Review: Ping-Pong Shabbat

Ping-Pong Shabbat: The True Story of Champion Estee Ackerman

by Ann Diament Koffsky, illustrated by Abigail Rajunov

Little Bee Books, 2024

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Marcia Rosenthal

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In this picture book biography, we learn the true story of Estee Ackerman. Estee learns how to play ping-pong at home and quickly develops a love for the game. Before long, she enters tournaments, beating opponents both younger and older than herself. Estee even wins a ping-pong match against one of the top professional tennis stars of all time: Rafael Nadal. She proves herself to be a skilled competitor, and her future holds much promise of becoming a champion in the sport.

That opportunity comes sooner than one would have imagined. At just eleven years old, Estee has qualified for the championship match in the United States National Table Tennis Championship. But her excitement comes to an abrupt stop. She discovers that the match is scheduled to take place on Shabbat, thus creating the conflict in the story. The mood of the book shifts.

As a religious Jewish girl wanting to participate in athletic competitions, Estee finds herself torn between two worlds. Does she follow her passion as an athlete or does her love of celebrating Shabbat prevail? Readers will reflect on their own experiences and opinions as they contemplate the lure of the gold medal.

When her parents allow her to make the decision, Estee ponders whether to play for the prized gold medal that is now well within her reach. Is she throwing away her chance of clinching the championship after she has worked hard to eliminate everyone else from the competition? She now has to choose, a particularly difficult position for a person of such a young age. Ultimately, she decides not to compete on Shabbat. “She had made the choice that was right for her.” Her sadness over this lost opportunity to win the gold medal is eased by the fact she knows she is being true to herself.

Estee’s story reaches the newspapers. In response, numerous people from far and wide send her letters to commend her on her choice. This unexpected show of support is uplifting.

The following year, Estee again enters the competition. This championship match is scheduled to take place on a weekday, and Estee ends up winning the prestigious title. She is awarded the gold medal without having to sacrifice her religious convictions. It is a perfect denouement to the story, a win-win all around. 
This book addresses an authentic situation familiar to observant Jews wanting to participate in athletic tournaments that may conflict with Shabbat. When confronted with this dilemma, families can be faced with an arduous challenge. There are many variables in this scenario, and consequently each family has to navigate their decisions in their own way. Being a true story, Ping-Pong Shabbat offers the opportunity for meaningful discussions among Jewish parents and their children.

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Reviewer Marcia M. Rosenthal recently left her long-standing position as a teacher at an orthodox Jewish Day School outside of Philadelphia to devote more time to fulfilling her dream of writing and illustrating Jewish picture books. She has taught first-grade general studies, art, middle school language arts, and Jewish studies. She is a past recipient of the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.