When his family moved to Israel in 1998, Robert August-Dalfen probably never envisioned the day he would wear a banana costume.
But that’s exactly what Robert recently donned along with his wife, Sharon, to promote the new Hebrew version of Bananagrams, the popular American game in which players mix up tiles with letters and form words in a similar format to Scrabble (though in this game, the letters come in a banana-shaped bag).
“My wife was the mover behind that one,” Robert says of the fruit suits. “I didn’t think I would have the guts to do that.”
It all started on a Shabbat afternoon about a year ago at the August-Dalfens’ Ra’anana home. The couple was playing Bananagrams with one of their four daughters, and soon, some Israeli friends came over and joined in.
Robert recalls seeing his daughter’s friends struggle to put the English words together.
“We said, ‘this thing is going to work well in Hebrew. Why don’t we try do it in Hebrew?’” he says.
An accountant by training, Robert was in between jobs and looking for work he could have fun with and be passionate about. So, he called up the Bananagrams corporation, and just two days later signed a deal.
Robert prepared the Hebrew font, and the tiles were then manufactured at the company’s plant in China, before being shipped back to the family home in Ra’anana for distribution to customers in Israel and the US. The family, which made aliyah from Montreal, has since watched the mountain of boxes filled with banana bags decline.
The August-Dalfens have sold an impressive 4,000 games out of the 5,000 they were sent in the first shipment, Robert says, with 95 percent of those sales to Israeli customers. The pile will grow again, as they have already ordered their second shipment.
Robert says it’s really a family business featuring his wife and four daughters: Talia, 20, Gila, 18, Chana, 14, and Michal, 10. Sharon and Robert sell the game at malls around Israel and have promoted it through word of mouth, friends, and their website—not to mention the banana suits.
While it’s mostly the parents running the business, (“The kids aren’t all that excited about it to be perfectly honest,” Robert says, laughing), the family enjoys playing the game together.
“My youngest enjoys it the most,” Robert says. “I get a lot of practice because every day she says, ‘Let’s play a game.’” Robert adds that his 14-year-old beats him every time.
Even if your Hebrew knowledge is fairly basic or limited, Robert says a rich vocabulary isn’t required for the game, since many three and four-letter words exist in Hebrew and there are no rarely used letters like in English. “By playing the game you really do improve your vocabulary,” he says. “I can tell you that first-hand.”
The family has mostly targeted English-speaking Israelis, since they are already familiar with the game, and has promoted it among Shabbat observers in Israel since it makes for a low-tech Shabbat game. But since December, the August-Dalfens are doing more outreach to the general Israeli market and also began shipping to the US out of the Bananagrams office in Providence, RI.
“I think this is something that’s going to catch on,” says Robert, who is looking to bring Hebrew Bananagrams into North American Jewish day school classrooms and game rooms at corporations like Microsoft. The family has already prepared an online educational package to accompany the game and is moving forward on a smart phone application.
“It’s been a small success in Israel and hopefully [we’ll] make it a big success where it’ll become a more well known classic game,” he says, adding that he has received “tremendous” feedback from Israelis.
Bananagrams, named Toy Fair’s 2009 “Game of the Year,” is also available in English, French, Spanish, German and Norwegian.
“We are beyond thrilled to release Hebrew Bananagrams,” said Rena Nathanson, CEO of Bananagrams, Inc., in a statement. “Bananagrams is already bigger than our wildest dreams with more than five million of these little yellow pouches floating around the world, and this opens up the fun to a whole new audience.”