Birthing Maccabiah

In 2010, my bachelorette party kicked off with a ping pong lesson at a club called SPiN. The lesson was given by a Paralympic Gold Medalist named Tahl. I got Tahl’s info to talk about the possibility of taking lessons. He wrote back and said “You have great talent for table tennis.” But I was getting married in a few months and didn’t follow through. 

In my youth, I was sporty. In elementary school, I wasn’t satisfied in basketball unless I got a few fouls to show my tenacity. I even received the nickname “Squirt” in middle school where one of my basketball plays was recounted for the school on the loudspeaker. I also started training in middle school to be a coxswain when Cincinnati built an Olympic training center for rowing. 

By 10th grade, having stopped growing, gaining some weight on my previously petite and athletic body, and likely having a bit of undiagnosed depression, I drifted away from sports, and my competitive spirit paused. 

Yet ping pong was a constant throughout.  Like many midwestern Jewish families I knew, mine had a ping pong table in our basement. From an early age, my dad taught me how to play. Along with my older brother, we would catch up over relaxed rallies, sing real and made-up songs while we hit, and sometimes play games to 21 which was the prevailing points system at the time. 

When my family would go on cruises while I was growing up, I would win ping pong tournaments on board the ship which inevitably gave as a prize a clearly non age-appropriate flask. The summer after 9th grade, I snagged my first boyfriend at arts camp when I was beating everyone at the co-rec. He came up and won, and we started talking. Traveling in Southeast Asia in 2001, I came upon a basement in Thailand with a line of Israelis playing, and joined them. I always felt confident playing, and it always made me smile. Every Summer Olympics, I would fantasize about being on Team USA for Table Tennis.

A few years ago, with some time off of work, I took the opportunity to actually learn how to play ping pong. I found a club owned by a Russian Jewish champion in the basement of a nondescript office building on Coney Island Ave. My first table tennis coach was a lovely Ukrainian Jew named Vlad who taught me how to actually play with strokes and proper movement, and serve. But when work kicked back up in the fall, the long commute to the club became untenable.

Cut to the 2021 Summer Olympics, in the middle of a pandemic, and yet again I am watching table tennis and dreaming. I had noticed a place called PingPod on the Lower East Side (only 2 subway stops from my apartment) and looked it up. Tahl, from my bachelorette party days, was a coach there. I found his email and reached out. The day after my 45th birthday on September 29, 2021, I had my first official lesson with Tahl. It was thrilling and I couldn’t stop smiling. Little did I know my competitive spirit would have new life and that I would be starting on a path that will eventually take me to my first international competition.

Tahl has been playing for 30 years. The sport saved his life, literally. And it has taken him all over the world, where he’s garnered many gold medals in dozens of places, including multiple Paralympics. I asked him his favorite tournament, and he started waxing poetic about the Maccabiah Games and then mentioned the next one was in July 2022. I asked what I could do to get on the team and he said that he’s very involved and would recommend me. It would give me 9 months to get ready. Riding high off of the news, I ended up running into free ping pong near my apartment. A friend happened to be there watching and nicknamed me the “Ping Pong Phenom ”. It felt strangely bad ass. I got so focused that when my triple vaxxed husband tested positive for Covid on a Tuesday night in late November, I made him quarantine in our sons’ room so I could hit my ping pong lesson the next afternoon before he went to isolate at his family’s house outside of the city.

The Maccabiah Games are particularly meaningful to my husband’s family because my husband’s Safta left Belarus in 1932 at the age of 18 to attend the first Maccabiah Games. She threw out her return ticket, never saw her family again, and made a life for herself in what would become Israel. 

And that is where I’ll be going to compete. At a high school in Raanana, I will play my first International table tennis games. My competitive spirit, my wild enthusiasm at the table, and my joy, have returned full throttle. My sons now see their mommy as a phenom, and joyfully boast about my coach’s accolades. They will be in the stands when I compete in pursuit of medals. It’s been a painful time period for so many, but ping pong has reminded me that hobbies, sports and passions can give us the lift we need to handle the rolling difficulties of life.

For some in the pandemic it’s been sourdough bread making, pokemon collecting or reading the full bible. But for me, it’s ping pong. I can think of nothing more exciting than at 45, in a place that I consider my home away from home, to be reborn as a serious table tennis competitor. 

Laura Beatrix Newmark is the Director of LABA NY and Comedy Producer at the 14th Street Y.

Art credit: Laura’s son, Milo