I’m not the swaggering type, but I must be the first person who ever swung a bat on the corner of Kaplan Street and Menachem Begin Rd. in Tel-Aviv.
This happened at around 11:00 o’clock last Thursday night, the day after Independence Day. If anyone ever wielded a bat on that street corner before that, for whatever reason or just for the hell of it, feel free to respond to this blog and claim bragging rights. We can swap stories and decide who is crazier.
My tale begins in 1985. I had recently come from New York on Aliyah and just arrived on Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev for a six-month work-study program. As I was getting acquainted with the other young folks in the Hebrew ulpan, a guy named Paul told me that he brought along a Chicago softball, but had left his bat on another kibbutz. “No worries, I brought an aluminum bat!” I assured him. In this fashion, a Midwestern brand of softball had arrived in the Middle East.
For the uninitiated: A baseball is roughly the size of an orange, a softball the size of a grapefruit, and a Chicago softball the size of a pomelo, which, at 26 cm, is just short of a pineapple. The Chicago variant is made of softer material than a standard softball and can be caught without a glove, which, for our purposes on Mishmar Hanegev, made the game more accessible.
We would gather on the soccer field after work hours, Saturdays after lunch or whenever the kibbutzniks weren’t playing football. We fashioned makeshift bases and played with real desire. Most of us were American and knew how to play the game, sort of. We also fielded a Canadian who played by his own set of rules, an English cricket player who had to be reminded to run to first base after he hit the ball, a Russian footballer who would always stop a ground ball with his foot, a Frenchman who once somehow caught that airborne pomelo right between his legs, and an Israeli Kibbutznik who, the first time he took the field, inquired: Efo ani omed, v’lama? – “Where do I stand, and why?”
From November ‘85 through April ’86, we played softball almost every afternoon in that balmy fall and winter and desert dry spring until the ulpan program ran its course. Many a time Paul from Chicago would swing that aluminum bat and hit a line drive over third base, and many a time I would come racing from my outfield position to rob him of a hit, or give it my best shot. Paul and I would choose up sides. The talent on the field was in short supply, but there was no shortage of enthusiasm. We always rounded up enough players to field two teams, and we often drew the attention of curious kibbutzniks.
This novel kibbutz pastime heralded an opportunity to continue playing the game I love over the long haul. I first realized this was even possible when we ulpanistim went on a day trip to Tel-Aviv. As our tour bus made a right turn at the end of Ibn Gvirol Street by the Sportek, I noticed that the fence was shaped like a backstop on a softball field. I tried to point this out to my friends. But by the time anyone looked the bus was heading east and the backstop was out of view. I wondered if I had just imagined it. There was no internet, and no one knew anything about Israeli softball.
A few months later when the ulpan was over, I found my way back to the Tel Aviv Sportek and learned that there is indeed a softball league in Israel. To this day, that revelation still surprises many Israelis and American olim.
That backstop I saw by chance from the window of a bus changed my life in more ways than one. I met the woman I love, Daphna, right there on the Sportek softball field, and later married her…She even came to see me play a few times.
Over the years, I played for several teams in different venues. The league is fast pitch with a regulation softball, real bases and umpires; the game is played on a higher level and the competition is more intense than those ragtag games we played on the kibbutz. But the camaraderie is the same, and the tradition we share, the off the field stuff, the post-game beers and a lot of heart have fostered long-lasting friendships.
Around five years ago I ran into an old friend from Mishmar Hanegev at a pick-up game, Guido from Long Island. (For reasons that I will explain later, he requested that I leave his real name out of this blog, and chose his own pseudonym). We had lost contact back in the nineties and were thrilled to pick up where we left off.
Once we got past the softball connection and all the kibbutz nostalgia our friendship took a different turn. We started talking about things that are more relevant to our present-day lives, and in the process, we revived a lost art: talking politics without hostility. We do this now on a regular basis, over brews and shots, and over coffee with our wives. Though we disagree on many things, we always talk amicably and at times arrive at the same conclusions for different reasons.
