Hardball in a hard land
What explains the grip that ball and glove hold over North American Jews in the Holy Land? And why, with the game thriving for more than a generation, does it remain invisible to Israelis?
By Bradley Burston
In a Jerusalem vignette in Philip Roth's novel "The Counterlife," a delusional New Jersey native suddenly, dangerously, barrels full force to within inches of the Western Wall and the worshipers lining its base.
Just 12 days in Israel, his eyes unruly, his fanaticism unbridled, the newest student of a yeshiva for the newly religious has a prophecy to deliver. But his message is not one of cataclysm. He is there to preach baseball.
"That's the thing that's missing here. How can there be Jews without baseball?" he cries, before leaping to grab a wholly imagined line drive on the warning track of the Western Wall.
"Not until there is baseball in Israel will Messiah come!"
When Roth created the gloriously unhinged Jimmy Ben-Joseph in his 1986 tour de force, baseball had, in fact, been flourishing in Israel for years. Men, women and children whose passion for the game rivaled Ben-Joseph's, among them, actual flesh-and-blood yeshiva students, all had thriving leagues of their own.
Bases had been placed and games played within earshot of the Knesset and in Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina, in the badlands of the Arava in the deep south, and northward to a corner of the Golan Heights armistice line - where a ball hooking too far to the right went foul, but one slicing too far to the left went into Syria.
In short order, the players, largely North Americans in deed or in direct descent, had made a name internationally for Israeli baseball and its demanding, inaptly named sibling variant, softball.
Israeli national teams played in championship tournaments from Moscow to Omaha, facing squads representing countries as distant, culturally and politically, as Saudi Arabia.
Homegrown efforts to carve cow paths into literal diamonds in the rough were celebrated by the likes of The Associated Press and The New York Times, which archly headlined a 1993 story about a field in the shadow of the biblical Gezer, "King Solomon's Nines."
Word spread further when two standouts who came up in the youth leagues were awarded baseball scholarships to attend universities in the United States.
But as Israel's ballplayers have been received with warmth - as well as heightened security - abroad, the home crowd remains a decidedly different story.
"Baseball? I'm sorry. Not in this country," says Acki Dagan, 23, a security guard standing in front of Teddy Stadium, home to Beitar Jerusalem soccer.
"We see it on cable, sometimes, from America, but it's like watching nothing at all," remarks Dagan, a self-confessed sports addict. "We watch for maybe one minute, then we turn it off," he says, adding, "We don't really think of it as a sport."
In a small nation where sports is an obsession and nothing is secret, baseball remains as invisible as the towering home-run ball that Roth's Ben-Joseph imagines sailing toward the limestone center-field Wall built when Herod ran the front office.
To most Israelis, baseball, if it exists at all, remains a mind-numbingly static enterprise, cluttered by indecipherable rules and played on a field of arbitrary border and dimension, bereft of the perpetual motion and highly physical interaction that inform the likes of soccer and basketball.
In its impact on Israelis, baseball appears little more than a fashion statement. Locals have taken to its caps, its warm-up jackets, its long-sleeved T-shirts, but the adoption is barely skin deep.
"They'll see baseball on MTV, but not on ESPN," observes attorney Ed Freedman, the David Ben-Gurion of Israeli softball.
Baseball - and softball, played on a slightly smaller field with a larger but not appreciably softer ball, pitched underhand - demands of its players the encyclopedic memory and tactical intuition of a chess master; the flash reflexes and balletic killer-instinct of a fencer; and the circus roustabout's command of precision, on-demand brute force.
It also requires a thick skin.
So clueless are most present-day Israelis about the game that last year, when the Peres Center for Peace and other organizations sought a culturally level playing field to bring together 80 Jewish and Arab Israeli sixth-graders, they intentionally chose an activity that none of the pupils knew anything about: baseball.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, an avid player in his youth, jumped at the chance to help spread the love of the game.
Ingrained in psyche
"The kids were all wearing the same uniforms, so you couldn't tell who was who," Kurtzer recalls. "They knew, obviously - but as far as they were concerned, they were there to learn this game, which was so unfamiliar to them."
Kurtzer, who took batting practice from Oslo Accords architect Ron Pundak, conceded that his own skills had slipped somewhat from a youth spent behind the plate.
"It was a little embarrassing," he smiles. "Luckily, I was better than the kids. But it was close."
Of the myriad hats lining the ambassador's office overlooking the Tel Aviv shoreline, it is a New York Yankees cap that flanks his broad desk. Clearly, the game has a hold on American Jews that transcends time and space, as well as the indifference or outright scorn of the unbeliever.
"As a kid, I always, always knew where my baseball mitt was, it was a big part of my growing up," says David Leichman, who came on aliya 27 years ago. "To this day, my glove is out, next to my bed, so in case there's a fire, at least I know I can grab my mitt."
For many North Americans far from the home they knew as children, the bond forged in an activity no more complicated, nor less momentous, than tossing a ball with a parent can be surprisingly poignant, even decades later. "When (the 1989 Kevin Costner film) "Field of Dreams" ended, I found myself fighting back sobs," a Jerusalem-area California native remembers.
In the film's climactic scene, the central character's late father returns for a game of catch with his son. The former Californian, overcome with emotion, then looked up to see the Israeli audience uniformly baffled and, apparently, bored stiff.
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center think tank, calls himself "a baseball lifer," who began life in baseball pinstripes at a very early age.
He has since passed the game on to his children, both as parent and coach.
