Tygerpen: What goes bump in the day

Until very recently, I took comfort in knowing that our Jewish religious schools are finally cranking out students who know the difference between Purim and Passover. (Purim involves a hat.) Or know the significance of April 20, 1273 BCE, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. In the Jewish calendar, this is the 22nd of Nissan, the day the Japanese rolled out the cars.

But then I read a sobering book, “Sliding to the Right,” by Samuel Heilman, that complained of Jewish students distracted by “playing basketball, riding in dodgem-cars, and playing pinball …”

Dodgem cars?!! They’ve been an essential rite in the Jewish community since the 1920s, when Bertha Greenberg was the only woman of her time selling them. In doing so, she surmounted obstacles such as sex discrimination, and how to explain the invention of the dodgem/bumper cars by Max Stoehrer and his son Harold:

Max: I know how we can make a few bucks.

Harold: Not another peepshow machine.

Max: No! We’ll make a car you can smash into other cars.

Harold: We already have taxis.

Max: No! Smaller ones that let you decide who you want to crash into over and over again. And other guys in small cars can crash into you.

Harold: Father, have you been at Uncle Jack’s still again?

Now, after more than 90 years, bumper cars are still around in amusement parks, which provide family fun such as corn dogs, cotton candy, concussions, nausea and vertigo.

Next week in Sydney, Australia, for example, Yom HaAtzmaut festivities will include dodgem cars at the Royal Randwick Racecourse. Last month the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh held a bumper car party in Bethel Park.

And to judge by online listings, bumper cars as bar/bat mitzvah entertainment are as common as not receiving a thank-you card from the bar/bat mitzvah boy or girl for at least 11 months.

If bumper cars are so bad for Jewish students, why do you find them all over Israel? Israelis love their bumper cars at such places as Luna Park (Tel Aviv) and Superland (Rishon LeTzion beach). This is why Birthright trips are so popular: Young Jews who think Israel is far from home, possibly near Australia, can go to places like Kibbutz Tzuba, which began as an agricultural collective but now includes bumper cars that operate 362 days a year!

Not to be outdone, West Bank Palestinians have their own bumper cars. They’re in Banana Land in Jericho, one reason this territory is so hotly disputed.

Back in my home state of Oregon, sociologists and ethnographers have labored to discover why Jews have congregated in the coastal town of Seaside every summer since the early 20th century. The researchers categorically concluded it’s because of the bumper cars.

The cars have been around more than 60 years, but even before that time, generations of Jews flocked to the beach, year after year, waiting … waiting … waiting for the bumper cars miraculously to appear. During Passover seders in Portland, it was common to hear someone utter “Maybe next year in Seaside.”

I loved the Seaside bumper cars, but mostly I watched the grinning kids and adults zooming around and smashing into each other. I noticed the poles attached to each car and extending to the ceiling sparked with electricity (the “Stinger”). I worried what would happen if I had to step onto the rink, or if the Stinger pole fell down and killed me and then, even worse, electrocuted me as the heedless motorists rode over me.

Or what if, instead, my car spun around and I had to face oncoming traffic? A sign in the rink warned “No head-on collisions.” That was the most terrifying: What if the sign fell on me?

Eventually I overcame my catastrophic concerns and joined my fellow Jews in teeth-shattering collisions.

In England last year, several resorts featuring dodgems banned people from bumping into each other because of possible injuries and lawsuits. Now they drive around slowly in circles. Not long after this ruling, a 28-year-old woman from Essex broke the world record for the longest dodgem car marathon. She clocked 25 hours. “We got into a bit of a routine,” she admitted later, “and just went round and round and round.”

Jews would never stand for this restriction: They’d never go round and round and round. Unless it was at a buffet table.

Trudi York Gardner
lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.