Israel's Jolly, Jingoistic Board Games of Yesteryear

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Just a quick browse through the pages of the new book "Hey Daroma! Mishakei Hakufsa Shel Pa'am" (Southward! Board Games of Yesteryear) is enough to reveal how much Israeli childhood and its values have changed over the years.

"In this game you and your friends are traders for King Solomon. In his name and his mission you are traveling over sea and land in caravans, on ships and on camels. During the game's developments you will learn the ways of trade, the goods and the names of the cities and countries that existed in those days. Your paths will be filled with many dangers," reads the instructions for the game "King Solomon's Voyages," which appear in the book. The new book surveys Israeli children's games from the days of the establishment of the state until some 30 years ago.

Dr. Haim Grossman, a researcher of Israeli culture and art – and a collector of games and other Israeli memorabilia – wrote the book. His great interest in children's games stems from his belief that they provide an important window into Israeli values and culture over the years. The book was published by Marom Tarbut Yisraelit (Marom Israeli Culture), which specializes in "retro" books focusing on Land of Israel memorabilia and other nostalgia. Graphic designer Hagi Marom, who is also a collector, founded the publishing company a year and a half ago. The first book Marom published was also written by Grossman, "Mastik Shel Pa'am," (Gum of Yesteryear) which documents Grossman's collection of gum wrappers.

The name of the book, Hey Daroma, comes from one of the games that was manufactured soon after Israel was established. The game was based on Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's call for young people to go and settle the Negev. "Ben-Gurion went, we didn't, and the rest is well-known," Grossman said. "The map of the game pictures only the Negev, since that was what was important here. The influence of government institutions on the topics of the games is recognizable. In that period what the establishment broadcast as important was accepted publicly without criticism, and copied in class."

Grossman explained that he researched the book by interviewing many of the original game manufacturers.

"This book is based on a decade of research, during which I met with all the game manufacturers. I talked to them about the games they created and their motives for creating them. In this case, there is an easy answer to the question, 'What was the author thinking?' In general he didn't think," Grossman quipped.

The book includes pictures of the game boards, the boxes and cards. In between, Grossman introduces some of the instructions for playing the games, which clearly capture the spirit of the times.

"Israeli society of the 1960s loved soldiers crazily. Period," said Grossman, who was born in 1951. "In the instructions for the game "Ken Hamefaked" (Yes, Commander), it is written: 'If only I was big, if only I was an IDF soldier, a hero.' When you read that today it is possible to say this was a militaristic and fully-enlisted society, but it wasn't viewed that way then," he added.

Grossman says that political and diplomatic events had great influence on children's games. "In the first decades of the state, as a result of Israeli wars, war games were created. After the War of Independence one game came out, after the Sinai Campaign two, but after the victory of the Six-Day War there were no less than 9,000. Everyone who had a printing press, including Masada Publishers, put out a game based in the operations of the war, where in the end the Israeli army wins. That was how it was until the Yom Kippur War, and then everything ended. In one fell swoop the soldier disappeared since he stopped being [part of the] consensus."

Then came the 1980s and the onset of personal computers and home video games, which presented a complete paradigm shift in gaming.

"In the 1980s a computer game on Israeli wars was created, where for the first time I saw something different. The game's developments were not set in advance, and the game could develop and lead to an Egyptian victory," Grossman explained. "I saw in that some type of change in thinking, that it is legitimate not to win."

Was there any criticism hidden inside the games themselves?

"Reading correctly, both in war games and in bank games there is criticism. In the game 'Havila Higiya' (The Package Arrives), Ephraim Kishon criticized the bureaucracy of those times. But the child didn't understand it, he simply played, went between the various offices with the goal of moving the package. Kishon's picture appears on the box of the game, since he was a mega-celebrity," said Grossman.

Who else was honored on the boxes?

"In the game "Hahidon Hatanachi" (The Bible Quiz), a picture of Amos Hacham, who wrote the questions, appeared on the box. He was the winner of the first International Bible Quiz. He limped a bit and stuttered but became a cultural hero. Today it is more logical if they would put the picture of Lihi Griner, [a contestant] kicked off a reality show," said Grossman.

