Gift of Grab
How I found friendship through an Israeli game for middle-aged women
The peppy beat of Cyndi Lauper declaring that girls just wanna have fun is bouncing off the wood floors of the gymnasium’s basketball court. Several middle-aged women wearing yoga pants and T-shirts are running laps around the perimeter of the court while another group is doing lunges. Others are midcourt stringing up a volleyball net. With thick black kneepads in place, the pony-tailed women look ready for battle. Their fingers are wound with black athletic tape and ankles secured in tightly bound braces.
It’s my biweekly rendezvous with a group of women I would never have met — even though they all live in my neighborhood — had I not started playing an obscure sport, called catchball. Initially, I demurred when a coworker invited me to play. First, because I had never heard of the sport. Second, I didn’t think my athletic talents, which included stints with soccer and track, would lend themselves to catchball, whatever it was. Based on its name, it clearly required the deft use of appendages that I had not used in my past athletic endeavors.
I was finally persuaded after a promise that if I would try it once and didn’t like it, I never had to return. So, one spring afternoon I headed to the gym to give catchball a try. I vividly remember the thrill of my first catch. It was a rainbow of a throw that soared high overhead, closer to the ceiling than the net. As the ball sailed toward me, my adrenaline surged, and I quickly positioned myself for it to land easily in my hands. In that moment of sheer exhilaration, it felt like I had been playing catchball my entire life.
Six years later, the exhilaration has not abated. When people ask me about it, I offer an elevator pitch: Catchball is volleyball for the middle-aged. Originating in Israel, this sport also has six players on each side of the court, a net, and a rotation after each play. The only difference is, players don’t clasp their fingers together to bump the ball using the inside of their wrists. Instead, indicative of the name, they catch it. Players still aggressively spike, slide, dive, and perform acrobatic catches worthy of Stretch Armstrong but it’s a kinder, gentler athletic endeavor for the less spry, less coordinated, and less youthful.
Culture ClubFinished with stretching and hanging the net, we assemble on the court to warm up our arms with some practice serves as Boy George coos that every day is like survival.
When I started playing catchball, the sport was very new to the United States, so there was only a handful of players in Southern Nevada. Because of its origins, our team, called the Vegas Royals, like most U.S. teams, comprises mostly Israeli Americans. As the years have passed, we’ve added to our team and, not by design, our ethnic diversity. A 5-foot-10 blond Ukrainian named Pola, who looks like she just stepped off the set of Rocky IV, is one of our highest scorers. She has an unstoppable spike that would make Ivan Drago proud. A French-braided Estonian spitfire named Irina has the supernatural ability to be all over the court and catch every ball without fail.
Because English is not most of my teammates’ first language, they tend to default to their native tongues. When play gets heated, the number of languages flying around the court is mind-boggling. Despite my last name, I do not speak Hebrew, nor am I Jewish, although I have picked up a few words. I’ve heard Yofi, Hebrew for “Way to go,” shouted so often, it now regularly rolls off my tongue. But mostly I’m a clueless bystander to the banter.
While there may be a language barrier, there has never been a human one. There’s always a warm welcome as soon as I enter the gym for practice. My teammates give hugs and show genuine interest about what’s going on in my life. These women have seen me through personal tragedy, broken relationships, and job changes. And I’ve seen them through the same — along with atrocities in their countries, such as last year’s Israel-Gaza violence and the current war in Ukraine. At the practice following Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, my teammates, one by one, made their way over to our ferocious Pola, whose mother and sister live in Ukraine, to wrap her in a hug and offer support for her homeland.
Same goes for the culture. Because many of the women who play catchball practice Judaism, we hold a shabbat dinner with challah, poems, and prayers to kick off our annual tournaments. This has exposed me to customs I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced. They’ve embraced parts of my culture too. They love filling the gym with American ’80s music to pump up our evening practices.
Walking on SunshineWe finish our warmup and divide ourselves into two six-person teams as Katrina and the Waves sassily sing about walking on sunshine.
When COVID-19 began spreading in March 2020, we took a few months off, mostly because the private school gym where we played had closed. That summer, we resumed playing in the hope of bringing some normalcy back to our pandemic-driven lives. We bought a few nets and started playing in the evenings under the lights of local parks or in the bright sunshine of Sunday mornings. Sometimes when practice was over, we would spread out a blanket and drink wine, eat snacks, and catch up with one another.
With the pandemic waning, the Las Vegas Royals are back in the gym preparing for the sixth Annual Catchball Games. Las Vegas has been the host city for the annual tournament several times, but this year the team will travel to San Antonio to bring the Vegas glitz. We wear black jerseys with our team’s name emblazoned in gold glitter and topped with a crown of rhinestones.
As Survivor is heralding the thrill of the fight in Eye of the Tiger, I offer a battle cry of Yalla!, Arabic for “Let’s go!” and use the full momentum of my body to send the opening serve slicing just above the net. And another night of camaraderie — that’s about a lot more than catching a ball — begins. Φ