The season’s change from summer to fall brings Rosh HaShanah and, with the month of Tishrei, baseball’s postseason and the World Series. The timing is fateful: American sports have long occupied a unique role in Jewish American identity.
A great challenge of Jewish living in the Diaspora has entailed the delicate balance between social integration into civil society and the maintenance of Jewish identity. Hanukah happens in Jerusalem whether one does anything or not; menorahs shine in the windows of virtually every home for eight days, and there is no end to jelly donuts.
In America, however, bringing Jewish behavior into the mainstream can often be daunting. Naama Shafir of the Hoshaya yishuv in the Galil is in her final undergraduate year at the University of Toledo and plays basketball. Shafir is religious and, in adherence with her practice, elects to cover her shoulders and upper arms on the court. Wearing a t-shirt under one’s jersey is a common practice in the NCAA for both men and women. On a college court, Shafir dresses like a lot of other players. It has not hurt her game; she led Toledo to the WNIT championship in April by scoring 40 points in the final.
This year, however, Shafir was presented with a dilemma. Israel qualified for the 2011 European Women Basketball Championship, a qualifying tournament for the FIBA World Championship for Women and for the Olympic Games. FIBA, international basketball’s European headquarters, does not permit players to wear undershirts. In an effort to address FIBA’s regulations, the team created a jersey with sleeves to conform to Shafir’s religious needs.
In the event that FIBA would reject the ad-hoc solution, Shafir was prepared to sit out, and the squad brought an extra player to the tournament. Ultimately, the wardrobe decision was approved, and Shafir had publicly been loyal to her Jewish identity in her willingness to practice modesty.
Shafir is only a contemporary example of Jewish athletes calling attention to religious observance. In the 1930s and 1960s, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax became Jewish leaders for their actions on and off the baseball field around the High Holidays, displaying their public affirmations of their Jewish identity in the face of the wider public. In 1934, with his team in the pennant race, Greenberg played on Rosh Hashanah and hit two homeruns to beat the Red Sox but chose to sit out the Yom Kippur game. Only the baseball writers noticed Greenberg was missing—
an absence that ended the streak of 143 straight games that season. Greenberg was 23 years old in 1934, and he broke out that year hitting .339 and leading the American League in doubles with 63. Any community consternation at Greenberg’s playing on Rosh Hashanah was wildly drowned out by pride in the youngster’s extraordinary success.
Koufax, too, demonstrated a strong commitment to Jewish holidays. The best pitcher in all of Major League Baseball for the six-year period 1961 to 1966, Koufax publicly sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series, which was played in Bloomington, Minnesota against the Minnesota Twins. Though he had previously appeared in the Series in 1959 and 1963, none of his scheduled appearances coincided with Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Koufax’s very public decision to sit out the game was a moment of leadership, presenting an active model of Jewish identification to the American community.
That a US minority ethnic community might take communal pride in the success and celebrity of one of its own is not unique to America’s Jewish community. Joe DiMaggio was a source of deep pride to the Italian-American community in the 1930s and 1940s. A generation of Mexican-Americans became Dodgers fans with Fernando Valenzuela’s rookie success in 1981.
Ethan Kensky, writing about Greenberg for the Jewish Review of Books this past summer, characterized the current generation of Jewish ballplayers (All-Stars Ryan Braun, Kevin Youkilis, and Ian Kinsler) as a golden age. Yet it is striking to compare this golden age to the leadership specifically Jewish in character that Koufax and Greenberg modeled—in their public actions and not merely in their ethnic checkbox.
It is even more striking when actions like those of Shafir come at a time when, concurrent with the ability of American Jews to assimilate beyond the boundaries of our Jewish identity, there is a shift in the wider American society toward a respect for individual religious practice. NFL player Husain Abdullah fasts for the duration of the Muslim liturgical month of Ramadan. Shawn Bradley had a successful NBA career following two years on a Mormon mission.
Greenberg, Koufax, and Shafir’s willingness to assert their Jewish identity above their commitments as professional athletes and public expectations set them apart from Braun, Youkilis, and Kinsler, who have defined themselves as successful ballplayers but have yet to assert their Jewish identity at the risk of their professional opportunities. The decisions of these sports leaders have both defined and exemplied trends in Jewish—and more broadly religious—identity in America as a whole.