In its first appearance in the World Baseball Classic, Israel defeated South Africa 7-3 late on Wednesday. Israel's team, made up largely of American Jews, must also get past France and Spain to qualify for the main tournament in March. Standout: Two home runs by Nate Freiman, Israel's 6'7'' 225 pound (2.01 meters, 103 kg) first baseman. A native of Wellesley, Mass., Freiman plays for San Diego Padres' AA minor league team, the San Antonio Missions.
Every year in the fall, for one night and one day, the world's largest Diaspora Jewish community gathers to pledge allegiance to the demands of dual loyalty.
It's the first thing you learn about Yom Kippur.
Even if you're too small to quite grasp it. The clue may come from a parent, acting strangely. The signs of a burden of choice: On the one hand, allegiance to the workplace, on the other, the challenge of explaining to others, and to oneself, taking a day off for a non-barbecue observance which fewer than two of every 100 Americans observe at all.
Or it may come from the vaguely torn expression of an older sibling. The face of no food, no sex, no driving, no drinking, in some areas a suit and tie, a day off from school which is worse even than school, no earbuds, no shopping, no television, no texting, no web. In a certain American sense, no living.
And then there is the question of baseball.
In every generation, when you're small and an American Jew, you learn the facts: it is at Yom Kippur when it will be decided for us who shall be degraded this year and who exalted, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by beast.
And who will sit out the first game of the World Series.
For a Jewish baseball star to miss a championship game because it falls on Yom Kippur, has long been the benchmark for red, white and blue Jewish heroism, the true test of all-American Kiddush Hashem.
In 1934, Hank Greenberg, star of the league-leading Detroit Tigers, endured brickbats when he decided to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur rather than up against the second-place New York Yankees at the climax of a key season. But he received a standing ovation when he entered his shul, Shaarey Tzedek.
This was an America of openly expressed Jew-hate on the field and off. This was a Detroit whose industrialist icon Henry Ford published newspaper opinion pieces that included such observations as, "If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words - too much Jew."
Thirty years later, Sandy Koufax, baseball's premier pitcher, shocked experts and thrilled Jews by sitting out the first game of the World Series, which coincided with Yom Kippur. Koufax went on to win the series' most valuable player award.
"In the Talmud, it is written that some attain eternal life with a single act," Koufax' biographer Jane Leavy would later write. "On Yom Kippur, 5726, a baseball immortal became a Jewish icon."
In September, 2001, barely two weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Shawn Green, at the height of his career, declined to play on Yom Kippur, donating his day's salary of some $70,000 to 9/11 survivors, and breaking a personal streak of having played 415 games in a row.
In a form of dual-loyalty trifecta, Green would face not one but two Yom Kippur games in the thick of the 2004 pennant race with the arch-rival San Francisco Giants. Green opted to play during Kol Nidre (lofting a game-winning home run), but sitting out the day game, which his team lost.
"I wish Yom Kippur could be in April," he remarked.
"But it's not."
And then there's this year.
In a conjunction of events unlikely enough to blaze new trails in dual loyalty dilemmas, a team composed nearly entirely of American Jews is representing the state of Israel in the qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic.
The reader is hereby invited to take a breath. Tournament rules allow anyone eligible for citizenship in a foreign country to play for that nation's team. Israel's Law of Return, which affords citizenship to applicants with a Jewish parent or grandparent, and to non-Jews married to Jews, (and, since 1970, to "the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew") vastly expands and upgrades the available player pool. Among the more prominent examples: Shawn Green, who came out of retirement to play for Israel.
To enhance the dual loyalty component of all this, should Israel advance to the main tournament in March, manager and former All Star catcher Brad Ausmus, player-coaches Green and Gabe Kapler (who reportedly once received a Boston rabbi's dispensation to play for the Red Sox on Yom Kippur) and their teammates could conceivably come up against Team USA.
And if that were not enough, the chance of rain at the Jupiter, Florida site of Israel's games, may push the current qualifying round into, yes, Yom Kippur.
It should be noted that as time has passed, Major League Baseball has shown mounting sensitivity to the Kol Nidre quandary. In 2009, the Yankees and Red Sox moved a game by several hours, in response to Yom Kippur pleas by the many Jewish baseball fans in New York and Boston.
Then, just last week, the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians agreed to play a scheduled September 25th game six hours early, so that it would not conflict with the eve of Yom Kippur.
"I guess that means I can play," Chicago's Jewish third baseman Kevin Youkilis said with a smile.
He told the Chicago Tribune that he had never played on Yom Kippur, adding that fasting from sundown to sundown would not keep him from playing the next night. "I’ll be fine," Youkilis said. "I’ve done it before. I’ll be good to go.”
Youkilis said last month that if Israel advances to the main round of the World Baseball Classic in March, he will join the team. Other active Major Leagues stars may as well, among them the National Leagues reigning Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun of Milwaukee and All Star second baseman Ian Kinsler.
"Wow, I would be happy to play for Team Israel," Kinsler told Israel's Walla! News website last year. He voiced excitement over the possibility of playing on a team with his fellow Jewish All Stars. "Yuk [Youkilis], Braun, and I could make a fantastic team. I am sure that I'll talk it over with Yuk - we always laugh about things like this."
"There is no determining factor," Kinsler said. "I would just do it. If the United States did not ask me to play on their team, I would like to join another team, if asked.
"The truth is that if a proposal comes from team U.S.A. to play for them, I will have a very difficult decision to make."
PARTIAL DISCLOSURE: There are those among the American community in Israel, who have privately expressed discomfort with the rules which allow American Jews to play for Israel.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I understand that Israel may one day face the U.S.A. in baseball. I have no dual loyalty problem with any of this. One of the three actual Israelis on the roster, Alon Leichman, is like family. I don't care what anybody says. Go Israel.
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