Playing the Great Game of Life

When I was a small child, my father — a doctor in general practice — volunteered for our local Jewish Community Center to do free physicals for kids who would be attending its overnight camp, but whose parents couldn’t afford the cost of the required exam. I know he did that for years, but when I was approaching nine, he asked me if I wanted to go to camp myself. I remember being both enthusiastic and frightened; it would be my first time away from home by myself. But I said yes. That experience reinforced my Judaism and directed me to walk a smooth path for the future.

I still remember it all: the narrow cots with pathetically thin mattresses in our crowded bunks…the homesickness that I hadn’t anticipated but kept private, sneaking off for a few short minutes to a weedy little corner where I could cry alone…and the joy of Friday suppers, when we all wore white as we paraded into the dining hall for a real Shabbat meal. Now, more than even the great food, I remember that hall — a big round barn with a high ceiling around which ran this message, which I have adopted as my own: “When the Great Recorder comes to write against your name — it matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game.”

Why has that simple rhyme stuck with me all these many years since? I remember it always, but it hits me with new clarity — plus a touch of fear — every year as we approach Yom Kippur, to be judged not as winners or losers, but as responsible Jewish players in the Great Game of Life. Have I done enough reading and study of meaningful texts? Have I treated all people respectfully, even when it has taken great self-control to do so? Have I stretched to give even just a tad more than I think I can afford to worthy charities — in my own community, and beyond? That great ceiling taught that all of this is taken into account by the Great Recorder, written in the book that knows what we do not know yet: who, in the coming year, will live, and who will die.

I went to that camp for all the years until I was old enough to be a counselor there, an experience I loved (truth told: except for having to jump into ice cold water to teach swimming on frosty summer mornings). One summer, I survived long weeks of being in charge of a group of eight little girls — made up of four sets of identical twins! In early camp years, I dutifully sent those required postcards home to my parents; many years later, I taught the importance of those same cards to young others, wiping their tears of homesickness and offering my own experienced reminders: that they would return soon, and everything there would still be the same.

But the truth was this: It would not be the same, not for those of us who read the dining hall ceiling as we sat in our Shabbat whites to repeat and absorb the words of the Great Recorder before we lit the Friday candles, said our pre-meal Motzi and devoured delicious food. I wonder today how many of the others I spent those summer weeks with, first as a camper and later as a counselor, still remember them as I do every Yom Kippur, when I again wear white, and pray that I have played the Game of Life well enough to have earned the right to play it for another year…

Harriet P. Gross can be reached at

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