Navigate to Community section

In the Cards

How a game called Klaberjass became an integral part of Jewish life in South Africa—and beyond

Beth S. Pollak
February 18, 2021
Courtesy Selwyn Furman and Mark Furman
A 1970s Klaberjass rule book from a Klaberjass tournament at the Cape Town Trust Bank Building (now ABSA Centre)Courtesy Selwyn Furman and Mark Furman
Courtesy Selwyn Furman and Mark Furman
A 1970s Klaberjass rule book from a Klaberjass tournament at the Cape Town Trust Bank Building (now ABSA Centre)Courtesy Selwyn Furman and Mark Furman

There is much written about the Jews of South Africa: how they traveled from Lithuanian shtetls in the early 20th century to build thriving communities; how they’ve achieved accolades in science, technology, and literature; how they both benefited by the apartheid system and fought for its destruction. But what’s not recorded is the story of a pastime that South African Jews have preserved from their forebears: the addictive, trick-taking card game called Klaberjass.

“In South Africa, you were born, you were brissed, you were bar mitzvahed, and you learned how to play Klaberjass,” said Brett Saevitzon, 57, originally from Johannesburg.

Klaberjass, pronounced “Clubbius,” and meaning “the jack of clubs,” is also known as Clobyosh and by various other names. It has its origins in 19th-century European predecessors, and it includes guttural, Yiddishy terms for cards and plays. As in Spades or Euchre, Klaberjass participants must count cards and pay close attention to each trick. Every move is a subtle gesture toward dominating the table or supporting another’s bid for the win.

“There’s a lot of skill to Clubby because if you play it the right way you must indicate to your partner,” said Saevitzon. “You’ve got to remember the cards being played.”

The game is usually played four-handed, either in teams of two or with individual players competing for themselves—although it also can be played in threes or in a two-handed variation. Players earn points mainly by capturing high-scoring cards when they win tricks. Points are tabulated at the end of each hand, and the first player or team to reach 501 wins the game.

“There are strict rules and you have to be alert,” said Henry Ritz, 83, who has been playing since he was a teenager in Durban. “You’ve got to be on your toes the whole game. If you play the wrong card, that’s the end of it.”

While some Klaberjass players gamble for large stakes, most play for bragging rights, wagering pocket money to make the game more competitive.

Saevitzon’s father, Monty, 87, recalls learning it as a child in Cape Town. “We played for small stakes, 10-20 cents a hand,” he said. “All the yiddishe boys played it.”

Klaberjass isn’t just a South African Jewish hobby. Versions of the game are played across Europe by people of all backgrounds, albeit with different names: Belote in France and Klaverjassen in the Netherlands, among others. Klaberjass likely originated in the Dutch and Belgian “Low Countries,” and spread through Central and Eastern Europe, where it became a particular favorite in Jewish communities.

In fact, the game was so prevalent that it was portrayed in the 1890 smash hit Viennese/Hungarian theater production Die Klabriaspartie, a “Jewish jargon farce” about friends playing Klaberjass in a café while commiserating about life’s ups and downs.

Klaberjass also traveled to North America, where it became known as Klabiash during the Jazz Age, and was a staple of life in enclaves like Chicago’s Maxwell Street and New York’s Lower East Side. Guys and Dolls author Damon Runyon wrote a 1941 column describing the game, its indeterminate spelling, and its popularity among “actors, nightclub owners and waiters,” including Broadway and Hollywood players like Chico Marx. Runyon frequently included “Klob” in his short stories set in New York City, and the East Village’s Café Royal was a Klabiash-playing hot spot. Yet among American Jews, the game generally went out of fashion in the 1960s.

Meanwhile in South Africa, which had no television until 1976, card nights became ubiquitous. Klaberjass was played everywhere Jews congregated: workplace lounges, beachfront hangouts, summer camps and university cafeterias. South African Jews even created “schools” of Klaberjass, weekly card nights that rotated among participants’ homes.

“My late father had a group of friends who were survivors or who left Europe before the Holocaust, and they played every weekend,” said Mark Blumberg, 61, who grew up in 1970s Johannesburg. “In winter, they’d meet at an apartment to play, and have a spread of schnapps, whiskey, kichel, and herrings. In summer, they’d go to Yeoville Baths [a swimming pool], and play obsessively from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. They were serious competitors, and played for 5 cents a point in groups of four. If one ran out of money, someone else would take his seat. They were noisy, shouting in Yiddish and arguing about the cards, until the superintendent lifeguard came to tell them to keep it down. For them, it was a boys club and a sense of community.”

Another version of Klaberjass is also beloved in the Cape Town region’s mixed-race “Coloured” community, where it is called Klawerjas. While Jewish Klaberjass probably arrived in South Africa with turn-of-the-century Ashkenazi immigrants, Cape Klawerjas might date back to an earlier era of Dutch colonization. The two forms of the game seem to have evolved separately, as apartheid laws and insular attitudes generally isolated groups from each other.

