|Sol Epstein, about to turn 90, never leaves home without his ping pong paddle.|
Ping pong is what you play in the basement. It’s table tennis when you bring it upstairs. That’s what you call it “when you’re serious,” says Sol Epstein of Englewood Cliffs, head of the Leonia Table Tennis Club.
Mr. Epstein figures that he’s probably among the top 15 players in the group, which has more than 100 members.
That’s pretty good for a man who’s about to turn 90.
“I’ve been playing since my bar mitzvah,” said Mr. Epstein, who grew up on Norfolk Street on New York’s Lower East Side.
“It was a Jewish neighborhood,” he said, noting that he honed his skills at the Jewish settlement house on Stanton Street, challenging not only other locals but players from other Jewish venues, such as the Educational Alliance and the Henry Street settlement house.
In those days, Mr. Epstein said, players lived in cold-water flats. But today, “table tennis is not a poor man’s game. You can pay up to $300 for a racket.”
The table tennis maven – who, among other victories, won a tournament at New York’s Seward Park High School, and when he was in the Army came in second at a tournament in Fort Knox, Kentucky – said he always carries his paddle, in case he finds an opportunity to play. (He recalled that such a random opportunity arose once in Budapest.)
It is clear from Mr. Epstein’s many stories that table tennis is no laughing matter.
“I once won a tournament, beating the top-seeded player,” he said. “Later I went into the restroom, and he was in there crying.”
It it also clear that both the nature of the game and the equipment it demands have changed over the years. A 1902 postcard in Mr. Epstein’s voluminous collection of pingpong-related items shows a man and woman – he in tails, she gowned – playing the game at the Waldorf Astoria. Their paddles – similar to a vintage set Mr. Epstein owns – are covered over with sheepskin, and the balls they used are smaller than today’s.
According to Mr. Epstein, the balls were enlarged to make the sport is easier to follow on television.
Leonia’s is not the only table tennis club in Bergen County. Fair Lawn has had one for many years, and Mr. Epstein, who used to live there, won a trophy there in the 1960s. Some 25 years ago, he helped former Leonia athletic director and table tennis player Eli Krackower create the club in Leonia.
Now, the 12 tables at the Leonia Recreation Center host 75 to 80 men and women every Wednesday night, and 50 to 60 players on Saturday mornings. While the players’ ages range widely, no one is under 18. Not surprising, Mr. Epstein is the club’s oldest member. What is surprising is his vitality, trim build, and exuberant personality. This he attributes to playing twice a week for two hours – a practice that also burns off two pounds every Wednesday and Saturday.
The games played at the club are both athletic and competitive, Mr. Epstein said, although everyone has his or her own style of play. And while the group now has a waiting list, casual players who always thought they were “pretty good” at basement ping pong soon find out what it means to play a serious game.
The Leonia team is a lot like the United Nations, he said, noting that players hail from – among other places – Russia, China, Peru, South Korea, India, Japan, and the Philippines. One regular, Rey Domingo, has been U.S champion among table tennis players over 40.
Many of the players are Jewish, Mr. Epstein said, pointing out that some of the greatest players in the country have been Jews. He cited, for example, the late Marty Reisman, the 1958 and 1960 U.S. Men’s Singles champion and the 1997 U.S. hardbat champion. (Hardbat rackets do not use sponge rubber, so the style of play is different.)
Like Mr. Epstein, Mr. Reisman honed his skills on the Lower East Side. In addition, he became the oldest player to win an open national competition in a racket sport by winning the 1997 United States National Hardbat Championship when he was 67.
For Mr. Epstein’s 85th birthday, the Leonia club brought Mr. Reisman to play against him.
“I won one game, although I don’t know if he was just being nice,” Mr. Epstein said.
Mr. Epstein, who worked in men’s clothing for 31 years, has proved his mettle in other areas as well. He joined the Army when he was18, fighting as part of the 104th Infantry Division, “which had some kind of record for 195 days of continuous combat.”
Mr. Epstein has as many war stories as he has tales of table tennis games won and lost. For example, he said, after climbing into a bed in a German tenement – which, he noted, resembled the tenements he remembered from the Lower East Side – he caught German measles. Yes, he smiled, German measles in Germany. He also recalled the time he recoiled from a particular meal and advised his fellow soldiers not to eat it. As it happened, those who did came down with dysentery.
