march madness

Once a week I have a phone conversation with Bernie (now in his 90’s and retired) who was the owner of KTAV Publishers, an important Jewish publishing company. I grew up reading many KTAV books, and learned to read Hebrew with a Hebrew primer that is still used today in religious schools and synagogue adult learning programs as well.  Our personal relationship began back in the 1980’s when KTAV published one of my first projects, Shabbat Delight: A Celebration in Stories and Games. For the next 25 years KTAV published many more of my books and our personal and professional connection deepened. We saw each other regularly at rabbinic and educators’ conferences.  My wife and I were honored to be invited as part of the family when Bernie’s late brother Sol received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University and more recently to Bernie’s 90th birthday brunch.

As a college student, Bernie played on the Yeshiva University basketball team and his stats are recognized in a book on noted Jewish sports figures. Bernie and I talk about a myriad of things on our weekly calls, but our conversation always includes basketball and his beloved New York Knicks.  The Knicks have always had a strong support base, even though they have not been a very good team for many years now. Bernie knows all of the nuances of the game, and talks about coaching strategies, his favorite players, and what it might take for the Knicks to again become champions.

The other day the news broke that Yeshiva University’s basketball team will go to the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time in its history.  Even the New York Times printed a very comprehensive article that included details about the players with pictures of them both on the court and in study, with their kippot on their heads and fringes (tzitzit) showing beneath their uniforms.  I called Bernie and needless to say he was ecstatic.  He reported that he will be listening to the first game on Yeshiva University’s own radio station.  Admittedly, although I am much more of a hockey and a baseball fan, I have been captivated with the excitement of the event.

The Yeshiva basketball team is called the Maccabees, named for the ancient band of freedom fighters. A New York Post headline blared (in a pun on the Hebrew word for “gotta” as in “ya gotta have faith”):  “YESH THEY CAN and the online Jewish publication Tablets declared that the team’s making the NCAA tournament was “one of the most unlikely Jewish sporting feats ever.” Religious studies and secular academics have traditionally overshadowed sports at YU, although its women’s tennis teams and university roller hockey teams have fared very well.

One of the challenges for a basketball team composed of observant Jews is time constraint of Jewish observance.  With so many Jewish holidays throughout the year along with the Sabbath every week, players have less time for shooting practice, lifting weights and reviewing videos of plays and strategies – not to mention that they can’t compete in games on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.  At YU team practices begin before 6 AM, finishing in time for prayer and religious studies which begin at 9 AM. Luckily, the NCAA  has graciously accommodated by scheduling the YU team for games on Friday afternoon (rather than the typical Friday night time slot) and moving games scheduled for Saturday afternoon until after the Sabbath ends with nightfall.

According to the players, their faith informs their values and the way they play the game. They see their faith and upbringing as an advantage.  In fact, the team has started studying passages from the Torah (Five Books of Moses) before games this year. Many of the players participated in basketball programs at their Jewish Day High Schools and Yeshivas in their teen years, so they have a lot of practice at balancing their religion with their athletic pursuits.

The Maccabees of bygone days were a fearless group of warriors who fought for Jewish identity and religious freedom.   I’m rooting for the success of the Yeshiva Maccabees.  However the tournament turns out for them, I’m banking on them to play the game with courage and determination and the highest level of Jewish values and sportsmanship.  I’m thrilled that they are giving their school (and the Jewish people vicariously) a chance to win a national trophy.  As they say – you gotta have faith!