Among South African Jews, Klaberjass was considered a “poor man’s bridge” for its similarities to its more formal and complex cousin.

“A deck of cards was a cheap pastime,” said Gavin Morris, director of the South African Jewish Museum. “The majority of Litvak Jews who arrived around the turn of the 20th century were poor. Jews were involved in the grain market, illegal trades, gambling and prostitution. Those types of environments bred card players.”

South African Jewish Klaberjass includes the following terms:

jass (“yass”): jack of trumps
manel: nine of trumps
king-and-queen of trumps combination
to take on
: to call a suit of cards for trumps and wager your hand for the win
the final trick
to go bete:
to lose to your opponents after “taking on”
on the bimah:
to have the final opportunity to call a suit for trumps

Although they sound Yiddish, most of the expressions are universal in Klaberjass play. Stoch and on the bimah are perhaps the only ones unique to Jewish circles.

Desmond Lachman, 72, recalls another expression used in his high school math class: “The advanced students had finished the syllabus, and we would play Klaberjass in the back. What gave it color were the expressions. For example, if you drew out your opponents’ trumps before they could play them, it was called ‘khapping the ganav,’ stealing from the thief.”

Among the best players, amateurs were known as “kheylikers”— an expression meaning people with a handicap; and observers were called kibitzersor spectators.

While the game’s rules have been documented over time, Klaberjass subtle strategies are shared by word of mouth.

“When you play Klaberjass, it’s not about the rules, it’s about the tactics,” said Selwyn Furman, 82. He provided a copy of a Klaberjass rule book from a 1970s competition in Cape Town. “In that book there’s nothing about tactics. The tactics aren’t written down.”

Born and raised in Chicago, I learned Klaberjass from my South African Jewish parents, who had immigrated in 1977. As teenagers, my brothers and I played adrenaline-infused games with my father into the wee hours of the night. Still, I knew no one outside of my family circle who could play, and Klaberjass took on an air of epic proportions when relatives shared childhood memories from 1950s-’60s Johannesburg.

“A few days prior to a card evening, my mother baked the finest cakes,” said my mom, Naomi Pollak, 68. “In the late afternoon, she prepared savory sandwiches. Guests would arrive around 8, after children were put to bed. I could hear the men laughing and shouting their calls.”

Her Johannesburg neighbor, Neville Alperstein, 68, describes family Klaberjass games at Sunday afternoon tea. “They would get animated,” he said. “When they had a trump or the jack they would whoop it down on the table. They banged their cards, yelling ‘Jass! Manel! Stoch!’”

Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather, Jack Pollak, had fallen on hard times. He was divorced, and worked as a door-to-door salesperson after his brother had swindled him out of his family inheritance. Despite these difficulties, Jack enjoyed playing cards with family.

“On a weekend he would pick me up to watch a soccer game,” said my dad, Raymond Pollak, 70. “Afterwards, we’d stop by a greasy spoon and have a milkshake or toast with anchovette. While sitting in the café, he’d rope in some stranger he knew and we would play Klaberjass.”

During the week, my grandfather would play Klaberjass with his nephew, Bernard Isaacs (my second cousin).

“He sat sideways, cigarette in left hand, cards in the right,” said Bernard, 75. “If he had a good hand, he’d give me a wink. If he had a bad hand, he’d say ‘Aleph, gimmel, hay, tochus!’ meaning he had an ace and a face card, but the rest were worthless.”

Bernard remembered Jack’s jokes on a typical afternoon: “He would say, ‘Oyb ir tsyen nisht trampz, ir vet geyn on hoyzn’—‘If you do not draw out the trumps, you will go without trousers,’” Bernard said. “In other words, you’ll lose the game. That was his way of life. I learned all the tricks from him.”

Outside of the city, Klaberjass provided a social circle for rural South African Jews.

“I was taught to play two-handed by my grandfather from Poland,” said Peter Bailey, 74, who grew up in the mining town of Brakpan. “I started winning the odd games, and when the odd wins became a bit too frequent, with my grandfather lagging too far behind to catch me, he would place his hand over heart and say, ‘Oy dos tut mir vei in harts’ [I have a pain in my heart], and we would have to abandon the game.”

Bailey recalls the immigrant generation playing regularly. “On weekends, there was no other activity. They didn’t speak English well, and Klabberjas was their social interaction … Once I knew the game, I’d go to shul, and above the aron kodesh was a choir room. I used to go up there with friends and play.”

Klaberjass was popular as far away as Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. “My dad had a wholesale confectionery business in town,” said William Brenner, 68. “People used to come and play with him during the day. They also had Thursday night games. It was a small town gathering, but there were some exceptionally good players.”

Klaberjass served as a bridge from older European Jews to the next generation. “My father would come home from work at his retail store, and it was his form of relating,” said David Ellman, 83, who grew up in Bloemfontein. “We would talk about what went on that day, and it relaxed him. He taught me to smile at a loss, even if I went bete.”

