Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Why the Red Sox are the Chosen Team (Times of Israel)
Now that the Boston Red Sox are back in baseball’s World Series, facing the St. Louis Cardinals beginning Wednesday night, the compelling argument must be made that the Sawx, as we native Bostonians affectionately call them, are the official baseball team of the Jewish people. The Cardinals might have the power to pick popes, but the Red Sox have even more lofty connections.
The fact that one of their key players, Craig Breslow, the Connecticut Yalie and every Jewish mother’s dream, is an MOT, is only incidental to this declaration. Even if there were no Jews among these post Kevin Youkilis, post Theo Epstein, post Gabe Kapler Sox, even if perennial batting champ Wade Boggs hadn’t drawn the Hebrew word chai (life) in the batter’s box before every at bat, they still would be the Chosen Team for the Chosen People.
His list includes such luminaries as Moe Berg the spy-catcher (no, he did not catch spies, he WAS a spy, against the Germans in WW2, AND a catcher, for the Red Sox), Kevin Youkilis (the mistakenly nicknamed “Greek god of walks” and Mel Gibson… yes, Mel Gibson, who is not Jewish but was lampooned memorably and hilariously by comedians Dennis Leary and Lenny Clarke from the Red Sox broadcast booth in 2006.
But history is not the only factor, nor is it even close to being the most important.
The Sox are the team of Exile and Redemption, the team of epic disaster and an improbable return to greatness. They are God’s favorite team. As Tevye says, it’s no great honor to be chosen. In fact, to quote a word more typically employed by Yankee fans, it sucks.
But when the suffering ends, it’s so good, so good, so good. Last April, when Neil Diamond sang “Sweet Caroline,” the Sox unofficial anthem, at Fenway Park right after the Marathon bombings, the healing, redemptive power of the Sox could be sensed once again, and this year’s redemption will come to fruition next week, when the Bostonians complete their rags to riches season – they finished dead last in 2012 – and win the World Series.
Hilary Leila Krieger wrote in 2004,
The Jews are history’s underdog. Similarly, the Red Sox are David to the Yankee Goliath. It’s the Red Sox and their fans whose long history of suffering, error, and perseverance in the conviction that redemption will come mirrors that of the Jewish people.
Side by side in my office hang photos of Boston and Jerusalem. Throughout my life, my exilic existence has been marked by a constant yearning for redemption in both of my ancestral homes. For one, that meant a thriving Israel, freed from fear and living in harmony with her neighbors, and for the other, it meant a Red Sox World Series championship.
Through the misty sky on Wednesday evening, October 27, 2004, a ruddy moon glowed from behind the earth’s shadow. Simultaneously and at the precise time of a lunar eclipse, the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years and Yasser Arafat lost his grip on the reins of terror, leaving Israel for the final time on his ill-fated flight to Paris for medical treatment. In the scheme of things, I would classify that as a very good day. At long last, I had definitive proof that there is a God.
That day was also the 12th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, the date Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and Anne Frank began her final journey. The themes of Exile and Redemption seemed to be playing themselves out historically on that fateful day.
Now I’m a world class skeptic and very wary of seeing God’s hand in such historical coincidences, and especially so when it comes to sports. I’ve seen too many crazy things happen when sports and God get mixed together. (Believe me. I have.)
OK, but I am also a fan – a Red Sox fan – and in Boston, Fenway Park isa cathedral, born the day the Titanic set sail, a place of pilgrimage venerated by generations. Just as they do in Jerusalem, people leave notes in Fenway’s Wall (they really do) and in Boston the separation between church and plate (home plate) simply doesn’t exist. The relationship between the fans and the team is as intensely personal in any religious community, as seen in is this bit of dialogue from the 2005 film “Fever Pitch“:
Why do we inflict this on ourselves?
Why? I’ll tell you why, ’cause the Red Sox never let you down.
Huh? I mean – why?
Because they haven’t won a World Series in a century or so? So what? They’re here. Every April, they’re here. At 1:05 or at 7:05, there is a game. And if it gets rained out, guess what? They make it up to you. Does anyone else in your life do that? The Red Sox don’t get divorced. This is a real family. This is the family that’s here for you.
Both the Red Sox and Israel enjoyed messianic highs during the summer of 1967. As the Red Sox were careening toward their first American League pennant in 21 years behind the superstar slugging of Carl Yastrzemski and the pitching of Jim Lonborg (not Jewish, but he became a dentist), sportswriter Red Smith penned the following ditty:
This is the city of Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod
Where Lonborg speaks only to Kennedy, Ted
And Yastrzemski is some kind of god
But they lost (to St. Louis) in the 7th game of the World Series that year. Then again in the 7th game 1975 and again in 1986 and, worst of all, an extra inning, 7th game loss to the hated Yankees in Yankee Stadium in the American League Championship Series in 2003. I was at that game, the worst night of life where no one died. Straining to remain incognito, I high fived hundreds of Yankee fans who celebrated for a solid hour after Aaron Boone’s game winning home run.
I arrived home after 3 AM and looked in on my children who had gone to bed before the final pitch. How could I tell them the news in the morning? Why had I subjected them to a life of such suffering? The Sox had killed my spirit, and now they would claim my children too.