For example, I believe that mass demonstrations are an effective way of waking people up when a government is going off the rails. Guido, who likes to play devil’s advocate and can see things from every conceivable angle, is skeptical about the effectiveness of public protest, and has a strong dislike for the hysteria surrounding it. Be that as it may, he recently came to the conclusion that (my interpretation): the “judicial reform” is a bigger threat than the demonstrations are, to the country in general and his peace of mind in particular. So, with a sense of solidarity, he showed up at one of the Saturday night gatherings of “anarchists” on Kaplan Street.
I heartily approved, and we made a le’hayim with Goldstars.
Then, a few weeks ago Guido got a Facebook message from Paul: He was coming to Israel for a visit, and wanted to get together. Guido asked me if I wanted in and I said “hell yeah!” Soon after Guido created a WhatsApp group called “Chicago Softball” and a three-way meeting was set for last Thursday night at the Beer Garden in Sarona.
In preparation, we recalled stories about the young Paul we knew, who often said and did the outrageous and the unexpected. Like the time we had a drunken party in his room and he suddenly yelled, “okay, everybody out, now!” for no apparent reason, with a morning after explanation that “the party reached it’s peak, and it was time to end it.” Like the time our ulpan group, fifty strong, went on a tiyul up north and stopped in a middle of nowhere kibbutz to spend the night. When we walked through the entrance gate, Paul picked up a bad vibe and solemnly said “something terrible happened here.” To remedy that, he figured that, before it gets dark, we make the best of what the kibbutz had to offer: a run-down basketball court and a ball in need of an air pump. Hence, resourceful Paul invented “free for all basketball:” No rules, no teams, no dribbling, plenty of fouling, every man for himself. The game lasted until we dropped from exhaustion. We were still laughing when they dumped all fifty of us with our sleeping bags in one empty store room.
With those and many other youthful memories to relive, I think that Guido and I had an unspoken understanding: Lay off the politics, unless Paul gets us started.
After he got on the wrong bus, Paul showed up at the Beer Garden an hour or so late, bearing gifts. He gave Guido a box of cigars. Nice of him to remember after all these years that Guido smokes cigars, which complements his Groucho mustache. He presented me with a used bat, explaining that he had left it on Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, way back when. Then I remembered: That’s what kibbutz-hopping Paul had told me the day I met him on Mishmar HaNegev. Paul filled in the blanks, vaguely. Here’s my reconstruction:
Paul had left behind a woman on Netzer Sereni, or maybe she had left him in a “get out, now!” manner of speaking, and in his haste, he had left the bat behind too. I understood that the main purpose of his trip to Israel was to spend some time with this woman. That time is over now. Paul is a lifelong bachelor, and there is probably so much more to that story than I’ll ever know. But these are the plain facts: She kept the bat for him for thirty-seven years, and now he was giving it to me. I was touched by Paul’s gesture and thanked him for the bat.
I inspected it: A Louisville Slugger, official slow pitch softball. The time-honored brand is better known for its official Major League baseball status. Paul’s bat had enough wear and tear to date back to his grade school days. Its wooden handle was chipped, unlike the handle on my aluminum bat which somehow dismembered itself after a mere fifteen-year service life. This big stick is a keeper. I could still make out the Louisville Kentucky in red letters on a bat that surely has more life left in it than I have playing days left at the age of 67. But I haven’t hung up my cleats yet, and there’s no arguing with wishful thinking.
The Beer Garden must have liked what we were spending on brew and sausages as they gave us free shots of whisky, which encouraged one last round of beers. The hours went by like minutes and the thirty-seven year gap was filled with the memories of a lifetime. We showed each other old photos, talked about the people we knew from the kibbutz, told stories and shared many laughs.
Paul came up with the inevitable quote of the evening, which was tame for him: “We’re all wondering how you guys ever let yourself get taken over by a demagogue like Netanyahu, and you probably wonder how we ever elected a jerk like Trump.” I assured him that our trio wasn’t responsible for any of that. I didn’t mention that we were sitting near Kaplan Street, the epic story that was unfolding there every week, or that I had been there two nights ago for a first time Independence Day celebration/ anti-government demonstration, sensing that the Israeli angst might ruin the special ambience of our meeting. We exchanged three-way glances, silently avowed that we’re on the same page and resumed more cheerful conversation.
