Back in the paddle again: Exhibit on Jews and ping pong serves up a chance to play, learn

Its fan base has included Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Miller and Susan Sarandon. Fidel Castro was prone to referencing it when discussing the Cuban Revolution. And it definitely saved at least one man’s life at Auschwitz.

Yet ping pong never really has gotten the respect it deserves.

At least that was the prevailing attitude at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on April 14, when 40 or so enthusiasts gathered to grab a paddle, challenge a friend, and learn something about the historical connection between Jews and table tennis.

The CJM is celebrating that connection through May 10 with a free, temporary installation called “The Ping Pong Project.” It includes two regulation tables set up in the museum’s lobby, and equipment that allows visitors to — as a press release trumpets — “take a shot at table tennis triumph” during regular museum hours.

Eli Horowitz, a Bay Area resident and co-author of “Everything You Know is Pong,” helped open the exhibit with some trumpeting of his own, noting that there is a long-standing history of Jews in table tennis.

“There was this moment in history after World War I, when the birth of this kind of muscular Judaism and the birth of ping pong happened almost at the same time,” he said. “They almost grew up together.”

Created by British soldiers serving in India just before the turn of the 20th century, and initially played using cigar boxes as paddles and wine corks as balls, table tennis took off in Eastern Europe about 20 years later.

At the CJM exhibit, photos and captions showcase some notable Jewish players from the past 100 years.

For the exhibit’s kickoff, Horowitz presented a slideshow along with a short talk about the role of Jews in ping pong’s storied past. Many of the anecdotes were culled from his book — part history textbook, part whimsical anthropological exploration of the game’s place in pop culture. The book inspired the exhibit, and is available for sale in the museum gift shop.

Angelica Rozeanu of Romania photo/courtesy of the ittf

Horowitz, the senior editor for the San Francisco–based McSweeney’s publishing house, said his research revealed that Jews in the early 20th century wanted to “find sports they could make their own.”

He added, “Both ping pong and basketball were created then, and with both of those being new sports, there wasn’t an architecture in place that excluded [Jews]. Ping pong was an improvisational street game at that point, something they could own.”

In his talk, Horowitz traced a timeline of some of ping pong’s more astonishing footnotes.

Among them was the story of Polish Jewish champion Alojzy “Alex” Ehrlich, who, in the 1936 world championships, won a game in which he and his Romanian opponent played for two hours and 12 minutes — for the first point. The legend goes that, over the course of that exchange, the referee had to be replaced because his neck was sore from watching the ball go back and forth; Ehrlich also managed to eat a few rolls and a sausage while playing. Twenty minutes into the second point, the Romanian forfeited the game and walked out.

Ehrlich’s popularity in Poland would save him a few years later when, after spending four years at Auschwitz, he was spared from the gas chambers after a Nazi guard recognized him and pulled him from the line to safety.

Other players, such as Hungary’s eight-time world champion Laszlo Bellak — known as the “clown prince of table tennis” — were celebrated for their entertaining antics at the table, which helped promote the game as a spectator sport.

“Ask not what table tennis can do for you,” Bellak once said. “Ask what you can do for table tennis.”

At the exhibit’s grand opening at the CJM, locals with personal attachments to ping pong were out in full force to celebrate those who inspired their love of the game.

Marty “The Needle” Reisman photo/mal anderson

Richard Vared is a San Francisco resident who, as a child in Tel Aviv, had the fortune to train with Angelica Rozeanu, one of most successful female players in the sport’s history. Her life’s saga, as chronicled in Horowitz’s book — and noted in a photo at the exhibit — was ultimately a tragic one, shaped almost entirely by her involvement in the game.

Born in 1921 in Bucharest to a middle-class Jewish family, Rozeanu came down with scarlet fever at the age of 8. When she was homebound, her older brother brought her tennis balls and rackets, and taught her to play “table tennis” on the dining room table. At the age of 15, in 1936, she won the Romanian National Women’s Championship, a title she held for the next 21 years, excepting war years. She was a world champion in the singles division for a still-unmatched streak from 1950 to 1955.

Perhaps aptly representing the shift from Eastern European to Asian dominance in the sport that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, Rozeanu’s six-year reign ended in 1956 to 32-year-old Japanese housewife Kiyoko Tasaka.

Tasaka won by “serving funny,” Vared said. “[Japanese players] would twist the ball with one hand and serve with the other, just above the table.”

Though that game led to a rule change about serving styles, the loss was a huge blow to Rozeanu’s career; she left competitive play within a few years. In the 1960s, she immigrated to Israel, Vared said, where she trained other young players.

Among the historical documents in Horowitz’s book is a letter from Rozeanu to Jewish American table tennis legend Marty “The Needle” Reisman that shows just how deeply that game affected her.

“I have scheduled my life so that I am busy all the time, so as not to think of what happened in the past, because it doesn’t make me feel well,” she wrote in 2000, more than 40 years after the loss. “I hope that after I write you all of this, it won’t bring too much more of it back to me.”

Rozeanu, who died the following year, is just one of many Jews in the history of table tennis — a history that has never been widely told.

“In researching this book, everywhere we went, even when I thought I was going down some crazy path that wouldn’t really pan out — whether it was politics or technology or anything, there was some connection to ping pong,” Horowitz said after his talk.

Around him in the CJM atrium, some visitors hit shots at the table, while others lined up to get their books signed. One part of the book provides a connection between ping pong and the Cuban revolution.

CJM visitors take turns at the table on April 14. photo/emma silvers

“OK, maybe it’s a stretch to say ping pong inspired the Cuban revolution,” said the author. “But then Castro [a noted ping pong enthusiast] is quoted as saying the key to success in battle was the same as in ping pong: ‘You hit them where they least expect it.’

“But my favorite thing is the fact that anyone can play it,” Horowitz added, as the sound of the ping pong ball echoed throughout the CJM’s Koret-Taube Grand Lobby. “It’s a really democratic game. When you mention ping pong, everyone has this same kind of reaction where their eyes light up.”

Toward the end of the opening event, as people were still wandering in off the street to sign up for their turn, spectators eyes were glued to two older men duking it out at the table. Later, one would ask to have a book inscribed for his old friend Leonard Katz, “the greatest Jewish ping pong player at Montreal High School.”

“It’s been so much fun,” said Dan Schifrin, the museum’s director of public programs, who spent much of the evening perched near the tables, watching the good-natured competition unfold. “Almost everyone who comes in has a story you’d never expect.”

cover: photo, courtesy of ittf,The late Laszlo Bellak, known as the “clown prince of table tennis.”

“The Ping Pong Project” is open during regular museum hours. Table reservations are available for groups on Thursdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Free. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Information: www.thecjm.org.



Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.