide a diversion or even an escape.
“Depending on your family, depending on your synagogue, depending on your community, you may have gotten more or fewer options of what Jewishness could mean in your imagination,” said Lucian Kahn, who created a trilogy of humorous Jewish role-playing games.
“What some of these games are doing is opening that up and pointing to alternate possibilities of imagining Jewishness, not as a way of converting anyone to anything else, but just as a way of showing the tradition is enormous,” he added.
Kahn is the creator of If I Were a Lich, Man, a trilogy of humorous games whose name is a mashup between a “Fiddler on the Roof” song and an undead character, the lich, that frequently appears in fantasy fiction and games. In the title game, players are Jewish liches — spellcasters whose souls, in the lore of Dungeons & Dragons, are stored in phylacteries, the Greek word for tefillin used by Jews in prayer. Representing the four children of the Passover seder, they debate how their community should address the threat of encroaching holy knights.
In some cases, the association of Jews with monsters has given rise to charges of antisemitism — the goblins of “Harry Potter” offer a prime example. But Kahn said he sees Jewish-coded monsters, and queer-coded villains, as figures of resistance.
“There’s a long tradition of looking at the monster and seeing that the reason why these are monsters is because the people who have oppressive power have decided that these are going to be the enemies of the ‘good’ oppressive powers,” Kahn explained. “But if you don’t agree with their ideology, if you’re seeing yourself as being a member of a marginalized community and being in opposition to these oppressive powers, then you can look at the qualities assigned to these monsters and some of them are qualities that are good.”
For Kahn, Jewish-coded monster characters also provide more of an inspiration than the archetypes of more traditional games.
“Maybe somebody thinks they’re insulting me or insulting Jews,” he said. “My response is: I like vampires and liches and trolls and goblins and think they’re much more interesting than bland white muscular humans running through the fields with a cross on their chest hacking at the same things with a sword over and over again.”
Kahn’s outlook has resonated in the tabletop role-playing game community. In February, he and Hit Point Press launched a Kickstarter to fund production of If I Were a Lich, Man. The campaign smashed its $5,000 goal, raising $84,590, enough to hit one of the campaign’s stretch goals of funding a grant to support independent zines about tabletop role-playing games.
The successful campaign means that Kahn’s three games will go into production. In addition to the game about liches, the trilogy includes Same Bat Time, Same Bat Mitzvah, in which players act out a bat mitzvah where one guest has been turned into a vampire, and Grandma’s Drinking Song, inspired by how Kahn’s Jewish great-great grandmother and her children survived in 1920s New York City by working as bootleggers during Prohibition.
In Grandma’s Drinking Song, players write a drinking song together as they act out scenes. Kahn, the former singer/songwriter and guitarist for Brooklyn Jewish queercore folk-punk band Schmekel, wanted to carry over elements of music into this game.
A throughline in all three games is the power of creative resistance to authority — a narrative that Kahn said strikes him as particularly Jewish.
“There are all these stories in Jewish folklore that are really overtly about finding trickster-y or creative ways of fighting back against oppressive and unjust governmental regimes, evil kings, bad advisors,” Kahn said. “One of the first stories I ever heard in my life was the Purim story, so it’s very embedded in my mind as a part of Jewish consciousness, when evil rulers come to power and try to kill us all, we’re supposed to find these outside-the-box ways of preventing that from happening.”
For some Jewish creators, Jewish holidays are an explicit inspiration. Like many Jewish kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Max Fefer, a civil engineer by day and game designer by night, grew up loving the picture book “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” which remains a popular festive text. But as Fefer notes, goblins are often associated with antisemitic stereotypes. Fefer’s first Jewish game, Hanukkah Goblins, turns the story on its head — players interact as the jovial goblins, who are here not to destroy but to spread the spirit of Hanukkah to their goblin neighbors.
Last year, Fefer launched a successful Kickstarter for another Jewish holiday-inspired tabletop role-playing game, Esther and the Queens, where players assume the roles of Esther and her handmaidens from the Purim story, who join together to defeat Haman by infiltrating a masquerade party as queens from a far-off land.
Esther and the Queens channels Fefer’s Purim memories and includes carnival activities, including Skee-Ball; a calm, relaxing Mishloach Manot basket-making; and a fast-paced racing game.
“All of our holidays, they’re opportunities for us to gather as a community in different ways,” Fefer said. “Watching this satirical, comedic retelling of the story of Purim and the Esther Megillah and coming together into a theater, in a synagogue, to watch these spiels and laugh together and spin the graggers when we hear Haman’s name — all of those things help us build identity and community, and I think games in particular surrounding identity, that’s a great way for a Jewish person themselves to feel seen in a game and reinforce their identity, and share their background with friends.”
Another pair of Jewish game creators, Gabrielle Rabinowitz and her cousin, Ben Bisogno, were inspired by Passover.
“The seder is kind of like an RPG in that it’s a structured storytelling experience where everyone takes turns reading and telling, and there’s rituals and things you do at a certain time,” Rabinowitz said. “It’s halfway to an RPG.”
