How I Learned to Play Backgammon in Jerusalem

ששבש משחקים מחמישי לחמישי. בשעה שטובי בחורינו ובחורותינו עומלים על הכנת האירוע הבא ביום חמישי הקרוב בכיכר המוריסטאן אתם מוזמנים לצפות בתקציר המחזור הראשון של אליפות ירושלים בששבש.זה היה אירוע מרגש במיוחד שבסופו ניצח שחקן שיגיע כפייבוריט לאירוע הגמר.מספר המקומות לטורניר הגמר מוגבל ומומלץ לקנות כבר כרטיסים בקישור הבא: https://www.eventer.co.il/xvrg3להרשמה למחזור 2 של דאבל ירושלמי ביום חמישי הקרוב:https://www.facebook.com/events/2051796458176586/תודות על התמיכה בפרויקט:לקרן נתןולרשות לפיתוח ירושלים

Posted by ‎דאבל ירושלמי دابل مقدسي Jerusalem Double‎ on Monday, 15 October 2018

Earlier this week, 500 people came together for the 2nd annual Jerusalem Double Backgammon Championship. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, secular and religious, left-wing and right-wing, all were united by one common goal: to win the 5,000 NIS grand prize, and the title of Jerusalem champion. In addition to the general tournament, the event also hosted special games for 9 high-schools and pre-college programs from East and West Jerusalem. The evening culminated in a concert with Kobi Oz, of Teapacks fame, as participants danced the night away in celebration of coexistence, diversity, and, of course -backgammon.

Below is my first-hand account, as a staff member at the event:

This October, I learned how to play backgammon. It was right outside the Damascus Gate: A lady in a hijab was sitting at the backgammon board. She had no Hebrew or English, and I had no Arabic. But through facial expressions and hand gestures, we managed to play together. To me, that is the magic of Kulna Yerushalayim’s Jerusalem Double events: people of all languages and cultures coming together to play a game with a 6,000 year old history.

That magic was repeated this week, at Kulna Yerushalayim’s Jerusalem Double championship event. As I stood in line, I chatted with M., a teenager from East Jerusalem. He was very excited to discover that I was American and he could practice his English with me.  “We need more places like this in Jerusalem, that bring people together. It’s something about this city -people just look at you, before they say hi, they think which religion you are. I have Jewish friends in Tel Aviv. I want Jewish friends in Jerusalem too…. Are there more events like this?” I happily told him that there were; Kulna Yerushalayim has events like these throughout the year.

In the middle of the championship, I ran to the supermarket to get some bottles of water for the players. The cashiers at the supermarket were very excited that there was Jewish-Arab backgammon happening next door; one of them insisted on helping me to carry the water, while the other said he might stop by for the concert when he was done with his shift.’

Photo credit: Ricky Rachman

Moving to Jerusalem from New York five years ago, I found it strange that there was no space for Jews and Arabs to just casually become friends. In this city, everything from how you dress to what you eat to what language you speak is a political statement. After I started Hebrew University, I found dialogue groups to discuss the conflict. But what I didn’t find was a designated space on campus where Jews and Arabs could just hang out and get to know each other as people.

Since working as a fundraising director for Kulna Yerushalayim, I feel that I’ve found that again. At each event, a new oasis is created, where Jews and Arabs can have fun together and bond over what unites them, instead of discussing what divides them. As the number of events increase, a framework is created, in which people know that they can just show up at the next Jerusalem Double Jewish-Arab backgammon game or Simply Singing Hebrew-Arabic concert and meet people from different backgrounds. What started just two years ago (see TEDx) as a game between friends has become a city-wide movement with over 8,000 players and participants.  

Kulna Yerushalayim is unique in that it not only creates a platform for apolitical encounters between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, but also leverage those encounters to engage multiple stakeholders in order to improve quality of life for residents of East Jerusalem.

So, for example, when it hosted its Jerusalem Double event in Beit Hanina in 2018, it brought Municipality members -including then-deputy mayor -and current mayoral candidate -Ofer Berkovitch to that East Jerusalem neighborhood for the first time. This started a conversation with local residents about parking fines on Fridays and during Ramadan. The  community worked with Kulna Yerushalayim and the Municipality for more equitable parking regulations: Now, parts of East Jerusalem have special parking dispensations of Fridays and Muslim holidays, as West Jerusalem has on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Parking might sound like a minor issue, but it’s precisely in the mundanities of life, in the small moments, that we can build the mutual trust that is a foundation for a shared future.

I felt that at the championship this week:

I sat down next to someone I recognized from a different Jerusalem Double game; as I attend more events, I’ve come to realize that many of the players come back every time, that these games are beginning to create a community of people committed to building peace from the ground up.

As we started chatting, I found out that he lived in East Jerusalem, and ran a Middle Eastern food restaurant. “It’s not for you if you keep kosher”, he told me with a laugh. Then we started to talk about his kids; when he found out I didn’t have any, he blessed me that Allah should give me children. As a religious Jew, I couldn’t help but think that when Isaiah said that Jerusalem would be “called a house of prayer for all the nations”, perhaps he meant something like this: a religious Jew and a religious Muslim, chatting casually, until one of them decides to bless the other.

Photo Credit: Ricky Rachman

The Jerusalem Double Project is supported by the Natan Fund and the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Kulna Yerushalyim’s core partners are the Leichtag Foundation, the Pratt Foundation, and the Schusterman Foundation.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry.
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