On a blustery December day in 1985, three Jewish women from Houston strode into Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City. They came to sell, not to shop. In their hands were five large boxes, each one weighing about 40 pounds, packed with sealed copies of Tradition, a Jewish trivia board game they had created. Tradition had just been profiled in The New York Times on Nov. 30, and the game was gaining traction, but nothing prepared the women for the chaotic scene that awaited them that day.
When they arrived at the stationery department to unload copies of the game, the manager informed them that a previous order of 60 games that arrived the day before had quickly sold out. In a memoir she wrote about the making of the game, Tradition co-creator Estelle Panzer recalled what happened next: “We immediately started opening the boxes of games we had brought. The games did not even make it to the shelves. People ran up to us and grabbed the games as we were removing them from the shipping boxes. Within two hours, all 60 games were gone!” Panzer and her collaborators, Janis Odensky and Judy Jordan, watched in amazement as New Yorkers fought and scrambled to purchase copies of Tradition to keep for themselves, or to give as Hanukkah gifts that season. “We left New York,” Panzer wrote, “feeling as if we had conquered the world.”
Nearly 35 years later, Tradition has been almost entirely forgotten, and the story of how the game went from a kitchen table in Houston to department store shelves across the country, selling more than 17,000 copies along the way, has faded into total obscurity. Tradition’s viral moment ended around the same time as the Reagan administration. Board games are enjoying a resurgence, but they are a niche market in today’s world of digital entertainment. So, why revisit an old game that many of us, or our parents or grandparents, once played and probably still own, but haven’t taken out of the closet in decades? Tradition matters both because it is a tale of American Jewish women entrepreneurs who succeeded in creating a cultural icon, and because the game itself is a time capsule, a snapshot of American Jewish life in the 1980s that reveals much about how we understood ourselves in those years. Now that the creators of the game have donated their materials—including Panzer’s unpublished memoir—to the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice University, it’s the perfect moment to give Tradition a second look.
When reporters and talk show hosts would ask them in interviews why they decided to make a Jewish trivia game, Panzer and her collaborators would explain that their efforts were inspired by ignorance. “Our children would come home from Hebrew school with very basic questions on Judaism and we found we could not answer them,” Panzer recalled in her memoir. After getting tired of repeating the phrase “Go ask your father” dozens of times, they decided to make a trivia game in order to learn enough about Judaism and Jewish history to respond to their children’s queries.
This story made for a good soundbite, perhaps, confirming a few stereotypes and bringing polite smiles to a few faces. But the fuller truth is that the game was born because three women were searching for a passion project, something to give them an intellectual and entrepreneurial challenge while they devoted themselves to raising their children.
For Janis Odensky, inspiration struck at her husband’s birthday party in the fall of 1984, over a lively game of Trivial Pursuit. Odensky and her friend Judy Jordan had been looking to start a business for some time, tossing out various ideas and discarding them. As they sat around the table that night, reveling with the rest of the company in an engaging round of trivia, it hit them: We could make a Jewish trivia game. After all, they reasoned, Jews love to play bridge and mah-jongg, but there weren’t any games with Jewish content on the market at the time. “I remember talking to Judy the next day on the phone, and we said, ‘Let’s do this—but we can’t tell anybody,’” Odensky told me in a recent interview. They feared that someone else would come up with the same idea and beat them to it, and they would soon find out that their fears were correct. “Our husbands … didn’t think it was going to materialize into anything,” she recalled, but gave them the go-ahead to pursue it.
Of the three women, Odensky was the one who most felt inadequate about her Jewish knowledge. She grew up in San Antonio, Texas, attending the Reform-affiliated Congregation Beth El. She was confirmed, but did not attend Hebrew school growing up. Working on a Jewish trivia game required Odensky to give herself a crash course in Jewish studies, the likes of which she had never experienced before. Odensky and Jordan threw themselves into the process of researching and writing questions, using the Jewish Encyclopedia and whatever resources they could find at the local library. Jordan, a teacher, told me that she remembers sitting on the beach over weekends and school holidays to work on questions.
Meanwhile, that same year, Panzer was feeling lost. A mother of two young girls at the time, she applied to law school and had been accepted, but felt that her children were too young for her to leave them to attend classes. She yearned to find something to do that would challenge her mind. Panzer was at a party—possibly the same party for Odensky’s husband, although their memory trail is unclear—and she heard someone make a passing remark: “There are so many trivia games around, the next thing you know, there will be a Jewish trivia [game].” Keeping the idea entirely to herself, lest a competitor steal the idea, Panzer scrambled to acquire books and write questions. Thus, in the fall of 1984 in Houston, two secret Jewish trivia projects were simultaneously underway.
