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Talkin’ baseball
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Talkin’ baseball

An all-star lineup dissects the Jewish love affair with America’s national pastime

A panel considering Jewish identity and baseball featured, from left, sports columnist Ira Berkow, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, Rabbi Michael Paley, and Martin Abramowitz. 
A panel considering Jewish identity and baseball featured, from left, sports columnist Ira Berkow, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, Rabbi Michael Paley, and Martin Abramowitz. 

Adon Olam can easily be sung to many non-traditional tunes, including “Shenandoah” and “Amazing Grace.” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” however, is not one of them.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop dozens of enthusiastic participants from joyously joining in during Shabbat services at “Judaism & Baseball,” a program hosted by the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., June 29-July 1.

Fans of all ages came from such far-flung locations as Canada, California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and New England. Wearing the colorful paraphernalia of their favorite teams, the fans heard historians, rabbis, sportswriters, entertainers, and even diplomats dissect the Jewish love affair with the national pastime.

Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil led off the program on Friday night by “proving” that even though “baseball” does not explicitly appear in the Talmud, it is there in spirit. Using the Little League code of conduct for players and parents to illustrate his point, Kurzweil noted the rules dictate there should be “no negative cheering or verbal abuse directed toward the opposing team, umpire, or coaching staff.” According to the Talmud, Kurzweil said, it is forbidden to insult others, hurt their feelings, or put them to shame.

As an example of how baseball can be found in just about any other topic, former United States Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer — who also served as commissioner of the ill-fated Israel Baseball League during its sole year of existence in 2007 — offered similarities between baseball and the Middle East peace process in a presentation following Shabbat dinner. He compared the ongoing difficulties in the region with the plot of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, a novel by W.P. Kinsella that features a never-ending game. The tensions in the Middle East has many of the same characteristics as baseball, with one critical difference: unlike a sporting event, he said, it would not be satisfactory to have a single “winner.”

Aviva Kempner, who created the award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, gave a d’var Torah in which she credited the Hall of Famer with “bringing Judaism to America.” Through media coverage of his decision to refrain from playing a game on Yom Kippur in the midst of a heated pennant race in 1935, Greenberg gave Jews a standing they had not known before on a national level, she said.

Rabbi Michael Paley, a scholar in residence for the UJA Federation of New York, picked up on Kurzweil’s Talmud metaphor in his keynote address following a Shabbat luncheon. He compared the 10 sefirot of the Kabala — the divine attributes often depicted as spots on a diagram form — with defensive positions on a baseball field, each spot having its distinct characteristics and responsibilities.

Who’s a Jew?

The highlight of the afternoon featured “Baseball as the Great Assimilator: Is That Still the Way?” featuring Kurtzer, author Peter Levine (Ebbets Field to Ellis Island); singer/songwriter Dan Bern, the son of immigrant Jewish parents who settled in a very small town in Iowa where they were the only Jewish family; and Justine Siegal, the only woman to throw batting practice in the Major Leagues and coach a professional men’s team.

Levine, whose book documented the use of sports by Jews to “become American” in the first quarter of the 20th century, has changed his tune since it was published in 1992. “I think we make too much out of using sports to bring everyone together,” he said.

Siegal disagreed, especially when it came to women establishing a foothold in sports. Her story was especially compelling since discrimination based on gender was even more of an issue for her than religion. “Being a woman has trumped being Jewish in the baseball world,” she said.

By far the most contentious discussion of the retreat was the post-dinner plenary, “Why Ask ‘Who’s a Jew?’ in Baseball,” moderated by Paley and featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Ira Berkow; Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, associate professor in the departments of religion and women’s studies and chair of the Department of Religion at Temple University; and Martin Abramowitz, founder of JewishMajorLeaguers.org and creator of the popular baseball card set of Jewish ballplayers. All the panelists appeared in the popular 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.

Alper vehemently took exception to “self-appointed” individuals for whom “Halacha is absolutely out the window” when it came to “claiming” players as Jewish. She asked if, in an effort to claim the rare professional athlete as “one of our own,” Jewish sports fans are too willing to overlook Jewish law. Traditionally, the Halacha requires the mother be Jewish for the child to be considered a Jew, although Reform and Reconstruction movements accept either parent. According to its editorial policy, the Jewish Sports Review — which is the primary source on the issue for many Jewish publications, websites, and blogs (including my own Kaplan’s Korner) — “an athlete is Jewish if they have at least one Jewish parent, do not practice another faith, and identify ethnically as Jewish.”

That’s opened the door for Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers and Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers (Jewish fathers, Christian mothers) to be included in the role of Jewish ballplayers. Both have been selected for the 2012 All-Star Game (see sidebar).

Abramowitz noted how the demographics of baseball reflect wider trends. “Prior to 1980, it was rare to find a [Jewish] ballplayer without two Jewish parents,” but now “that’s no longer the case,” he said.

On Sunday, Kurtzer and former Major Leaguer Bob Tufts discussed the state of Israel’s baseball program as it prepares to play in the World Baseball Classic qualifier in September. Kurtzer recalled the difficulties during his leadership of the Israel Baseball League in generating interest from a nation more attuned to soccer and basketball, as well as dealing with the poor planning and lack of funds that led to the league’s demise.

Tufts warned that it could take another 40 years for baseball to become established as a viable sport in the Holy Land. Bob Ruxin, a former IBL Board member, announced a fundraising initiative for the Israeli team, whose roster already features Major leaguers Brad Ausmus, Shawn Green, and Gabe Kapler.

The final plenary — “The Responsibility of Jews in Baseball” — was moderated by David Weisberg, executive director of the Isabella Freedman Center, and featured Paley, Berkow, and Lawrence Ruttman, author of the forthcoming book, American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball.

Paley said Hank Greenberg’s main contribution “was explaining Jews to America,” but years later, with wider assimilation and acceptance into mainstream American society, Sandy Koufax’s role was “explaining Jews to Jews.” The speakers debated whether modern ballplayers such as Braun, Kinsler, and Ike Davis should be held to higher standards of character and sportsmanship than non-Jewish players.

Other programs during the retreat included a recitation of “Yiddish” Casey at the Bat by writer/performer Mikhail Horowitz; musical selections by Bern, whose new CD of baseball songs debuted this week at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY; and a screening of the feature film The Yankles, sort of a Bad News Bears with payes.

The Isabella Freedman Center — named for an early 20th century philanthropist — was a particularly appropriate place to hold such the event: Isabella’s brother, Andrew, was owner of baseball’s New York Giants from 1895 through 1902.

For more stories, interviews, and photos about the Judaism & Baseball retreat, visit Kaplan’s Korner on Jews and Sports (njjewishnews.com/kaplanskorner).

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