Avid Klaberjass players took their game to tournaments, playing in charity and casino events. Arnon “Unkie” Zangwill, 81, and Basil Brook, 77, played competitions together in the 1970s and ’80s. “Klaberjass [at the tournament level] was played by the bookmakers in the Jewish and Lebanese communities,” Zangwill said. “The casinos always wanted to get people. We arranged the tournaments, which they sponsored.”

Brook added, “At the big tournaments, 100 people or so would go down to these beautiful resorts with swimming pools and gambling tables. We would play round robin in sections for four days. The top two from each section would play knockout rounds until the final.”

For those who came of age in the 1970s, strong Klaberjass skills were a badge of honor.

“For us, Klaberjass was a religion. We never went anywhere without a pack of cards in pocket,” said Joseph Suskin, 64, a Johannesburg native. Suskin learned the game in the Habonim youth movement, and he recalls playing for 12 hours on train trips to the camp’s site near the seaside town of Onrus. “There were always games going.”

Suskin describes how Jewish teens would connect with cards. “We used to have parties called ‘overs,’” he said. “If a guy and a girl fancied each other, they would organize friends to come over and listen to music. Sometimes there would be a person we didn’t know from a different side of Joburg. We pulled out a pack of cards, and if he was a Klaberjass player, then he would be your china [dear friend] in seconds.”

At the University of Witwatersrand, Suskin couldn’t put the cards down. “At the Senate House Canteen at Wits, there had to be at least half a dozen games of Klaberjass going on, continually,” he said. “It would begin at 8 in the morning, before first lecture at 9. We’d start playing and we wouldn’t get up until 4 p.m. I would’ve graduated a year earlier if it weren’t for Klaberjass.”

Robert Turtledove, 60, describes a similar scene at the University of Cape Town. “We would meet in the Leslie Cafeteria at 7 a.m., and I would still be playing Klaberjass at noon,” he said. “We had post mortems after each hand to dissect the tricks, especially if somebody messed up. It was a huge part of the fun.”

While Klaberjass games were dominated by men, women played, too. Megan Choritz, 55, recalls raucous Klaberjass family gatherings on Boxing Day in Johannesburg: “We’d have a braai [barbecue], and play from 10 a.m. until evening. They were big jolly games, with occasional shouting about being on a losing streak, and threatening never again to play with the other person, none of it serious. The best part was that it was cross generational. Because I learned from my grandfather, I felt accepted in what was traditionally a men’s space.”

During the last 40 years, many South African Jews have emigrated to seek new opportunities, and to escape crime and political instability. They’ve brought Klaberjass with them across the globe, from California to Canada, Australia to Israel.

“It’s been a great way of networking and has built friendships,” said Cecil Chait, 64, who helps organize a weekly game in Houston. “We try to support each other, whether in business, matchmaking or other concerns. It’s a way to introduce new families, especially in America.”

Joel Klotnick, 77, coordinates a Klaberjass school in Ra’anana, Israel. “There’s a lovely amount of banter, and it becomes a family without being a family. We care about each other’s life events. When we play, we put 25 shekels a head into a pushkah and give the total to charity every few months.”From 2013 to present, the group has donated nearly 80,000 shekels (around $24,000) to charitable causes.

Although Klaberjass is less popular in younger generations, many Jews in South Africa continue to play.

“After university, I played with a core group of women,” said Gabi Geffen Yutar, 44, of Johannesburg. “We used to play at restaurants before we had kids, and then at people’s houses. I love the social aspect of it—it’s an excuse to get together.”

While the COVID-19 outbreak has forced Klaberjass players to pause in-person matches, many have turned to an online app, Klaverjas HD, to continue games virtually. Dutch developer Robin Knip says the number of players has doubled since the pandemic began, and that he is working on an update with more social elements. In addition, South African developer Darren Levy created a Klaberjass app during lockdown that specifically features the Jewish version of the game.

As Klaberjass continues to evolve, its role in connecting people has endured, reuniting expats across continents. In early 2020, Ruth Metz, 57, returned to Johannesburg from Australia to visit with her father, Sam, then 89, who suffered from dementia. Her brother David, 63, joined from California. One of their last memories all together is of playing Klaberjass. “We pulled out the cards and dealt a hand,” she said. “And suddenly my father was completely in control. The man who was totally ‘out of it’ and in his own world was dealing, counting, and calling trumps. It was unbelievable. It lasted for a day and a half, and that was it—the window was gone. He passed away in September 2020. The visit was a very special time.”

In speaking to generation after generation of players, it becomes clear that playing Klaberjass is about making the most of the hand you’re dealt. It means taking a gamble when “taking on,” and playing to your partners when you need to band together. It means making strategic moves with each trick to succeed in the long haul. Likewise, being a Jew in South Africa meant taking calculated risks in an ever-changing society; staying vigilant and supporting the community while rising to new challenges. From Europe to South Africa, and across the globe, Klaberjass is just a game, but the rituals of the gameplay mirror the realities and resilience of the people who have played it.

Beth S. Pollak is a writer and teacher based in California. She is working on a book about the history of Klaberjass.