"Certainly some of the nicest memories I have with my father are going out to play catch in the backyard, or him showing up with tickets to take me to a ball game, the few times that he was away from work, or on a weekend."
A way to fit in
From Roth to Bernard Malamud to Chaim Potok, from Joseph Heller to J.D. Salinger to E.L. Doctorow, baseball is to the American Jewish imagination what dynastic royalty was to Shakespeare: a vast, compelling canvas of private passions, by turns majestic and preposterous, a manicured battlefield for conflicts of allegiance, strategy and self.
It is, as well, one of the few common denominators of American Jewry, an exhaustively self-examined but ultimately little-understood ethnic community whose touchstones are as diverse as Yiddishist Anarchism and Chabad, Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League and Not in My Name.
In some ways, baseball and the American Jewish community grew up together. Professional baseball's rise to prominence coincided with the massive 1880-1920 influx of Eastern European immigrants who would shape modern North American Jewry.
"Many Jews from the immigrant Jewish community saw baseball as a way of mainstreaming into American life," Kurtzer notes.
"If you didn't know the game, if you weren't able to play it or participate in it, or you didn't know the terminology, then you would remain a greenehr [American Yiddish for a newly arrived immigrant], for as long as that was the case."
For many American Jews, baseball also represented a form of para-Zionism, replete with heroism and adversity, a vehicle for the linked goals of normalization, assertion of identity, and the fight against anti-Semitism. At issue were ingrained stereotypes of Jews as Milquetoasts doomed by their genes to be cowardly, overly bookish, untrustworthy and wholly unathletic.
"Jews are not sportsmen," wrote the auto tycoon and acknowledged voice of American anti-Semitism Henry Ford in 1921. "Whether this is due to their physical lethargy, their dislike of unnecessary physical action, or their serious cast of mind, others may decide."
One baseball event actually helped to fuel Jew-hate, when, in 1919, underworld figure and gambler Arnold Rothstein bankrolled a plot to pay Chicago White Sox players to "throw" the World Series.
Rothstein would enter the literature of the day with an ingeniously vicious anti-Semitic cameo in F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterwork "The Great Gatsby." Rothstein is limned as Meyer Wolfsheim, "a small, flat-nosed Jew" who, Fitzgerald wrote, had played "with the faith of 50 million people." Ford was less elegant in his condemnation. "If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words - too much Jew."
Redemption for Jews who adored the game was to come in the form of a towering, Bronx-born first baseman, Hank Greenberg. One of baseball's finest hitters ever, "Hammerin' Hank" led the Detroit Tigers to four World Series - where he delighted American Jews and religious Christians alike by spending Yom Kippur not in the lineup but in the synagogue.
In 1938, Greenberg was close to breaking Babe Ruth's benchmark record of 60 home runs in a season. He would ultimately be denied by wide-throwing pitchers who may have intentionally kept baseball's premier Jew from surpassing a Protestant.
With the shadow of Nazi Germany lengthening in Europe, Greenberg felt a particular responsibility "representing a couple of million Jews among a hundred million gentiles, and I was always in the spotlight," he later wrote. "As time went by, I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler."
A generation later, in a brief career worthy of the most maudlin baseball novel, Sandy Koufax, a reserved, well-read, sensitive and supremely underrated left-hander from Brooklyn, became a pitcher of miraculous abilities, the pre-eminent hurler of the Major Leagues. He also became an icon for a new generation of Jews by sitting out the first game of the 1965 World Series, which opened on Yom Kippur.
Koufax would later clinch the series for his Los Angeles Dodgers, shutting out the Minnesota Twins twice in four days to take the championship.
Koufax had quietly instilled pride in the hearts of millions of American Jews, but he would still face what sportswriter Roger Kahn ("The Boys of Summer") called "a genteel form of anti-Semitism," as a sneering post-Series Time Magazine account called the limelight-shunning lefty an "anti-athlete."
Anti-Semitism was not the only obstacle facing Jewish ballplayers of the immigrant generation in the United States. Stronger still, and closer to home, was the opposition of many parents, who feared baseball as the antithesis of the shtetl values of learning, spiritual devotion, and sitzfleisch, the ability to sit and concentrate on studies for hours on end.
"What is the point of a crazy game like baseball?" a young ballplayer's exasperated father wrote the Jewish Daily Forward's Bintel Brief letters column in 1903. "The children can get crippled - I want my boy to grow up to be a mensch, not a wild American."
In time, however, a number of the pious warmed to baseball. By 1954, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was using baseball imagery to teach a bar mitzvah boy about yetzer hatov and yetzer ha'ra, the internal impulses of good and evil. "Remember," the rebbe concluded, "just as in baseball, the side which plays best will win."
Baseball still figures prominently in rabbinical sermons. In a 1996 sermon to his Boca Raton, Florida, congregation, Rabbi Richard D. Agler told congregants that, just as every baseball game is part of every other baseball game that has ever been played, "we say that when a Jew is born, we are already 4,000 years old.
"Judaism, like baseball, like family, like everything of value in life, works best when we make the long-term commitment to it."
"Why do very religious Jews participate in baseball rather than other sports?" asks veteran umpire and former Israel Baseball Association president Leon Klarfeld, who moved to Israel from New York in 1969. "My feeling is that the rules of baseball are so difficult and have so much perush [interpretation], that its like the Mishnah and the Gemara [Talmud] and the Rashi and the tosfos [commentary]. They argue over statistics and go into it with all the pilpulim [minute disputation].