Arab figures were the ever-present missing persons, said Grossman. "In geography games the emphasis was of course on the Zionist enterprise and Zionist space, and there are clear ideological leanings. Tel Hai with the statue of the lion, is the same size as Jerusalem in the map of the game," Grossman said of Tel Hai, the site of an early battle in the Arab–Israeli conflict in northern Israel. "The creator of the game wants to bequeath to children that this is an important story in his opinion. They show the region of western Transjordan, rich and lively; Eastern Transjordan has almost nothing: no people – it's wilderness. A space of hysterical ethnocentrism, with very blue skies, filled with optimism."

Is there anyone who still plays with these old games?

"The few who still play board games are the children of religious Zionism. They still play games that came out 50 years ago and appear in the book. These include geographical games that emphasize the land of our forefathers, games of heroes that fight for the homeland and trivia games. The general public is much more skeptical and that influences the production of such products, which is shrinking.

"Today, every such game would bring on criticism, as opposed to the period when they came out and were accepted as appropriate and obvious. These games came out in a period of a broad consensus, until 1973. This was the period I grew up in, and it had a great number of things I wish would come back, first of all optimism. We believed things would be good. The country's achievements appeared in the cinema newsreels. How could you not miss that? To the true love of the homeland that could connect a Jew like me, who is both left-wing and also loves the Land of Israel. Today if you love the Land of Israel that way you are a nationalist Jew."

How many of these games were invented in Israel?

"The vast majority. Certainly as to the topics. It is clear that they took all sorts of ideas from other games. One of the famous games is 'Who Knows 128,' with questions of the quizmaster Shmuel Rosen, a great celebrity in his time. On the game board there are two circles attached with a little circle in the center. You point an arrow at the question on one side of the board and after that there is a magnet in the second circle that turns the arrow to the correct answer. It was an amazing attraction. But we didn't invent it. They brought it from overseas."

Which game do you like the best?

"I don't have any. I am not a child who plays games. But if we are talking about nostalgia, then my nostalgia is directed at space games, which were a big deal in the 1960s. Games such as 'Kibush Hayareah' (Capture the Moon), and Til Lehalal' (Rocket to Space)."

Do you visit toy stores?

"A little. I look for the games in fleas markets, but the new games interest me less. I noticed that in the last 20 years a lot of games came out about money, profits, businesses, being a millionaire – in the spirit of the times. I always schemed to collect them and write about it. The games show what a parent wants to teach his child. My father, for example, wanted me to travel with King Solomon's traders. I don't know what's better, personally I'm weak in money matters."

Maybe you should have played more Monopoly?

"I played Monopoly, but I thought less about the aspect of investments and real estate. Now they have Monopoly with a credit card. This connects the child to reality, but the theme is of wealth and money. Good or bad? I don't judge. Once it was understood to hike the land, buy it and redeem it.

"I think it is possible to learn a lot from the inconceivable burden and wealth. Even on the technical level, before the era of computers, the artists displayed amazing technical skills in paint, pencil drawings and watercolors within the limits of up to four-color printing. In the games there are mostly drawings and fewer photographs. The drawings are very naive and conceptual, it's all so pretty.

"I mostly was interested in the cooperation between the illustrators of books and the creators of the games which were based on them, for example the games of Kofiko and Chipopo. Also in the design of the covers – it is a photo. I am against Photoshop stunts. In the games themselves I also love that they have no tricks or effects. Of course there wasn't the technology to do that. Everything was simpler, more innocent and honest."

From the cover of "Hey Daroma! Mishakei Hakufsa Shel Pa'am" (Southward! Board Games of Yesteryear). Credit: Hagi Marom
Dr. Haim Grossman, a researcher of Israeli culture and art.Credit: David Bachar
Graphic designer and publisher Hagi Marom.Credit: David Bachar
An image from the pages of "Hey Daroma! (Southward). Credit: Hagi Marom

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