May 2007

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2008 J


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Hank Greenberg, the ultimate Jewish baseball player.

Jews On First

-- Ronda Fox

I am sitting on rust-pocked bleachers. Though it is a spring evening, fog numbs the tip of my nose and restores my hair to its pre-blow dried state. My socks are damp. My sneaker tread is wedged with discarded sunflower seed shells. A foul ball just misses my ear. Still, despite the rust, the frizz, the chill, the shells, and the life-threatening fouls, I am exultant. I am watching my sons play little league where there are Jews on first.

I grew up in a suburb of few Jews --- where the closest they got to diamonds was owning Kreitzman's Gem Center. While this had something to do with the refrain "So you think you're going to become a professional baseball player? Do your homework!", it mostly had to do with simple demographics: My elementary school had five Jews, including my brother, sister, and me. My teachers did not know from the America Civil Liberties Union. Every December, among the construction paper Christmas trees was my green menorah. Every April, among the cotton ball bunnies, was my furry matzoh. I felt proud God had included me among his chosen people, but could he have chosen a few more to keep me company?

Alex Frumkin up at bat for a Jewish baseball league in Los Angeles, California.

By contrast, before me now in Los Angeles the field is teeming with boychicks, their heritage evident in the names spanning their jerseys. The letters barely fit across their narrow backs: Rappaport, Liebhaber, Blumenfeld, Straussberg. Even the first names ringing across the field reflect Semitic stock: Aaron, Isaac, Nathan, Moses! This is not a baseball team, it is a minyan, with the umpire determining kosher or treif. And yet, this isn’t an Orthodox league. We revere Sandy Koufax for choosing penance over pennants, as we drive to our Shabbos play-offs. We have a sizable contingent of Sullivans and Murphys. It’s just that unlike in the town where I was raised, here spectators say things like "look at the shmutz on that tuchas", or "the catcher has such a punim."

A Jewish sensibility pervades this league beyond the periodic Yiddish.

First, expectations and tempers run low. Everyone effuses over effort. Because SAT's are valued over ERA's or RBI's, the prevailing sense is that baseball is just for fun. The boys need to air out a little; this is exercise and camaraderie that happen to require a uniform. Snacks tend to be healthy, and the boys arrive for practices lugging not only gloves, bats, and helmets, but also musical instruments, homework, and photocopies of their Torah portions. Parents tend to lose track of the games, absorbed in conversations in which they try to pretend they are not pumping each other for information on anything that might benefit their own children.

Second, safety reigns. Parents fleetingly rue but ultimately admire the boy thrown out because he declined to slide. A strong survival instinct trumps risking ones neck for a game. Parents whose attention might stray from the stats have an eye perpetually trained on the player on deck. "Be careful swinging that bat" receives far more airtime than "choke up on it" or "just hit strikes." The fast track to becoming a pariah is to throw the bat. Pitchers who inadvertently pelt batters are racked with guilt, and the applause greeting a hurt player who shows signs of life is deafening. We compete through our children, both on and off the field, but imperiled, each boy feels like our own, and we bring to every injury the full force of our collective anxiety.

Third, integrity is more important than victory. In our league, the sportsmanship award really means something. Not a consolation prize to the hapless, it represents the ultimate achievement: remaining honorable despite frustration, rivalry, boredom, and an athletic cup. With time, the first place trophy will lose its sheen. The gold-painted plastic bat will inevitably snap off, taking with it part of an arm leaving the figure looking like Venus de Milo in ankle pants and a baseball cap. Sportsmanship, though, endures. Pitching skills don’t help future relationships; indeed, one committed to another should never play the field. Speed, strength, and stamina , without more, don’t make for a good catch. Life extends far beyond these bases: a good heart is far more important than a good arm. Ultimately, the boy who helps a fallen teammate is more likely to one day help a fallen world.

The game is over. I drag in the outfield fence with the banner advertising the local deli. We’ve got Shawn Green, Brad Ausmus, Mike Lieberthal, Gabe Kapler, Alan Levine, David Newhan, and Scott Shoeneweis in the big leagues, and menches on these benches. My sons know Jews comprise only a small part of our nation’s population. They go to public school, where they have befriended children from an array of cultures. But this is their culture. We live in a neighborhood with a high concentration of Jews because I wanted them to feel at home. Now they even feel it at home plate.

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Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.

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