Games and Idioms

Games are a subtle, yet imaginative way to teach and to inspire.  The happiest memories of my elementary school education at The Hebrew Academy of Cleveland are the games that my favorite teachers employed to teach or review information.   I recall playing Chutes and Ladders with Chumash (Pentateuch) questions and Jeopardy with science facts.  While I was a shy student, these games challenged my competitive side and gave voice to my knowledge and originality. 

During my college years, I was hired as a long-term substitute teacher in my alma mater.  I taught various classes and ages, sometimes for weeks on end if a particular teacher was out for an extended leave of absence.  This opportunity offered me enough time to get to know my students while allowing me to try my hand at different subjects and age groups.   

I discovered that only two-thirds of the students answered questions without coaxing.  The other one-third of the students needed encouragement or creativity to activate their interest, confidence and voice.  Students yearn to catch a glimpse of their teacher’s personal side, so I began sharing some of the activities I enjoyed. We baked challah together, we crafted and we played games.  And, what I found was that the shiest students were empowered by these enjoyable activities.  The class looked forward to this respite from learning, while unbeknownst to them, they were learning more during these activities than ever before. 

The concept of designing a game can be daunting.  At first, I prepared elaborate game boards and typed my information cards.  Over time, I found that the simplicity of the game’s design did not in any way diminish from the fun and lesson of the game.  For Jeopardy, I would write topics on the blackboard and handwrite the dollar amounts and answers on index cards that I taped to the blackboard.  Some of the best games that I played were so simple.  I would ask my students to jot down their original inspirations and experiences about a particular Torah topic on a notecard and then I would share their awesome ideas with the class.   I began selecting student game show hosts to assist me and offer leadership to those whose voice I was eager to hear.

A few decades passed.  I graduated from college and from long-term substituting.  I started to accelerate my game of life as I married and began a family.  I sent my own children to school to acquire knowledge and inspiration, hoping that they would find their own voices among their peers. Some possessed cautious voices and others owned assertive voices.  I planned and hosted family get-togethers and parties, but stopped playing games.

One Chanukah, my niece Sorala prepared a game for our family Chanukah party.  It was a Jeopardy-style game with cards taped to my sister-in-law’s breakfront   It activated our competitive nature in an effort to correctly answer questions about Bubby and Zaidy who had recently departed from this world.  It was entertaining and wonderful.  And, it made me remember how significant and empowering games can be.

I took a lesson from Sorala and started developing my own games.  I started with intricate Family Feud boards and Jeopardy boards.  Whatever games our family had discovered and enjoyed over the past months, I converted into inspirational games suitable for the event.  The games became less and less elaborate, but were just as memorable.  I played Human Bingo in an effort to get our guests to reveal and acknowledge new facts about each other.  For Sheva Brochos, I would play Malarky with facts about the new couple.  For Purim, I played Chameleon with topics related to Purim.  When I didn’t have much time or energy to prepare an original game, I just took out pens and notecards and asked my guests to reveal a thought about the event. When we read these out loud, we discovered hilarious and interesting inspirations and facts about each other.

Just over two years ago, I created a game based upon Idiomaddict. It is a game where common phrases are stated using different words and the audience has to guess the original idiom.  For example, “one cent exchanged for your opinions” would be the remake of the common expression, “a penny for your thoughts.”

I played that game with the Cohen family at our Chanukah 2018 party, just a few months before my father was diagnosed with his dreadful illness.  I converted my parents’ favorite expressions into different words and the audience members tried to guess the original sayings.  It was an original and interactive game and I saved a copy of the family idioms on my computer.

This weekend, we commemorated the shloshim (thirrty days) of my father’s petirah (passing).  My mother asked me to speak to the family at the Shabbos lunch.  I recalled my father’s interactive Divrei Torah (words of Torah) and tried to picture the weekend in Cleveland through the eyes of my nieces and nephews.  Long speeches about their grandfather may be inspiring or laborious.  So, I decided to retool and create an interactive and unforgettable experience, instead.  After all, that would be Aba’s preference, fun inspiration through humor for the next generation to ponder and remember.

I selected my favorite game show host, Lazer, and with his assistance I replayed the 2018 Chanukah game with some of my father’s favorite sayings.  I added an important twist.  This time, in addition to guessing the original saying, Lazer would choose someone to explain the saying and describe why it is a memorable adage.