Then, one day in October, after dropping her daughter off at the Jewish Community Center for an afternoon dance class, Panzer decided to pop in on her good friend Odensky, whose husband, Larry, was her first cousin. When Panzer walked in, she saw something on Odensky’s countertop that nearly made her faint: a game produced in Canada called The Jewish Brain Teaser. Panzer revealed to Odensky that she had spent the past several months working on a Jewish trivia game, and now her worst fears had been realized. There was another game. Now it was Odensky’s turn to go pale, as she filled Panzer in on her own trivia project. By the time the afternoon was done, undeterred by the revelation of foreign competition, the three women agreed to combine forces. They set about over the next few months writing thousands more questions, working late nights at the dinner table after the children had gone to bed, and holding regular Sunday morning meetings over egg-and-cheese casserole to review their progress and discuss strategy.
The original plan was to write thousands of questions, and then sell them to Trivial Pursuit as the foundation of a “Jewish Edition” of the popular game. But when Panzer spoke to the receptionist at Selchow and Righter, the distributors of Trivial Pursuit, she was informed that the company had a strict policy of producing all its game materials in-house. At that point, the trio realized there would be no market for their trivia questions alone. They would have to design an actual board game, and quickly—what if Selchow and Righter had decided to steal their idea and produce Jewish Trivial Pursuit themselves?
“If we just copied Trivial Pursuit’s board design,” Panzer remarked, “they’d sue us.” So, they needed to develop something unique. At this point, the husbands joined in to help with game design and strategy. A suggestion for a board game in the shape of a Tree of Life with six branches was suggested by Odensky’s husband, but discarded. Where could you go with your pawn when you reached the end of the branch? It didn’t work. And pie pieces were out of the question. What about a name? Panzer suggested Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Being Jewish But Didn’t Learn in Sunday School, but the group agreed it was too long. Finally, Larry Odensky suggested the name Tradition, and the one-word moniker stuck. Along the way, the group consulted with Rabbi Joseph Radinsky of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, who proofread thousands of Jewish trivia questions and offered corrections. This collaboration would later allow them to market the game, tongue-in-cheek, as “kosher certified.”
In the early months of 1985, the women worked hard to develop a prototype, raise the $55,000 they needed to finance a first production run, and get their product on department store shelves. Friends and colleagues from around the country offered professional assistance, and family members contributed financial help when the Small Business Administration denied their loan application. Finally, by June, the game was ready to ship.
Gather a few friends or family members together this holiday season. Take the black, pink, and blue Tradition game board out of the box, unfold it, and pick a color for your pawn and tokens: red, green, blue, or purple. Put your token on a corner square. The player who rolls the highest initial score with the die will go first, moving along a rounded-square board. Each square on the board is assigned a point value. Each time you roll, the number on the die tells you both how many spaces you can move, and the category of question you’ll answer. Category No. 1: Yiddish and proverbs. Category 2: Customs and holidays. Did you roll a three? Here comes a question on Jewish history, geography, or politics. Category 4 is Israel, category 5 is ancient and biblical history, and the last category is a cultural smorgasbord: arts, sciences, entertainment, and sports. Answer the question correctly, win the number of points on the square, mark the square with one of your colored tokens, and keep going.
Be prepared for some tough questions. Q: “The Talmud says that horse beans are bad for the teeth, but good for what kind of physical ailment?” A: “Bowel trouble.” Q: “Which was the only Asian country to vote in favor of the U.N. Partition Resolution in 1947?” A: “The Phillippines.” The game is perhaps tougher now by virtue of the fact that the game’s knowledge of the Jewish world is frozen in 1984. A question about the last Jewish Supreme Court justice to be appointed assumes that the answer is Abe Fortas. Tradition knows nothing of the “Notorious RBG,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg; neither could it anticipate Stephen Breyer or Elena Kagan. In this respect, it’s a lot like playing the original edition of Trivial Pursuit. You have the added challenge of putting yourself in the mindset of the game at the moment it was created, and forgetting everything you know about the world since.
And the world has changed quite a bit since 1985. For one thing, when it came time to craft a press release announcing the game, a journalist advised the three creators to advertise Tradition as the product of “three Jewish housewives from Houston” with “no prior entrepreneurial experience.” When the women objected to being classified in this way, the journalist insisted that they needed an eye-catching angle to their story; otherwise, no one would pay attention. The phrases “three Houston housewives” and “novice entrepreneurs” subsequently appeared time and time again in the game’s marketing materials, belittling the credentials and achievements of the women. They gave themselves what they could not have acquired in the era in which they were raised—a rigorous and meaningful Jewish education—and they tried to pass this heritage on to others in the form of trivia.
Panzer, Odensky, and Jordan remain supremely proud of their work. Speaking with me by phone from Miami, Jordan reveled in memories of marketing the game at fairs and trade shows, and in the knowledge that she and her partners had created something that Jewish families could use to learn about their heritage. “It was the best part of my life,” she commented. For Panzer and Odensky, Tradition brings back many happy memories. I asked them if they had ever thought of making an updated version of the game. “We actually talked about 10 years ago about doing a 25th-anniversary version,” something more in tune with “the electronic age,” Panzer said with a laugh. They had already started to write new questions.
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