Those who know me know that I have always been a big baseball fan. This past year has been very special for me – the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908 AND Israel entered into the World Baseball Classic. A Team Israel baseball team? It’s a gross understatement to say that baseball is not a big deal in Israel. In a nation of around 8 million inhabitants, only about 1000 play baseball – even as recreation. And baseball is clearly not part of the national culture. I remember the time when I took a group of Israeli staff members at my Jewish summer camp to a professional baseball game. They were ready to leave after the first inning, declaring the game too slow and boring and the intricacies that I tried to explain much too difficult and convoluted to understand.
There is only one full size baseball field in all of Israel, built by American Baptists in the early 2000’s. Several other smaller fields are said to be in the works. There has never been an Israeli-born major leaguer. A recent article in The Jewish Week newspaper described Israel’s early success in the World Baseball Classic Tournament as the quintessential Cinderella story. Team Israel defied heavy odds by winnings its first four games with a ragtag gang of mostly has-beens and minor leaguers. Following their saga as it unfolded and as Israel advanced to being only one game away from the semi-finals in Los Angeles, I thought that perhaps this would be a new miracle story. But alas, they lost to a very good Japanese team and their short season was over. Nevertheless, they represented themselves and the State of Israel with pride, even though, ironically, there was only one native Israeli on the team (who happens to live in Brooklyn).
The Jewish Week proposed that aside from providing much needed relief from the nerve-racking news of the day, Team Israel’s success offers up a vital message that transcends the boundaries of a baseball diamond. For almost an entire week this underdog team was the darling of the sports world. Notably, its mascot is a five foot tall Mensch on the Bench, the popular toy modeled after the Elf on the Shelf. Baseball has plenty of actual menches on benches—including the great Sandy Koufax and the power-hitting Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, to mention just two. The fact that Jews from so many strands of Jewish heritage made up Team Israel denotes far more about the miracle of how modern-day Zionism can unite the Jewish people than about merely fielding a baseball squad. And selecting Mensch on the Bench as the team’s mascot is a powerful reminder that ethics is at Judaism’s core, and that how you play the game (not just winning) is what counts in the game of baseball and the game of life.
What really touched me was seeing that when the Israeli team stood at attention for their national anthem (Hatikvah) before each game, they respectfully took off their baseball caps and donned yarmulkes. And on the eve of Purim, before taking to the field, they read the megillah (the scroll of Esther) in the dugout– another story of unimaginable triumph and Jewish pride. Even though there is only one actual Israeli on the team, and even though the players are not necessarily observant, the one thing that they all share is their Jewish identity, pride and unity.
I would like to imagine that if Solomon Schechter, the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary were alive today, he might send me a note after reading this blog. After all, he was the one who said that for a Rabbi to be successful in America, s/he must be able to talk baseball!