Taking One for the Team

It's like sports: Jews immigrate to Israel to become a member of the national side

Like many a Western immigrant to Israel, I was sports-obsessed when I came here eons ago and remain so to this day. Until recently, however, I never saw the connection.

It never occurred to me that the concept of team sports could have helped me contend with one of the unforeseen perils of coming to live in Israel: the well-meaning but uncomprehending native-born Israeli who asks "Why in the world did you move here?"

When you're new, of course, you try with profound seriousness of purpose to actually answer the question. It doesn't help, whether the reason is the alienation endemic to Western society, a train wreck of a family of origin or born-again Zionism. It doesn't help if you say you have family here, or that your people were once kicked out of ancient Palestine by the Romans and for some reason you found yourself, as a visitor, feeling oddly and deeply at home. Neither you nor the listener is truly satisfied, truly convinced.

Later, weary of being asked again and again, there's a tendency to dredge up the response that betrays a certain annoyance. "I came here for the food," or "I decided to help make room for the Israelis moving to L.A."

With time, however, I've come to realize that the reason I came here was that I was a member of a team. It was not a sports team per se, but it functioned as one.

It was an expansion team, formed to compete in what was then the big leagues of settlement within the confines of the State of Israel. We were going to build a new kibbutz on the ruins of an old, abandoned one. We were going to be in the Ichud, at the time the National League of kibbutzim. And there was nothing we wouldn't do to make this team succeed.

As with many sports teams at the time, the competitive fire, the joy and pride and agonizing with which we approached the game had nothing to do with money. We had other ways of keeping score.

And then, for many of us, there was the question of actual sports. For much of the year, the men in the community, and many of the women, were baseball-crazed. In a do-it-yourself country, where the amateur is king (as well as cabinet minister), we discovered that we could create a nation-spanning baseball league just by picking up the phone. True, the fields were often cratered and, in one case, even mined. But come summer, we became the ballplayers we never would have been back home, just as we had become the wheat farmers, dairy farmers and sheep and chicken ranchers we never would have been back home. On the kibbutz, as in sports, some people didn't like the position they were assigned to. But you did what you could for the sake of the team.

In the end, whatever team you played for, whether it was the leftists who were my brothers and sisters, or the settlers who were our opponents in almost every sense, everyone had come for the same reason. To play for the national team. There was nothing we wouldn't do - and that's still the case - to make the team succeed.

In the end, playing sports taught me why we came to this place − because it was a place where we could, at long last, be ourselves. Because it was a place where we had the possibility of becoming what we were meant to be. Because it was a place where we could matter.

And every time I think all of that is gone, I see young people coming to this place, and they get that look in their eye. There is still something here for them. They still come. Incredibly, inexplicably, inevitably, they still want to be on this team.