Two former Clevelanders sit in a standing-room only bar in downtown Jerusalem at three in the morning, hoping and waiting to see if history will unfold before their eyes. After 52 years, a drama-filled season (which included the firing of Israel’s favorite son, David Blatt), and a Finals that saw them down three games to one, the Cavs have a chance to bring redemption to the title-starved town on Lake Erie.
Becky and I originally met at day camp in Cleveland, and now are the two Clevelanders of the StandWithUs Israel office. Neither of us is a stranger to the tale of the underdog. As members of the Tribe (of the Jewish People, not the beloved Cleveland Indians), our Jerusalem-based addresses are themselves a 2000 year victory against all odds. Our daily work focuses on teaching the world the true story of Israel and the Jewish people — an indigenous people who returned to their 3000 year old homeland after 2000 years of Exile.
The miraculous, impossible, and unfathomable is interwoven into the double-helix of our DNA.
My loyalty to Cleveland sports has always been connected to my appreciation of Jewish history. For me, the fact that the countdown from the last Cleveland World Series Championship is identical to the age of the Modern State of Israel testifies to the holy underdogma of my childhood city. In my eyes, Cleveland has always been the King David of sports.
In the basement of Mike’s Place, the Anglo hangout of Jerusalem, Becky has managed to snag a seat next to a group of American Ultra-Orthodox students studying at the Mir Yeshiva.
“Game 7, I’m Cavs all the way, baby,” one of them says to me.
Throughout the game, our neighbors offer color commentary in Yiddish – often peppered with some choice F-Bombs when Stephen Curry and his mighty Warriors lay down some of their incredible playmaking magic.
Across the table, Elliot, a Syrian Jew from Brooklyn, takes in our Erie anxiety and offers us “respect.”
Jews from all stripes have come together to watch this game. Basketball as it should be – the great uniter on and off of the court.
But for Cleveland fans, the Jewish unity around Game Seven is a small comfort. The Warriors are a well-oiled machine. Their game flows like a river, their famous “splash” three pointers appropriately named. Our Cavs, on the other hand, toss threes away like Shekels into a fountain, and drive to the hoop like a Chevy into a wall.
“Sloppy plays,” a friend messages me. “No consistency.”
Yet, somehow, at the end of the third quarter, the Cavs are only down by one point – a testament to the grit of Lebron and Co.
Becky’s brother in Cleveland patches in through Facetime. Watching the crowd in Downtown CLE, I can feel the pulse, the energy that Clevelanders are sending this team from all across the world. Willing the team to win and end the championship exile that has hovered over the city for 52 years.
Nobody would ever confuse Cleveland for the Promised Land. No milk and honey has ever flowed through its streets. But then again, Israel itself has always been far from “The Promise.”
“A land that devours its inhabitants,” we read in this week’s Torah portion. Like in Cleveland, only grit and elbow grease turned this desert land into what it is today. Honey don’t flow for free.
With 3:40 left in the game, and the score tied, I can almost taste the sweetness. My breath catches in my chest. The Curse of Cleveland allows no fan to relax until the game is completely over. As the clock ticks down, Kyrie Irving drains a three and puts the Cavs on top. Becky and I are nearly hyperventilating. We shush anyone who speaks of victory, fearing the “Ayin Hara,” the evil eye jinx that has haunted fans of the 216 for so many years
If you can still breathe at this point of the game, I say to myself, you’re clearly not from Cleveland.
When Lebron James goes down on a dunk attempt with 10 seconds left, my teeth chatter. Since “The Decision,” I have had a love-hate relationship with the so-called King. His arrogance, which in the eyes of many Israelis led to the David Blatt saga, combined with lingering feelings of betrayal has always made it hard for me root for him. But when he rose from the floor and landed a free throw with an injured wrist, it was clear that he had left it all on the floor.
“Could this actually be it?,” I ask myself, unable and unwilling to believe.
Half way around the world, two Clevelanders sobbed and celebrated a championship 52 years in the making. Redemption had come to Cleveland.
“I wish we could be there” Becky said.
So did I. And at the same time, I didn’t.
For 11 years, I have rooted for two teams: Hometown and Homeland. With a hometown victory finally in hand, I changed out of my Cleveland shirt and into a different type of uniform. With red eyes but a happy heart, I put on the olive green of the IDF and headed out for a week of training in the reserves.
There are some things in life that are greater than the individual.