Kippur and Sandy Koufax:
October, 2000--On October 6, 1965, Sandy Koufax, the overpowering lefty for the Los Angeles Dodgers, did not pitch in the first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins because game day fell on Yom Kippur.
My father was not a baseball fan then. Our family had emigrated to the United States less than six years before. He was fifty five years old and still struggling to learn English and many other new skills, like driving a car. Baseball was far down his list of priorities. He didn't know a home run from a rerun, a base hit from a face lift. He didn't know a baseball pitcher from a pitcher of water - and couldn't care any less.
"It's a stupid game," he announced in his thick accent after watching a few minutes on TV once. "Not like football. Now there's a game!" My father was referring to soccer, calling it by the name it is known throughout the world, not American football, which he also thought idiotic.
But then, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the World Series. Sandy Koufax went to shul that day. He fasted. And, to my father, baseball was still a stupid game, but all of a sudden, it was not played by only stupid people. Sandy Koufax did not hide his Jewishness. He took a righteous stand. And my father, along with millions of Jews, was proud of him. "He's a good Jewish boy," my father said. His highest praise.
My twin brother and I were not good Jewish boys. Or, more accurately, we did not want to be good Jewish boys. We liked baseball, admired Koufax for his diamond feats and now grudgingly respected him for his courageous stand, but we were also nearly seventeen and in full teenage rebellion against our father's values. We chafed under the constraints of Orthodoxy, in particular because it meant we could not play sports on Saturdays. My brother, a fine sprinter, had had to miss every Saturday track meet the previous spring. I knew I'd have to miss every Friday night or Saturday swim meet that winter. It did not seem fair. Especially when all the other Jewish kids in our community were allowed to compete on Shabbos and other holidays.
Our coaches were puzzled too. "But Arnie Steinberg (not his real name) is Jewish and he can run on Saturdays. How come you can't?" No answer seemed right. It would have felt dishonest to say, "Because we're more religious." I didn't feel very religious. And besides, it would have felt like a put down of Arnie and the other Jewish kids. I'd had enough experience with anti-Semitism to know that I didn't want to contribute to it. I also sure didn't want to quote my father's, "Because you're the Cantor's sons." It might have made sense to the coaches. It made little sense to me.
A little more than a week after sitting out the first game of theSeries, Sandy Koufax came back to beat the Twins in the seventh game, in what many consider to be one of the best pitched games in baseball history. Any lingering doubts about the rightness of his decision to miss the first game, were completely obliterated.
My twin brother and I, like the Minnesota Twins, also felt overpowered and defeated - in our case by our father. We knew there was no use in pointing out to him that Sandy Koufax was not unlike some "three day Jews" my father was always deriding; that Koufax often pitched on Shabbos and every other Jewish holiday that fell in the baseball season; that the baseball cap he wore was not because of religious reasons. Our arguments, delivered with typical teenage sarcasm and self righteousness, would immediately be met by his guilt tripping. "What would it look like? The Cantor's sons breaking the Shabbes?"
Today, my brother and I play music for children and families - our variation on the legacy from our father, the Cantor. We often include Jewish songs in our concerts - our way of not hiding our heritage. Sometimes, during the question and answer part of our shows, a child will ask, "Are you Jewish?" Often, after we say yes, the child will respond, "I am too." And I sense those children's loneliness in being Jewish - and remember my own when I was growing up - and see their excitement and pride in finding someone who publicly shares this aspect of their lives.
Now, thirty five years later, I've come to understand my father much better than I did then. I know that he had perhaps more powerful reasons than many Jews in this country for appreciating Sandy Koufax's public stand - and for taking his own. Before moving to the United States, he'd lived most of his life in Hungary, in a society where it was often dangerous and sometimes lethal just to be a Jew - much less be very public about it. During WWII he had barely survived several years in forced labor camps and had lost, among others, both his parents and his first wife and three children in Auschwitz. To him, a Jew who did not hide his Jewishness, was willing to declare it in as public a way as Sandy Koufax did, was willing to sacrifice something important for his Jewishness, was heroic beyond words.
I've also come to understand that, perhaps because of his past, my father was incapable of being pliable and adaptable as Sandy Koufax was when he chose to honor his gift from God and play baseball, even though it meant not adhering to all the rules of Orthodoxy.
I called my parents recently and asked them if they remembered Sandy Koufax. My father is nearly ninety now, my mother almost eighty two, but they both did. My mother who, if possible, knows even less about baseball than my father, immediately said, "He didn't play on Yom Kippur."
My father added, "He was a good man."
I noticed his words. Now Sandy Koufax was a good man, not just a good Jewish boy. He had grown up since 1965.
I like to think that I have too. My father and I have made our peace. We don't see eye to eye on Jewish observance, but we have gradually, silently, agreed to focus on what we share, rather than argue about our differences.
But sometimes the old hurts still surface. And hearing him praise Koufax now, I couldn't hold myself back. "Do you remember that Sandy Koufax played baseball on Shabbos?" My father ignored me. Instead, he switched the subject. "Did you see in the paper that Joe Lieberman was in Miami yesterday and because it was Shabbos, he walked two miles to shul with hiswife? He is a good man."
I agree. And I'm glad to hear my father say it. He also has changed since 1965. He knows that Joe Lieberman, like Sandy Koufax, is more flexible about Jewish observance than he is. And he knows how I live my life. And though he has never been able to bring himself to tell me that he's proud of me, I know from his friends that he carries clippings of my brother and me in his wallet and shows them off every chance he gets. Possibly, when he does that, because we are his sons, he still refers to us as "good boys." To me, he has become "a good man."