Thursday, 16 September 2010

Jews, Baseball, and Yom Kippur

Every Jewish person I know, knows the Sandy Koufax/Kol Nidre story. It has become part our collective folklore and heritage. In 1965, Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the World Series because it fell onYom Kippur. The Dodgers started Don Drysdale instead of their ace and the results were less than pretty. The boys in blue fell 8-2 to the Minnesota Twins while Drysdale gave up 7 runs in 2 2/3 innings, famously remarking to manager Walter Alston , "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish too!"

Jews and baseball. Quite the conundrum. In 1934, Hank Greenberg the hard-hitting first baseman for the Detroit Tigers faced a similar dilemma as to whether to play on yontif. 

The Detroit media, aware of Greenberg's indecision, sought out the opinions of local rabbis, with the Detroit News running a headline saying "Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play."
"The team was fighting for first place," wrote Greenberg in his autobiography, "and I was probably the only batter in the lineup who was not in a slump. But in the Jewish religion, it is traditional that one observe the holiday solemnly, with prayer…. I wasn't sure what to do."
Greenberg skipped batting practice that day, thought some more, and finally chose to take the field. He hit two home runs to lead the Tigers to a 2-1 victory.
The next day, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline, in Hebrew, that read "Happy New Year, Hank," Also in the Free Press, an Edgar Guest poem celebrated Greenberg's decision:
Came Yom Kippur -- holy fast day world wide over to the Jew, 
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true 
Spent the day among his people and he didn't come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, 'We shall lose the game today! 
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat
          But true to his religion and I honor him for that.

More recently, Shawn Green of the Dodgers decided to sit out a pennant race game against the hated Giants that fell on Yom Kippur. But for every Koufax, Greenberg, and Green there are 10 players like Jason Marquis. Marquis, a Jewish 2-8 pitcher with a 6.60 ERA with the Washington Nationals, a team that has absolutely no playoff aspirations, plans to take his regular turn in the rotation this Friday evening-Kol Nidre. Says Marquis, “Your team expects you to do your job and not let your teammates down, and that’s the approach I take.” In fact, this is the approach that Mr. Marquis has taken in past seasons as well.

Now, I have never been one to to tell anybody how to practice or observe their religion. (My children may disagree with that statement, but I reserve the right of motherhood with them!) Religion is a personal matter better left between the individual and their God. If Jason Marquis wants to pitch on Yom Kippur, who am I or anybody else to tell him not to. I will suggest the following, however. When Jews choose to work or go to school on the holiest day of the year, it makes it that much more difficult for those of us who choose to observe the day in a religious manner to explain our choices to a secular audience. "If Jason can pitch, why can't you be here for class or in the office or.........."

I have heard all of the reasons. "I simply couldn't get out of it because I would be docked." or "They told me I would be in trouble." or "What difference does it make, I don't practice anyway." I get it. Your lives are important and your jobs are important. All that I am saying is that your decisions impact all of us who do observe.

A personal story. My paternal grandfather was a practicing atheist. Back in Poland, he had begun studies for the rabbinate, before deciding that it was all hooey for him and finally ran off to join the army. When he came to Canada he was a cultural Jew who had absolutely no interest in God or synagogue practice. It probably was the height of irony for him that his children and grandchildren became so involved. Every year on Yom Kippur my grandfather would insist that his family, including my father, dress in their best clothes. They would be scrubbed and clean and out of the house early, and then he would take them all to the movies for the entire day. They would sit through several features, just long enough for synagogues to conclude their final prayers and then they would return home. When asked why he engaged in this behaviour year after year, my grandfather would respond "I can't insult every other Jew on Yom Kippur just because I don't believe." That is how I feel about Jason Marquis and every other Jew who chooses to work on Yom Kippur.

There is a reason that we Jews so identify with what Sandy Koufax did. He was taking the stand for all of us that observe but, for some reason feel the need to justify it to our employers, our families and to ourselves. It is not easy being Jewish in a modern world. Sandy Koufax made it a bit easier. It will be interesting to see what other Jewish ballplayers choose to do this weekend. Kevin Youkilis, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Braun-are you listening?

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