When it was time to part ways, I told Paul that we barely scratched the surface and had to do this again. Paul, who had a plane to catch the next day, had to first hop on a bus down to Florentine, where he would spend the night in a flop house. Guido was walking him a few blocks to make sure he got on the right bus. I had to continue straight to get on the last train to Netanya. On the corner of Kaplan and Menachem Begin, at the very spot where they set up the stage for the rallies, I said, “guys, I have something to show you.”
I put my shoulder bag down on the ground. I gripped that Louisville Slugger, eased into my batting stance, made sure no one was standing near me or approaching the radius of my swing, and swung as level and hard as I could at an illusory fastball… In my sweet imagination I saw a well-struck ball soar past the Azrieli Towers and land on the curvilinear roof of the train station.
“I can still do it,” I said with a smile that concealed the pain in my wrist.
We said our farewells, and once again I thanked Paul for the bat. Then Guido came up with the out-of-the-blue quote of the evening:
“Watch out,” he said, “that bat can start a civil war.”
I was contemplating that cataclysmic possibility ten minutes later as I waited for the train to roll into the station. I knew that it would be carrying some hard-core right-wingers from Netanya who participated in the all hyped up “Million Demonstration” that was held that same evening by the Knesset. I was just reading about it on my cell phone. Our shameful government had sent in busloads of demonstrators, some of them hooligans, to deride and incite against Israeli citizens who, rightfully so, express their view that the “judicial reform” is a hostile takeover of Israel’s Supreme Court.
What would happen, I thought, if on the train ride home Ben Gvir’s goons identify me as a leftist/ anarchist/ traitor, threaten me with violence, and then, should I lose my cool, capture me on camera as I go into my batting stance brandishing a Louisville Slugger, if only to protect myself? What if Channel 14 uses that photo? Could I plead self-defense? Would it start a civil war? Worse, would Bibi declare a national state of emergency?
Spoiler: None of those things will happen, not when I’m the one holding the bat. Says who? Says Israel Railways’ security guards who let me into the train station with a bat. Twice they questioned me, once at the entrance and once on the platform. Twice they asked me why I was carrying a bat, twice they smiled at me when I told them I’m a ballplayer, twice they noticed that I had a few drinks in me, and twice they came to the conclusion that I’m not a security threat. Sorry, if Ben-Gvir’s boys want to incite an anarchist they’ll have to find some other sucker.
On the train platform I got the idea for this blog, and thought I would give my friends a heads up on our WhatsApp group. I told them the blog would highlight the civil war remark, that I would provide the necessary background information and use their names. My friend from Long Island, who had more or less warned me that a threatening bat in the hands of a threatened anarchist can prompt another Gettysburg, texted back that his remark was stupid, asked me to leave out his name and even came up with a pseudonym. I understood that he didn’t want to have his name associated with a Third Temple destruction scenario.
Chicago-bound Paul didn’t have a problem with me using his name, saying that everyone who knows him expects him to say something off the wall. I thought that in these perplexing times Israel could use someone who can both think out of the box and be right on target. A shame that Paul was already leaving.
I’m sure Guido feels the same way…
Guido, now, how did he come up with that name?
I mulled this over and, without asking him, figured out why my mustachioed cigar smoking friend chose a Latin pseudonym. So, with these last thoughts I’ll bring my flighty tale to a happy landing:
If and when the shit hits the fan and Ben Gvir gets his own private army, it looks like Start-Up Nation will make an exit to familiar warm Mediterranean climes. Italy, Spain, Portugal. Democrazia liberale, bebé!
And here’s some more Latin-sounding lingo: Without those Ashkenazi elitists to help them with the business of running a country, the likes of Ben Gvir and his unremarkable followers amount to nada y pues nada.
In truth, the one Ashkenazi elitist we can all do without is…only Bibi.