A few years ago, on the back shelf of a dusty thrift store, I found a plain wooden box with reassuringly familiar dimensions. I pulled it down, opened it up, and there they were: the smooth cream-colored tiles with brightly colored numbers on them.
“It’s a Rummikub set!” I exclaimed.
My friend, who was rummaging on a separate shelf, looked up with a blank face. “What’s Rummikub?”
To a person like my friend, who’d never heard of the game, the explanation — it’s a gin rummy derivative played with tiles rather than cards — didn’t at all explain why I was cradling the box in my arms like a baby. But to me it connoted a whole world of delights: childhood vacations in Florida with my grandmother, Bloomie — the sunny days at the pool and then companionable evenings in her apartment, the two of us clickity-clacking the Rummikub tiles on her table while Peter Jennings or Alex Trebek spoke in dulcet Canadian tones on TV.
I am not alone with this kind of memory: Rummikub, like mahjong, is one of those games that is particularly popular with Jewish people of a certain age — though unlike mahjong, it has a Jewish pedigree. And right now, it also has a Jewish hero, Josh Morof, who represented the United States at the World Championship of Rummikub this week in Jerusalem. (Japan took the top prize.)
Rummikub was invented and manufactured in Israel by Ephraim Hertzano, who emigrated from Romania to Israel in 1950. Given its similarity to gin rummy, Hertzano never claimed the idea for the game was entirely original. Rather, it was his iteration of the game — with wooden chips, which preceded the plastic tiles — that was unique.
Though it had some local success in Israel, Rummikub would not become an international success until the late 1970s, when Margreeth Golad, the Dutch wife of Israeli Adi Golad, saw the game being played at a kibbutz and fell in love with it. Margreeth sent a copy of the game to her mother in Holland and she fell for it, too — and wanted more for friends. After seeing how many people were excited to buy the game there, Margreeth and Adi moved to Holland to start a Rummikub-based business; by 1986 Rummikub was the best-selling game there.
Also in the late ’70s, the game was starting to take off in the United States as well. It was popularized here not by Hertzano’s son — who tried unsuccessfully to spread the Rummikub gospel when he went to school in the states — but by comedian Don Rickles, who mentioned his wife’s interest in the game on The Tonight Show, back when Carson was king. That did the trick.
Now the game is sold in more than 50 countries, and its rules have been translated into 26 different languages.
The first World Rummikub Championship took place 27 years ago in Jerusalem. This week, players from more than 40 countries gathered at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to match wits and tiles. Josh Morof, representing the United States, was excited about being in Israel for this opportunity, though he’d been a number of times before, including a month-long BBYO stint and a Birthright trip.
“It is so amazing to be back in Israel representing the United States,” said the 24-year-old West Bloomfield, Mich., native, who’s in his second year of medical school. “While being the national champion of any game is alone an incredible and unique experience, as a Jew I feel especially fortunate to be a representative in this competition. Getting to play this tournament in Israel makes it even more special. While I’ve always thought of Rummikub as a Jewish game, it has been incredible to see how loved the game is by so many around the globe.”
In advance of his trip, Morof, who is the president of Wayne State University’s Jewish Medical Student Association, wrote an article about the experience for the Detroit Jewish News.
“While there may not be anything inherently Jewish about a game with 64 colored tiles that you move around a table,” he wrote, “I can’t think of anything more Jewish than playing the game of Rummikub. Just like Shabbat dinner or Passover Seder, playing the game is a special time to join together with friends and family without any other distractions. Just like at any Jewish gathering, it is an opportunity to argue endlessly while somehow becoming closer and better for it.
“But most importantly, even though you can’t all win every game, it is a chance to spend time with those you love, and there is nothing more Jewish than that.”