The game became a pandemic project for the two of them, and alongside artist Katrin Dirim and a host of other collaborators, they created Ma Nishtana: Why Is This Night Different? — a story game modeled on their family’s seder. The game follows the main beats of the Exodus story, and in every game, there will be a call to action from God, a moment of resistance, a departure and a final barrier — but different characters and moments resonate depending on the players’ choices.
As an educator at the Museum of Natural History, Rabinowitz said she is often thinking about how to foster participation and confidence, and she wanted to create a game-play mechanic to encourage players to be “as brazen as her family is.” The result was an in-game action called “Wait! Wait! Wait!” — if players wish to ask a question, make a suggestion, disagree with a course of action or share a new perspective, they can call out “Wait! Wait! Wait!” to do so.
The game also includes a series of scenes that are actively roleplayed or narrated, and each includes a ritual — one that can be done in-person or an alternate remote-friendly version. For example, at one point each player must come up with a plague inspired by the new story they’re telling together, and in the remote version, players go camera-off after reciting theirs.
“The fact that it was created during the pandemic and a way for us to connect and other people to connect with each other is really the soul of the game,” Rabinowitz said. “After each person tells a plague, by the end, all the cameras are off and everyone stays silent for another minute. It’s a hugely impactful moment when you’re playing remotely. The design is interwoven in the game itself.”
Rabinowitz said by playing a story of a family undergoing these trials, the themes of family and identity deepen every time she plays the game.
“A lot of people say, ‘Wow, I’ve never felt more connected to this story,’” she said. “Embodying these characters gave me a feeling of relevance and that makes it feel important as a Jewish precept.”
For other creators, that deep connection comes in more lighthearted scenarios. Nora Katz, a theatremaker, game designer and public historian working at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) by day, created the Jewish deli-centered game Lunch Rush, which was included in the Doikayt anthology.
“There’s also types of institutions that come up a lot in [tabletop role-playing games], especially sort of high fantasy,” she said. “Everyone meets in a tavern, there’s an inn, things like that. So the idea of a deli as a central gathering place in a world like that felt fun to me.”
An important element of Lunch Rush is that players must be eating while playing, so for Katz’s first round with friends, they got together with chocolate chip ice cream and dill pickle potato chips. She said the deli is a shared language, and her fellow players were all bringing in their own favorite things about delis they loved into the fictional place they were building together.
Tabletop role-playing games “at their core are about collaboration and relationships and storytelling and community, and for me, all of those things are also what Jewishness is about, to me they totally go hand in hand,” Katz said.
The games are not meant to be for Jewish players only. Rabinowitz said the guidebook for Ma Nishtana includes essays to encourage people to further engage with the narrative.
“Jewish players, non-Jewish players, priests, non-religious people, all different people have played it and almost all of them have told us it’s given them a new way of thinking of how they relate to religious tradition, and I didn’t really set out to do that,” Rabinowitz said. “I feel really privileged to have helped create that space.”
Rabinowitz and Bisogno also commissioned other creators to build alternate backdrops for their game, so it can be repurposed to telling the story of another oppressed people’s fight for freedom. Players can interact as embattled yaoguai, spirits from Chinese mythology; explore a Janelle Monáe-inspired Afrofuturist world; play as Indigenous land defenders; or unionize as exploited workers at “E-Shypt.”
Fefer, who has been amplifying the work of other Jewish creators in the tabletop role-playing game space, said the harm of stereotyping and reinforcing negative tropes is still present in the industry, and not just for Jewish people. For example, fans recently criticized Dungeons & Dragons publishers Wizards of the Coast for reinforcing anti-Black stereotypes in the descriptions of a fantasy race, the Hadozee.
“I think it’s a process of talking to people who are from these groups and bringing them onto your teams and making sure you’re incorporating their perspectives into, in the example of Dungeons & Dragons, a hundred-million-dollar industry, being intentional about that design and looking at things from lots of different angles,” Fefer said. “How could our branding, our games be reinforcing something we’re not even aware of?”
Fefer hopes people who play Hanukkah Goblins and Esther and the Queens feel seen and have moments of shared joy, and also that they learn something from these games — about the antisemitic tropes in fantasy, or about underrepresented groups within the Jewish community. With Esther and the Queens, Fefer collaborated with a writer and artist, Noraa Kaplan, to retell the Purim story from a queer and feminist lens, drawing on Jewish texts that the pair said shows the long presence of queer and trans people in Jewish tradition.
“We have a lot of richness within Judaism to share our culture and share our upbringing but also just be representation,” Fefer added. “We’re living in a time of heightened antisemitism and the world being a gross place to be at times, and we can really bring the beauty of Judaism into game design and create experiences for people that are both representative of Judaism and also just very Jewish experiences.”
But for all the important conversations and learning experiences that can come from Jewish tabletop role-playing games, Katz said the goofiness and joy is important, too.
“We live in such a horrendous society that is of our own making,” she said. “If you can, for a little while, enjoy an anticapitalist fictional deli that you and your friends live in, I think that’s great.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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