I will share some of these sayings and inspirations.  In each quoted block, The first expression is my father’s remade expression using different and cumbersome words for the game, Idiomaddict.  The second expression is my father’s actual saying followed by the inspiration and reason behind Aba’s idiom. I hope that you enjoy our unique family dialogue using the language and idioms of my father:

Absent even a bit of Lazy Mirth:

“No laytzanus!”

 When Aba would want to wake us up or inspire us to learn, he would say “no laytzanus!” It was his way of making sure that we understood the importance of davening and learning and the futility of laziness. He had a great sense of humor but it was never used to depricate anyone or anything 

Partake in an enjoyable diurnal course:

“Have a nice day”. 

While Aba was not much of a conversationalist, he really cared.  His wishing everyone to have a nice day expressed his affection succinctly.

Subjects that are exceptionally wonderous :

“Devarim Niflaim Ad Me’od!”

When Aba would come up with a chiddush (new insight in Torah), he would be so excited. This phrase demonstrate his excitement for the freshness of his Torah. During shiva, he was referred to as “an eighty-year-old teenager” in his youthful enthusiasm for learning. 

Query your resident scholar:

“Ask your local Rabbi.”

 Although Aba knew the answer to our halachic questions, he would very often answer our questions in this way.  He wanted us to get used to finding our own local rabbinic authority.  It reveals his humility and his trust in each of us finding our own way with our own Torah guide. 


Containing pB and Missing pB: “

“Leaded or Unleaded”. 

Aba took pride in not caring about material things and hoped to influence us to focus on internals rather than externals.  Aba began using this expression in the seventies when unleaded gasoline was first introduced. It was his way of reminding us that material things shouldn’t take over our lives. Aba was a practical and thrifty person and preferred generic brands.  Walmart was his favorite store.

Absolutely my sugary chest organ:

“Sure, sweetheart!” 

This was Aba’s go-to expression when we asked or said something ridiculous.  Rather than debate us or upset us, he would use this expression to signal that the conversation was over.  To continue the discussion, we would need to divert to something more meaningful. 

In an elevated voice, sluggishly as well as in pure tone:

Loud Slow and Clear.” 

Aba was adamant that if we expressed ourselves, we must speak in the proper voice so that we could be heard and understood.  He always made sure to enunciate everything loudly and clearly, albeit in his distinctive gravelly voice.

“Rabbinically and Utterly Amazing”:

“Meiradig” (Yiddish for astounding). 

When my father was excited about a new understanding or development in Torah, he would use this word.  I can picture his blue eyes shining as he used the word Meiradig.  He once addressed Rabbi Shlomo Weinberger and declared. “I want to share with you something meiradig!”  In the true tradition of Halachic arguments, Rabbi Weinberger challenged, “Let’s hear it and then we’ll see if it is meiradig.”  Amazingly, my father was not insulted or deterred.  In fact, he loved Rabbi Weinberger’s bold retort!

Representatives that belong to me”:

“My Agents”

This was my father’s way of avoiding an answer about someone, probably to avoid loshon Hara (hurtful language) or Rechilus (gossip).  For instance, if we asked my father who he had been speaking to and he didn’t want us to know, he would simply answer, “my agents”.  We would just laugh. 

“Pertaining to your enormous broad knowledge:”

“In your vast bekiyus.  “

When my father would challenge us with a Torah question, he would preface it with the phrase, “in your vast bekiyus” .  It would ready us for the challenge that he was about to present and we would love it!

an original measurement in the Old Testament”:

“A new dimension in Torah.”

This expression was spoken about at the funeral by those who learned with him in the Beis Medrash.  My father was excited about discovering new dimensions in Torah and empowered those around him to find their own Chidushim (new ideas).  One of his talmidim shared with us that he and my father were the only ones in the Telshe Beis Medrash one Friday afternoon.  My father had just discovered a new understanding of something that they were learning.  He was so excited that he grabbed his student’s arm and started dancing in the Beis Medrash. 

By way of mysticism:  

“Al Pi Kaballa”

This was my father’s retort when he didn’t want to give us the real answer for a silly question.  When I would ask him, “why do you only button every other button on your shirt,” he would answer “al pi kabbalah”.  I surmise that the real answer was that Aba wanted to save the buttoning time for learning. 

My father rarely played games, but he made learning memorable and interactive.  For me, games have been an effective and creative tool for retaining knowledge.  They can be simple and effective.  They can empower and guide.  They can give voice and leadership.  And, they put entertainment into inspired learning. My father, through his memorable idioms, put humor and fun into our upbringing, while remaining true to his pure nature. These expressions helped us witness my father’s playful, honest and personal side. I hope they offer you a glimpse, too

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