My late father, a truly warm, sincere, and wonderful person, was both a gentleman and a gentle man. He also happened to be a chess master. He played some of the world’s most formidable players in Europe, in Israel and, eventually, here in the United States.
On those occasions when he would come to Woodmere to spend a Shabbos with my family and me, he was an instant celebrity. Members of our community who were aware of his status in the chess-playing world would line up at our door on Shabbos afternoon and ask if they might be able to play chess with him. Some men approached him in shul on Shabbos morning to ask if he would consent to a match in the afternoon. He turned nobody away. Chess was his passion. He loved the game and he loved people, so he was willing to oblige anyone who wanted to challenge him. He did so even if he knew that it wouldn’t be much of a contest for him. There were times when I tried to discern if there was any boredom evident on his face. But if he was bored he never let it show. A caring and compassionate man, he never wanted to insult anyone and, therefore, he never let on that a person’s chess-playing skills presented no challenge to him. There were times, however, when a particularly skilled player would show up and it was easy for me to see the look of delight on his face when he realized that he was facing a true challenge from somebody.
This is the time of year when I think about being a chess player and the ability to think ahead. What will be upon us shortly is one of the strangest times of the year. As is to be expected, the strangeness I refer to involves our holidays. Purim arrives this year on Wednesday evening, March 20, and concludes on Thursday, March 21. Every year, just before Purim, despite never having played the game, I turn into a chess player of sorts. My father attempted to teach me to play, but he soon gave up on the idea when he realized I would never be good at it. The game, as it has been described to me, involves being able to think clearly and being able to see several “moves” ahead, which is something I am unable to do. I believe it works something like this: if I move my piece here, my opponent will move his piece there, and then I will make the following move, etc. In my own simplistic way, I believe that this is what chess is about. I also know that my father was correct. The game is not for me. That is, it isn’t for me at any time other than just before Purim.
Purim means, among other things, of course, preparing, delivering, and receiving plates of goodies. But every balabusta has to think ahead and keep in mind that the holiday that follows Purim is Pesach, before which all chametz has to be disposed of. This is where my chess-playing skills, such as they are, come into play. I begin some mini-calculations of how many mishloach manot packages I will prepare and deliver, and how many I will likely receive. My next move is to figure out how I will dispose of the cakes, cookies, and ever-present hamantaschen that will appear at my doorstep. Who will I give these treats to?
Tossing them out is not an option because I abhor wastefulness. I can serve some of it at upcoming mah-jongg games and canasta games, but half of the people I play with will be trying to figure out how to get rid of their own chametz. I can always give a package of goodies to my mailman. He might appreciate it. I would do the same thing with my garbage collectors, but I worry that they might be annoyed and think the following: She skips us at our December holiday, gives us nothing, and now, here she is, giving us some weird-shaped pastry in March. What’s with this lady? But the more practical reason for why I can’t offer it to these guys is that they come around so early in the morning that I’m usually still asleep. I can always give some of the sweets to my non-Jewish neighbor. She would probably appreciate it since she gives me tomatoes and cucumbers every summer from her garden.
It appears that, out of necessity, this is the one time I manage to think ahead. I wonder if my father would be proud. I hope so. That’s just the way it is.
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and gives private small-group lessons in mah-jongg and canasta. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-295-4435.