Hometown Disadvantage

While I admit that my aliyah was relatively painless, I am still part of a small, unsung band of Zionists who are the sporting victims of our own idealism

How can I compare the sacrifices I made to those of the early Zionist pioneers? I didn't dry out the swamps, toil in the fields or break my back laying the foundations of the fledgling state.

My aliyah process - from the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s - was as smooth and as painless as any relocation can be; it was the migrant equivalent of having a mole removed.

And yet, I belong to a group of immigrants - a small, unsung band of Zionists - whose sacrifice is as real to them, to us, as any of the loftier deprivations. We, too, left something behind and paid a price for our idealism. We are the sporting victims of our own Zionist aspirations and we all have our stories to tell. This is mine.

I have been following the fortunes of Newcastle United - a perennially underachieving, often risibly calamitous soccer team in northeastern England - for as long as I can remember. Being a supporter of the 'Toon', as the team is known, is as much a part of my identity as being Jewish, being male, being heterosexual - being anything. And for the first part of my life, living in the soccer-centric city of Newcastle, I was surrounded by like-minded obsessives, happy to spend all day discussing the latest news about team training and pouring over the newspapers for scraps of information.

The first time I became painfully aware that my love for Newcastle was going to be an albatross around my neck was during my first summer in Israel.

I had managed to keep up with some of the news from back home, thanks to two-day-old English newspapers that cost a substantial proportion of my weekly budget, and the BBC World Service, which offered 15-minute sports reports twice a day and, on Saturdays, three hours of almost uninterrupted coverage.

I was enrolled in an ulpan (Hebrew-language program) on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, living in the dorms and generally getting to know the place I had decided to call home. It was a week before the new soccer season was due to start and I was beginning to get nervous; I was thinking more and more about the game, less and less about studies. And then, it happened: a moment I had been dreading. A few members of my class were planning a weekend away at the Dead Sea - with tents on the beach at Ein Gedi and a predawn climb up Masada to watch the sunrise.

Here I was, thousands of miles away from Newcastle, contemplating passing up the chance to spend a weekend away with friends in order to be near a radio for 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon.

Was I mad? Was I really going to allow my obsession to hunt me down in the Holy Land, shackle me like a chemical dependency and make me rue the day I was ever taken, at the tender age of six, to St. James' Park, the home of Newcastle United?

In the end, I decided to buy batteries for my oversized radio-tape and to schlep it with me all the way to the Dead Sea. So I found myself, at five o'clock in the afternoon on a sweltering day at the end of August, sitting at the foot of Masada, listening to my team lose 2-0 in the first game of a nine-game losing streak, and trying not to listen to complaints from my sweat-drenched, tired friends who just wanted to get on the bus and go home.

My story is far from unique. All of us, whether we wake up at 3 A.M. to follow the New York Mets, take days off work to listen to the first Ashes test match or buy expensive satellite dishes so we can watch the Sydney Swans lose again, sacrifice something to keep on following our teams: sleep, money, dignity, the respect of our friends and families. We have all listened in horror as people suggest that we just "pick an Israeli team to support instead," and we have all experienced the ultimate torture of having no one to celebrate great victories with or to console us after crushing defeats.

We gather in sports bars at ungodly hours to watch the World Series, we celebrate our own holidays - the last Sunday in January, Superbowl Sunday, is a holy day for football fans - and, if we're not careful, we pass on our obsessions to our offspring. I have a friend who lives in Ra'anana whose two teenagers have never been to England or even seen a soccer game live, but who cry like babies when Liverpool loses. My own son, not yet 10, has already suffered the trauma of being teased by his school friends for supporting Newcastle - something that I can only blame myself for.

Technological advances have made following one's team much easier: There are a dozen TV sports channels and hundreds of Internet sites providing 24-hour coverage. All this, however, just feeds the obsession: If there's more information out there to be consumed, we will consume it. All of it, all the time.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his seminal novel 'Cat's Cradle,' says that the tendrils of one's life, one's sinookas, are linked to one's place of birth, and the further one travels from there, the longer and more fragile these sinookas become. Our sporting sinookas, by contrast, remain strong - no matter how far we are from our hometown or how long we have been separated from the team we love.

To paraphrase Shakespeare's Henry V, we are the few, the unhappy few and every time our team plays and we're not there to see it, it is our St. Crispin's Day.