Playing for keeps
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Playing for keeps

My world ended the day my husband died — but apparently, nothing much changed for anyone else. It seemed unimaginable to me, outrageous even, that the sun kept rising and setting, the seasons kept turning, people stayed involved with the details of their own lives, and things went along as usual.


Ridgewood friends Harry Grant, Bob Yampbell, and Marvin Amsterdam met every week for ‘8 years to play backgammon at the town’s Graydon Pool. Photo by Susan Amsterdam

Of course I knew this was how it should be; the catastrophe was mine alone. People missed Marvin, but he was no longer a part of their daily existence and that made me immensely sad because he was still so much a part of mine.

I felt compelled to do something about it. The memorial plaque at Temple Israel in Ridgewood and the gravestone at Beth El Cemetery gave me comfort, but they didn’t seem to be enough. I was driven to memorialize him in a more public and yet more personal way. I wanted not just a plaque, but a symbol of who he was. The difficulty was deciding how to do it.

I had always thought of Marvin as sort of a Renaissance man with an eclectic array of passions and expertise ranging from a love of avant garde dance productions to 31 years of synagogue lay leadership (as Torah reader, shofar blower, and past president), from trumpet playing to foreign languages, from finance to playing backgammon.

However, within this variety of activities, the one constant was his ability to immerse himself totally in each individual activity. Even his relaxation was all-consuming. He wasn’t a now-and-then backgammon player; no, his game lasted over ‘8 years. From the time he met Harry Grant and Bob Yampell at Temple Israel, the three men became a fixture at Ridgewood’s Graydon Pool as they played backgammon in the sunshine, pausing every now and then for a swim. They played year round at each other’s homes, but Graydon Pool was their favorite place to play.

Marvin, Harry, and Bob were young men when they started playing in the 1970s, and the game was a welcome respite from their hard-driving careers. As the years passed, the game was an equally welcome addition to their busy semi-retirements. In the early years they took breaks to splash in the water with their children, later with their grandchildren.

The friendship of the three men had deepened with their temple involvement. Both Marvin and Bob were past presidents, and Harry was not only president of the Brandeis Men’s Club at the shul but also past president of the Northern New Jersey Region Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

It would be lovely to say that the backgammon game continued into the men’s old age, but it was not to be. After Harry’s death in ‘001, Marvin and Bob continued playing, even as Marvin’s health declined, until his death in ‘004.

A few months after Marvin died, the idea for the perfect memorial occurred to me. For over ‘8 years, the men had played at a picnic table because Graydon had no actual backgammon table. Although the three friends’ tradition had ended, a backgammon table at Graydon would keep the game going for other players, and that would be the most appropriate legacy of all for both Marvin and Harry.

When I broached the idea to Harry’s widow, Pamela (also a past president of Temple Israel), she agreed enthusiastically, so this summer the two of us donated a backgammon table to Graydon Pool in memory of both of our husbands and their enthusiasm for the game.

Pam and I envision the brass memorial plaque on the table as Marvin and Harry’s welcome to other players and as such, keeps our husbands’ spirits very much alive in the place they loved so much.

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