That week, I spoke of the loss during Yizkor services concluding Sukkot (I had to do something similar on Simchat Torah 1986, when the Sox suffered an equally painful loss, to the Mets in the World Series). Here’s what I said:
So a very close friend of mine, Yankee fan, called me yesterday and asked if I was preparing two Yizkor sermons for this morning, one for people and one for the Red Sox. I said no, I really don’t eulogize baseball teams. There are some things that are more important than even baseball, a thought that occurred to me quite a few times as I sat in the right field stands at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night.
I’ve always felt that God truly doesn’t care about who wins the World Series – no Virginia, there really is no curse – at least for the Sox – the Cubs, that’s another story – God doesn’t care who wins the Series, but God cares that we care. For these bonds of passion are what anchors us through life’s tumult.
My kids were not very happy yesterday – and I felt quite guilty for subjecting them to a lifetime of suffering, after all, they didn’t grow up in my ancestral neck of the woods – but their adopting my baseball team as theirs, much as in their adopting of my religious traditions, are what binds them in part to me. They are what binds father and mother to son and daughter.
So it’s not really about the Sox and the Yanks. It’s about visiting the graves of our grandparents and saying to them, “You’ll never believe what Grady Little did this time.” It’s about the ongoing dialogue between the generations. It’s about my sitting in the sukkah and recalling my old synagogue back home, where we kids would stuff our tallis bags with the delicious marble cakes before running home to catch the first inning of the World Series. It’s all about love.
And love is always good. Even when it is painful. Even when there is loss.
But then came 2004 and the 86 year old curse was broken. By the way, in Hebrew numerology, 86 is the equivalent of God’s name – אלהים.
Too many things broke right for the Sox that year, too many of their prior indignities were undone in uncanny ways, for their improbable victory not to have been written in the stars. Even before that season began, the Sox had already couched this campaign in religious terms – witness the huge “Keep the Faith” sign towering about the Western Wall – I mean the Green Monster – and the numerous televised images of fans in various states of prayer. Boston’s Maimonides School sold t-shirts and bumper stickers carrying Rambam’s famous principle, “I believe with a perfect faith,” in Hebrew, astride the Red Sox logo.
Their epic series with the Yankees played out these redemptive themes, carrying the Sox and their fandom from the brink of disaster, a 3-0 deficit in games, to the greatest comeback seen since the Exodus, climaxing with a sweep of, yes the Cardinals, the very team that had defeated them in the World Series’ of 1967 and 1946.The resurrection was so captivating that at a wedding reception I found myself transfixed at the lobby bar watching a rally and was not in the ballroom when my name was called out to lead the blessing over the bread.
“Where’s the rabbi?”
“He’s at the bar, watching the game.”
No matter. The bride’s father was with out there with me.
I’ve always speculated that a Sox championship would come only after the Messiah’s arrival. Inexplicably the Messiah is still tarrying – probably also at the bar watching the game, given how excited this year’s playoffs have been. I believe it was the Talmud that said, “If the Messiah is standing at the gate of the city, but Uehara is pitching to Beltran with two out in the ninth, wait for Beltran to strike out, THEN go out and greet the Messiah.”
If ever I was looking for proof of God’s existence, 2004 was it. The perfect losers turned into perfect winners, with the perfect comeback against the perfect opponent, culminating in the ultimate victory over the other perfect opponent, during the first lunar eclipse ever to take place during a World Series game, on the very night Yasser Arafat was flown out of Israel for the last time.
But here is the true reason why they won. On the morning after the disastrous third game against the Yankees, with the Sox all but dead, my then 13 year old son Ethan informed me that he had prayed that morning and had informed God that if the Red Sox didn’t win it all this time, he would become an atheist. And it worked.
Imagine your child telling you this, when no one in history had ever before come back from the kind of deficit that the Sox faced. He was asking for a miracle. No, he wasn’t merely asking, he was threatening God.
God, omniscient as always, evidently had read the latest National Jewish Population Survey and didn’t want to lose Ethan from the fold. Or maybe God was impressed by Ethan’s undying loyalty to a team whose season was nearing extinction.
True to my fatalistic Red Sox roots, I had spent my energy steeling my boys to accept the divine decree, or, as Martin Buber called it in his aptly titled essay “The Eclipse of God,” “the still unredeemed concreteness of the human world in all its horror.”
But the news just kept on getting better, and the end of the Curse brought an eclipse of the eclipse and during an ACTUAL eclipse – and I found myself becoming more and more troubled by the theological implications of victory.
If the Sox lose, my kid becomes a hardened skeptic, like the rest of us. But if they win because of this audacious wager, he could sink into a fundamentalist morass, totally convinced that God can be manipulated magically.
But ultimately I understood that Ethan’s impudence was in fact a statement of profound faith from one condemned by his father to live out his entire life in Yankee territory, in second place. His was a simple Joban cry against the injustice of it all.
At last, the Universe listened.
The Universe will listen again this week, without my son having to utter a single word.
I can prove it theologically using the biblical portion of Toldot that we’ll be reading during the week of the Series’ conclusion: Both the Sox and Cards color themselves red. “Red” is “Adom” in Hebrew, which was the alternative name for Esau, Jacob’s brother, because he was ruddy. So one or both of these teams could be considered Esau-like. Esau, the red one, was deemed subservient to Jacob, both in Rebecca’s vision and Isaac’s blessing, and a case can be made that the Red Sox are in fact Jacob. What you may not know is that Jacob, who was born after Esau (i.e. from the American League, the so called “Junior Circuit,”), came out of the womb clutching Esau’s heel. In fact the literal translation of Jacob IS “heel.”