Still, most of his stories revolve around table tennis, and after his wife, Molly, the sport is the great passion of his life.
The veteran player, whose prowess has been profiled on NBC’s “Today Show,” among other places, said he took up the game because “I had an overprotective Jewish mother. She said I should pick a sport where if you get hit by the ball, it shouldn’t hurt. So I picked table tennis. It’s the greatest thing in the world.
“I love the sport.”
Barry Schwartz, rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia – whom Epstein describes as an “excellent” player – says he has been playing avidly for 30 years.
Rabbi Schwartz joked that his regular Wednesday night games “help keep me sane.
“They enable me and others to venture out from our circle and the little world we inhabit to interact with people from all walks of life, and from all over the world,” he said.
Rabbi Schwartz said that when he goes to the recreation center, he particularly enjoys chatting with other players. He has become friendly not only with Mr. Epstein but with a number of Russian players.
“You start off with a simple thing in common, but while you’re waiting around for games to begin, you start to chat,” he said. “I’ve had interesting discussions with a Jordanian player who works with the U.N., with another Muslim player from Pakistan, and one from Syria. It shows that people have common interests and it doesn’t matter that I’m a rabbi and he’s a Muslim diplomat. We enjoy playing together and discovering what we have in common.”
Rabbi Schwartz said that another player, a Chinese woman, has a daughter who attends Duke University. When he told her that he too had gone to Duke, they started to talk.
“She works in the food service business and is employed by a kosher caterer,” he said. “That was an interesting connection.
“She was surprised that I was talking to her and would play with her. The people she works with are strictly Orthodox. She said I don’t look like a rabbi. Her conception of a rabbi was clearly changed.”
Rabbi Schwartz said that ping pong – one of the most popular sports in the world in terms of active players – was introduced as an Olympic sport about 20 years ago.
“Everywhere I’ve lived I’ve sought out a club,” he said. “When I moved to Leonia, I found that the Leonia Recreation Center had a wonderful club that’s been there for decades. I play every Wednesday night.”
Noting that the club has a sizeable contingent of Jews, he pointed out that in Europe before the war, “many European champs were Jews, some of the greatest players of all time. [The sport] was very much identified with Jews in Europe.”
His fellow players in Leonia belonged to clubs in their own countries, he added, noting that in Europe, “there are table tennis clubs in every city and major town.” He likened its popularity to that of bowling in the United States, when the sport was in its heyday. “All over the world it’s taken much more seriously as an organized league sport. We’re playing catch-up, just like with soccer.
“The beauty of table tennis is that you can continue to play at a high level at an advanced age,” he continued. And you can find pick-up games all over the world.
“My wife Debby and I were in Nepal,” he said. “Debby had a conference in India and we decided to go to Mt. Everest. We had landed in a little village outside Katmandu way up in the mountains. We were passing through the village to get to the trail.”
Suddenly, he said, he heard a familiar sound. Turning the corner, he looked up.
“On the side of the mountain, teenagers were playing ping pong. I told the guide we had to stop.
“I unloaded my backpack and played with the Nepalese teens for 20 minutes at an altitude of 14,000 feet. It’s the highest I ever played tennis.
“They started laughing. They thought I was just some tourist.” As might be expected, the rabbi won the game.
While Rabbi Schwartz does not have an official table tennis ranking – he never has played in a sanctioned tournament because they take place on Shabbat – he believes his approximate ranking would be about 1,700.
“Really advanced players start at 2,000, and world champions range from 2,600 to 2,800,” he said. “I’m a respectable player, but not top tier. The average person has a ranking of 900 to 1,000.” He said that at the Leonia club, there are only a handful of players ranked over 2,000.
He noted that on any given table tennis night in Leonia the tables are filled, with five to 10 people waiting.
“Northern New Jersey is a hotbed for table tennis, one of the most active regions in the country,” he said. “Westfield has a longstanding club, there’s a group in Fair Lawn, and one in an Asian church in Palisades Park. That’s nice to know.”
He said that although some people in the Leonia club register for tournaments, “the majority come just for fun and recreation.”