Sunday, March 30, 2008

No 10s For Kerri

The Jewish Week, August 9, 1996

Now that the Olympics are over, allowing us to shift our sights back from the heights of Olympus to the less majestic but more enduring peaks of Sinai and Moriah, it's time to talk about heroes.

No doubt about it, the one Atlanta moment that will endure through the ages will be that final vault by Kerri Strug. It couldn't have been scripted better: Seven shining lights of American diversity, all glowing with the kind of naive I-can-be-immortal recklessness that only a teenager knows, and it all comes down to one jump. And who takes it? Kerri, the indomitable Jewish girl from Arizona. But her ankle is injured. Should she jump? Should she risk possible permanent injury for the sake of her team, her country? Of course the answer is yes. Any teenager could tell us that. What is risk, anyway, but the act of living life to its fullest? What is recklessness, anyway, but the temerity to go where has none has before, whether by doing 60 mph on a country horse path, having sex without protection or experimenting with drugs `til your head pops.

Faster, stronger, higher, that's the Olympic ideal: defying the body's limits and daring the gods of Olympus to put us in our mortal place. In some cases - in most cases - we lose; but when we win, we are heroes. We are gods.

For this, Kerri Strug never went to Hebrew school.

When I first read the story that Kerri was Jewish, I laughed until I cried. It described how the rabbi of Kerri's synagogue led the congregation in a special healing prayer for her following her epic/tragic leap. Her rabbi commented to the reporter, "As an American and as a Jew, I was proud." It turns out the Strugs have been members of the congregation since 1988. It turns out the rabbi has never met Kerri Strug.

The story concluded, "Strug's mother said her daughter did not attend the synagogue's religious school or become bat mitzvah there because she was too busy."

I immediately thought of Mark Spitz, whose father said the same thing back in 1972. I'll never forget his tag line, "Even God likes a winner."

Our God likes losers, too.

At least the elder Spitz felt the need to come up with a corny excuse. It is telling that two decades post-Spitz, the Strugs felt no such need. The choice for them was clear: Rather than immersing their daughter in a tradition that spans millennia, rather than enabling her to find solace and strength from her indestructible people, they chose to allow her to go from coach to coach, injury to injury, daily risking paralysis, eating disorders and stunted growth, all for the sake of Olympic gold.

In an NBC soap-essay called "The Kerri Strug Story," the Strugs admitted that they often close their eyes when their daughter performs. They cannot bear to see what might happen, yet they've never tried to stop her, even when she once suffered a nearly catastrophic injury. They have placed their child in a position of maximal risk and closed their eyes to the responsibility.

Had Kerri become bat mitzvah, I believe her folks would have found it an eye-opening experience.

On my pulpit, I see Olympian drama almost every week, as newly-crowned adolescents ascend spiritual peaks to do battle with their own limitations, the world's expectations and their swiftly developing sense of self; and they emerge not maimed but triumphant. It is a triumph that endures not for four years but for a lifetime. It is a personal best that doesn't place the victor on a winner's pedestal, but shoulder to shoulder with a hundred generations.

If only John Tesh could have seen Kerri scale those heights.

Until I saw that story, I didn't know Kerri was a Jew. That little factoid was left out of all the up-close-and-personal network coverage. I wish it had never come to light.

No, I am not heartless. Like the rest of America, I cried when Kerri was carried tot he victory stand by Bela Karolyi. I identified with her (if only because I too have found great inspiration "on one foot"). But she is no Jewish hero, nor is she a Jewish role model of any sort. Her courage and determination are admirable, but as a Jewish role model she is lacking one key ingredient: Judaism. I'm in no position to judge her degree of Jewish pride or her parents' commitment (they do, to their credit, affiliate with a synagogue).

But if I had my druthers, I'd have preferred her religious identity to have remained a secret.

So what am I supposed to say now to all the Hebrew school parents who ask for early dismissal because of gymnastics, tennis or Little League? They can rightly claim that the two most acclaimed Jewish athletes of our time never even attended Hebrew school.

A generation ago, Jewish sports heroes were forced to make huge compromises just to make a living, yet they still clung tenaciously and with pride to their heritage.

Take the recently departed Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen, who was forced to give up his last name (Israel) because it was "too Jewish." Yet to the end he was a mensch and loyal Jew whom I was proud to call my congregant. And we all teach the kids about Sandy Koufax, who wouldn't pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.

Where are our Jewish heroes? Mel Allen, the man who coined the name Joltin' Joe, has left and gone away - and he's taken the spirit of Judah Macabee with him.

Oh Kerri, I so want to be proud of you. And now I pray for you. Ten years from now, when the ankle still aches and the strain of having peaked so soon becomes too much to bear, your synagogue will still be there.

It might not be Olympus, but its flame will never go out.

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