What’s so Jewish about Pickleball?


Bill Motchan, Special For The Jewish Light

Last summer, Patty Malashock went to the gym three days a week and walked regularly. She wanted more exercise when she saw a notice at Westwood Country Club about an upcoming pickleball clinic.

“I thought ‘What the heck—I’m going,’” said Malashock, 67. “When I got there, I ran into a couple of people I was friends with. Then I met a bunch of other ladies and now we play two or three times a week.”

Malashock, a member of Congregation Temple Israel, is one of many Jewish St. Louisans who love pickleball.

Patty Malashock

“For me, it’s better than tennis,” she said. “You don’t have to serve overhand. As we get older, it’s harder to lift our arm up to do that. I think it’s just fun. I’m not really competitive and most of the women I play with aren’t really competitive. We just go there to exercise and have a good time. And that’s really what I like most about it.”

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On a late February morning at Frontenac Racquet Club, you could hear the distinctive popping when the pickleball racket strikes the ball. The other sound punctuating the air was laughter. Patty Malashock and Cindy Frank were taking on the team of Sheryl Weber and Caryn Sandweiss. It was a good-natured match with long volleys. Exercise and socializing were their priorities, not necessarily winning.

Caryn Sandweiss and Sheryl Weber

Weber, 65, took up pickleball three years ago with her husband Doug. She said her weekly group has three rules.

“We don’t want anyone to get hurt and we don’t want anyone to feel like it’s their fault for losing a point—especially if it’s your teammate. And we don’t use the word ‘sorry,’” Weber said.

Doug Weber credits the growth of pickleball to being affordable and easy to learn.

“One of the things we like about pickleball is pretty much anybody can play,” said Weber, 65. “We’ve noticed that some of the beginners actually have an advantage and learning it from scratch helps a little.”

The Webers bought a net to set up in their driveway during the summer. In pickleball, when the ball is in play, it’s usually in the air like badminton. It’s also been described as a form of ping pong, but with a larger paddle.

Pickleball has been around since 1965 but its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, aided somewhat by COVID. It can be played outdoors, but even indoors it allows for safe social distancing. Pickleball in the United States grew to 4.2 million players in 2020, according to a Sports & Fitness Industry Association report. The study also noted a one-year growth rate of 21.3%. The biggest subset of pickleball’s growth is among players ages 60 and over.

The odd name is subject to some debate. Most pickleball experts explain that it’s named after a dog (Pickles) owned by one of the game’s inventors. The other story is that a co-inventor was a competitive rower and his wife thought the game was a leftover from other racket sports, like the “pickle boat” being the last one to finish a race. Either way, the name stuck and there are now national pickleball associations, official rankings and tournaments.

Just before Valentine’s Day, the Missouri Pickleball Club at Gravois Bluffs in south St. Louis County hosted a “Cupid’s Challenge” round robin tournament. Randy and Rochelle Aaranson, members of Congregation Shaare Emeth, were preparing for their first round. Randy, a podiatrist, frowned when he saw the team they were taking on.

Randy and Rochelle Aaranson

“This guy’s young—and good,” said Aaranson, 57. “He’s going to try and hit the ball to Rochelle.”

Randy is tall and athletic. He plays ice hockey for fun. The pickleball strategy of hitting the ball to a seemingly weaker opponent backfired in this case. Rochelle Aaranson, 57, is a good player and as competitive as her husband. They easily beat the younger team and cruised to a gold medal.

“We started playing during COVID, so it’s been almost two years,” Rochelle Aaranson said. “We wanted something to do outside. And we’re really careful about social distancing because my parents are in their 80s, and we take precautions. This was just a great way to get out there and exercise and meet people.

“The pickleball community is so welcoming, no matter how good or how bad you are,” she said. “People play together at all different levels.”

Another mixed pair team at the Cupid’s Challenge was Bill and Lynn Elliot, who are both relatively new to the game. The Elliots, who also are members of Shaare Emeth, started playing in early 2021, also as a COVID-safe activity.

Bill Elliott

“It’s social and fun,” said Bill Elliot, 68. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and friendships you develop. People are very supportive. They’re in it just to play the game and have fun and it stretches your body and mental abilities. I’ve played with 18-year-olds and 80-year-olds.”

Lynn Elliot said it’s also an ice-breaker when the couple travels and finds pick-up games, including “on a cruise ship when we joined a game.”

Ed Chod started playing about six years ago during the Senior Olympics. Chod, 68, is a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona.

“It’s an easier sport than tennis,” said Chod. “Anybody can play, and it’s a decent workout. It’s recreational and I look forward to it. Everybody is very welcoming. You don’t have to be competitive. I am competitive and I like to win, but it depends on who you play with. All shapes, sizes, skills can play because it lends itself to that.”

The game’s success may be due in large part to its approachability, according to Mat DeWinters, sports and recreation manager at the Jewish Community Center.

“It’s a sport that everybody can play,” said deWinters, 29. “Even in tournaments you have people in their 20s playing others in their 50s, and it’s a fair competition across the board. It’s low impact and there’s not a lot of running. If you can play ping pong, you can pick up pickleball. There are some rules but not an overabundance.”

The J offers pickleball clinics, deWinters said, and open play Monday through Thursday in Creve Coeur and Monday through Friday in Chesterfield. Members can reserve a court for one hour. Rackets are also inexpensive he said, starting at about $30.

Another large pickleball facility will also soon take shape in west St. Louis County. The District in Chesterfield Valley will soon be opening a new entertainment concept featuring 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor pickleball courts. The facility will include outdoor patios, yard games and wiffleball. Food and beverages will also be available.

Sam Adler, vice president of leasing and development for The District, said “It will be a destination for pro pickle-ballers to first-timers and anyone looking to have a great time.”