June 4, 2018 – Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Baseball, American Culture, and Jewish Pride

Like many other Jewish Americans, I am keenly aware of when Jews contribute to American history and culture.  I am disappointed when I see Jews do something disgraceful in public (e.g., Bernie Madoff) and I am filled with nachas (pride) when Jews do something meaningful or creative that helps to elevate the American collective dialogue. 

Thankfully, there is more that Jews do of which to be proud rather than to be embarrassed. I kvell, for example, whenever I hear God Bless America, as I am reminded that it was a Jewish immigrant son of a Cantor, Irving Berlin, that composed the song in 1918, during World War I.  I also get certain satisfaction from the recent explosion of comic book popularity (both DC and Marvel) because it was largely Jews that created our most popular superheroes, including Superman (Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster), Batman  (Bob Kane, born Robert Kahn), as well as Spiderman and The Avengers (Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber).  In fact, we now have not just a Jewish woman, but also an Israeli Jewish woman – accent and all – portraying Wonder Woman who is the American archetype of a powerful and smart female hero.

Of course, the list of Jewish Americans who have enriched our culture and lives through medicine, politics, the arts, philosophy, technology, and literature is far too vast to begin to enumerate.  This list would undoubtedly include writer Philip Roth, who just passed away on May 22.  Roth won two U.S. National Book Awards for Fiction: one in 1959 for his novella Goodbye, Columbus (a glimpse into the lives of middle-class American Jews) and the other in 1995 for Sabbath’s Theater (a character study of a lecherous, Jewish puppeteer).  He gave us a good – and controversial – laugh with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), as well as thought-provoking tales of anti-Semitism and Zionism in The Plot Against America (2004) and Operation Shylock (1993).

Of all of the great Jewish American cultural matters and moments, however, there is one that stands above them all. It happened on October 6, 1965, the first game of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins. At that time, America was clearly the greatest country in the world and the greatest game at that time was baseball.  And the greatest player in the greatest game, in the greatest country was a Jewish pitcher for the Dodgers, called Sandy Koufax (born Sanford Braun).  In 1965, every Jewish kid, nay every Jew, in America knew who Sandy Koufax was.  As one rabbi put it, “More Jews know Sandy Koufax than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!”

The problem was that the opening of the World Series on October 6, 1965, also happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Koufax was by no means religious; he had pitched on Shabbat and other holidays time and again.  But this was Yom Kippur and even though he would normally be slotted to pitch the Series home opener, and even though the whole world was watching, Sandy Koufax understood that there was something of eternal value worth serving beyond his career, his prestige, and even American culture itself. Sandy Koufax chose to sit out of the first game in honor of the Jewish holy day.

I wasn’t born until 1973 and don’t know how people reacted at the time, so I can only imagine that there may have been some worried and disappointed Dodger fans.  I can say, however, that although I “missed” the game, the legendary story of Sandy Koufax became a part of the Jewish canon of honor in which I was raised.  Sandy Koufax – perhaps an unexpected source – may have taken one of the most heroic stances in Jewish history.  He responded to a “higher calling” and modeled for every American that being Jewish means appealing to a commitment and a value beyond one’s self.  I have not yet met a Jew, whether religious or not, that does not know of what Sandy Koufax did, nor feel a sense of pride because of it.

Adding to his epic mythology, Sandy went on to lead the Dodgers to a victory that year, winning the World Series MVP and pitching a 3-hit shutout in Game 7. It was the story of him sitting out of Game 1 because of Yom Kippur, however, that has remained the most memorable moment of the Series, even 53 years later.  Jews are reminded of it every fall, still wondering if there will be another Jewish player put in the same position, and whether or not they’ll choose what Sandy chose.

Throughout my 14-year career as a rabbi, many Jews have expressed to me how difficult it is to find time for their Judaism (Shabbat, holiday programs, Hebrew school).  There’s work, homework, other engagements and everything under the sun that seem to always conflict.  In our contemporary, stressed-out, overworked, and busy American lifestyle it is hard to manage time, commitments, and set priorities.  Ironically, we seem to have more “time-saving” technology, and yet still less and less time. 

I certainly don’t have a pat solution to these challenges of the hour.  I do, however, have a model in Sandy Koufax.  Sandy made a statement of action when he set a priority, adhering to a commitment of spirit, of peoplehood, and of morality, proclaiming that there is something bigger than me and what I want in this moment.  While we should not deny ourselves opportunities and ambitions, life’s meaning is ultimately shaped by the enduring values that we choose to serve.  And, so, as the intensity of the fall and spring lessens, and we take a break to watch the “Boys of Summer” take the field this year, I hope that we can remember Sandy and the values we choose to commit ourselves.

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