It’s a scene that has repeated itself countless times in Jewish homes the last five years. After a Shabbat meal, out comes a small yellow pouch, shaped like a banana, filled with plastic tiles on which English letters are written. The tiles are spread on a table, and Bananagrams, similar to Scrabble but with each player forming his or her own crossword-style grid of words instead of competing on a common board, ensues.
Bananagrams recently went Hebrew.
A Hebrew-language version of the game went on sale last week in the United States after sales in Israel (bananagrams.co.il) started. The original English Bananagrams became “a runaway hit” in Shabbat-observant circles, according to the New York Times, because it doesn’t need batteries or writing.
In New York, as in Israel, the game has a-peel.
“We’re selling them out quicker than we’re getting them in,” says Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica in Manhattan. “We can’t keep it in stock.”
His family, avid players of Bananagrams’ English version, took it up in Hebrew over Shabbat: they’re hooked now, he says. “It’s intellectual … it’s educational.”
Bananagrams (bananagrams.com) was invented by graphic designer Abraham Nathanson of Narragansett, R.I., when playing Scrabble with his grandson six years ago and finding the pace too slow. “We need an anagrams game so fast it’ll drive you bananas,” he declared.
Bananagrams debuted at the London Toy Fair in 2006 and was named the Toy Industry Association’s game of the year in 2009. The game, now available in multiple languages (Hebrew is the game’s first foreign alphabet), sold three million copies in 2009.
Nathanson died last year at 80.
The Hebrew-language version was developed and marketed by Robert Dalfen, a Montreal-born accountant who made aliyah 14 years ago. His family was playing the game in English a few years ago, and he thought, “We should do this in Hebrew.”
He approached the Nathanson family.
The Hebrew-language version, with newly written Hebrew instructions and no sofit [final] letters, quickly sold out its first 4,000 sets in Israel, a large number for the Israeli market, Dalfen says in a telephone interview. “It’s a great Shabbos game.”
During the week, “it takes people away from the computer.”
Dalfen says he’s working on an online educational package for use in schools.
The game’s popularity shows “a commitment to the [Hebrew] language,” he says; it’s a natural tool for teachers and parents to improve students’ vocabulary and spelling skills.
Nefesh B’Nefesh started giving the Hebrew-language version to new immigrants as a welcoming present this summer.
“It’s such a positive message for Judaism,” Levine says. “It makes you learn more Hebrew words.”