Not long ago, a friend sent me a link to an essay from In Geveb, a journal of Yiddish studies. Written by Yiddish literature scholar Itzik Gottesman, the intriguing [or curious?] title – “Nut Games for Passover” – struck a chord with me.
The essay was about the Eastern European tradition of playing games with nuts – most commonly walnuts – at Passover. But the variation that caught my eye went by the names of bret, bretyl, bretlekh, or aroplozenish. The first player rolls a walnut down a board, and then others try to hit it. Then their nuts become targets as well.
Papa, my father’s father, was born in Dvinsk, now part of Latvia, and fondly remembered playing nut games as a child there. The one he introduced to our family, which I now know as bret, became a family tradition that we played without fail at Hannukah parties. Not only did Papa reward the winner with a cash prize, the winners also had their names and the date written on the game board, which we have used for five generations, since 1974.
Papa’s Nut Game, as we called it, is a quintessential family activity, where toddlers can play against an older cousin or grandparent and win. Often it results in tears of laughter from watching and playing together. It’s very special to see all the family members enjoying each other so much.
Over the years, my family developed a set of rules, as well as unique terminology used during the game, which eventually were written down. When we or our children play this game with friends, it’s always a crowd-pleaser. Toddlers in particular love watching the walnuts take their unpredictable course down the board and onto the floor.
Years ago, the idea of producing and selling Papa’s Nut Game was discussed, as a way of sharing the joy and closeness our family experienced. A prototype was developed, a logo featuring Papa’s likeness was created, and the rules were refined. It was around this time that my friend found Mr. Gottesman’s essay, suggesting that though we played the game at Hannukah, most likely my Papa played this game during Passover when he was a child.
Origins of nut games being played at Passover can be traced back 2,000 years. The Talmud mentions that Rabbi Akiva handed out nuts to the children so that they would play with them and not fall asleep at the Seder.
In her 2015 essay, “Historical Passover Games,” Miryam Gordon, then a research intern at the Center for Jewish History in New York, wrote that the “games played with nuts at Passover were all the rage from the 1920s through the 1960s.” A quote Gottesman took from “A Jewish Life on Three Continents: The memoir of Menachem Mendel Frieden,” noted “…for it was a hard and fast rule that Jewish youngsters should play with walnuts on Passover.”
Dr. Sarah Oren, curator of the botanical garden at Neot Kedumim Park in Israel and Ouria Orren, head botanist there, co-wrote an essay called “Play with Walnuts – Happy Pesach!” mentioning a popular song known to Israeli children that begins, “We will play with walnuts, Pesach is here.”
The walnut has been a cultivated plant in Israel since around 200 BCE, and nuts of course are part of the charoset, and so have been traditionally part of the Passover Seder.
Papa’s Nut Game played at Passover will bring back the centuries-old tradition that has been lost. But whether it is played on special holidays, at family gatherings, or as an everyday activity, this will bring families and friends closer together. During a time in history when technology reigns supreme, roll some nuts down a board and watch the smiles, laughter, and tears of joy.