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Heading home: Thoughts on life, death, Judaism and baseball

Ahead of the High Holidays, America's pastime comes to mind: The rules and regulations, the unbreakable traditions – and the moments of reckoning

Every time my youngest son goes up to bat he pulls his cap over his eyes, takes a few practice swings, moves his hand across his chest and then points up to the sky. Anyone watching might mistake these deliberate moves for a cross and an appeal to God. But I know the truth about his routine, his private superstition at bat. Not only is he Jewish, and Jews don’t cross themselves, but he is invoking his father, dead now six years, believing fully that his dad is watching him play, rooting for him and sprinkling good luck as he rounds the bases with his powerful fast run.

Baseball players are very superstitious. There are hundreds of things a baseball player will do or won’t do in order to ensure a good game. Don’t talk about a no-hitter or perfect game when a game is in progress. Spit on a new bat for good luck.

Jews are superstitious too. You never have a baby shower until after the baby is born, just in case. There’s also the famous spit, just as in baseball, but three times, ptuh ptuh ptuh, to ward off the evil eye when something seems too good to be true.

Jews and baseball go together. Jews love baseball. We love it for the heroes who honor their identity over the game – Detroit’s Hank Greenberg playing on Rosh Hashanah but atoning for it by attending synagogue instead of slugging it out on Yom Kippur, or the LA Dodger’s Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series for the same solemn holiday. We love it for its tribalism, its sense of community. We love that Greenberg was one of the few players to publicly welcome Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947, setting the tone for Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, two decades later. We love that baseball, as the “American pastime,” allowed us to participate in the social contract when restrictions against Jews were still in place and our presence in many places was not a given – but we could attend a ball game, root for a team, sneak in a listen to the final scores on a transistor radio during Shabbat. Philip Roth called baseball “a secular church” that bound together every class and region of the nation with common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms.

Baseball and Judaism share certain traits. Both are complicated, messy, and filled with regulations. The rabbi and the umpire oversee a legion of rules and keep a sharp eye out for transgressions. Both have unbreakable traditions that aren’t in the rule books – in baseball, fans always stand for the seventh inning stretch, and in synagogue, Jews stand when the ark is opened. Both also require a return home, baseball through a gauntlet of pitches, hits, misses, bases, runs and cap-tilting strategies, and Judaism through a year marked by celebrations, commemorations, and a final month of spiritual wandering until we reach the day of atonement, during which we do teshuvah, the return to ourselves. Every year, as we make our way through the Torah, tractate after tractate feeds our search, our need for meaning. And then, during Elul, the month that precedes the High Holidays, Judaism’s most sacred time, we are given the chance to review and renew and prepare for the biggest moment on the calendar – teshuvah, the return. The pinnacle of the Jewish year often coincides with the World Series, forcing generations of fans to think up all sorts of creative excuses to step outside from services to check the score.

On Yom Kippur, we atone for what we have done in the past year that was wrong, misguided, hurtful. We get to look back at the year that has rolled by, with its attendant loss and failure, death and disappointment, and by the end of that year, there is this day that heals. The passage of each year brings awareness, reminding us of the home we came from and the home to which we return. It is an annual journey of transformation, landing us back where we belong at the end of every cycle. The tumult of baseball lifts the player and sends him home just as the tumult of a year burnishes the soul and sends it back to its starting point. We both round the bases.

* * *

I didn’t really think about baseball until I met the man who was to become my husband. We met in 1989, the year “Field of Dreams” was released. I was learning about my husband’s fractured relationship with his father, who was mentally ill, although my husband never quite framed it that way. But reading the 16-page missives his father sent him – his father, who lived in Israel after a life that involved many marriages, many poor choices, and many strange curve balls of fate – was an indication, to me at least, of a mangled mind.

We went to see “Field of Dreams.” Of course, it’s not really about baseball but about human relationships. But also baseball. It’s especially about the highly-mythologized American father-son relationship embodied by baseball. The smack of a bat. The stiffness of a new mitt that needs to be oiled and broken in. The smell of freshly-cut grass on a green field in the summer heat. Sharing soda and ice cream and beer and peanuts and hot dogs. Playing catch. We still somehow believe in the magic of a boy and his dad playing catch. Baseball as religion.

At the pivotal moment in the film, when Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella asks his dad – who Ray has hated his whole life but has been chasing for the whole movie even though he doesn’t know it and who was a long-dead minor baseball player but has miraculously returned as a ghost to a cornfield in Iowa – “Hey dad, wanna have a catch?” my eyes misted over. I thought about my husband and his dad. My heart ached for him, and his tortured relationship with the man who was not capable of taking care of him.

My husband grew up in Phoenix where there wasn’t even a baseball team until 1998. Growing up there one had to choose to root for a team from another city. So his team was Pittsburgh. But even though his dad grew up in Brooklyn, where every boy played baseball on the street even if with just a stick from the gutter, he wasn’t very good at baseball or parenting and so there never was a game of catch in their vast desert backyard. Coyotes, yes. Craziness, yes. But no baseball.

My son tells me that baseball is all about strategy. He has been an athlete since he was old enough to hold a ball. Balls represented fun, strength, games, and something that he could master that neither of his older siblings was interested in. He played on serious teams from the beginning. He taught me that actually, winning IS everything. For a long time it seemed that soccer was his game – he was not a great goal-maker but he was FAST. He often found himself at the end of the field with his whole team still seconds behind him. He was all over the field, running and giving and playing with everything he had. He also played basketball in the winter, and wanted to try hockey and football, which I ruled out. Baseball started as an adjunct to soccer in middle school, but by high school, when his dad was sick with terminal brain cancer, baseball was everything.

“Field of Dreams” became a staple of rerun television and my husband and I watched it in fits and starts many times over. And every time the scene with the son and the dad and the catch came on, I would well up with cathartic tears. My poor husband. His sad father. My husband, so dedicated to the idea of being a better parent, to being a dad who was going to be around to play catch with his children. His scars ran deep, but his destiny was to make a better future for our family. In fact, it’s what drew us together from the beginning, both of us emerging from fractured families and painful and unusual divorces. My husband, determined and disciplined, knew that the road to redemption resided in the lingua franca of sports.

* * *

The High Holidays approach and observant Jews spend a month in preparation, reading, thinking, opening their souls for the supreme judgment. On Yom Kippur, Jews are presented with the ultimate question – in the coming year, who will live and who will die? We ask for mercy, we atone for our sins. We try to be better, to do better. Our actions affect not only us but the whole community and the whole world. We are commanded to conduct our lives in the spirit of tikkun olam – repairing the world – and to practice gemilut chasadim – acts of lovingkindness. We want to adhere to our promises, we look ahead to a year in which we are better people. All the thinking, all the learning we do each week, every year, leads us to this pivotal moment of reckoning.

Baseball’s pivotal moments of reckoning come at the players with more randomness, but are forged in years of practice. Baseball players may pray at the altar of baseball, but they play on a real live field, where thinking, anticipating and waiting for the moment of play, along with atonement for an error and a promise to do better, are a part of the religion.

My husband’s final year of life was a bit like a losing baseball season. Once we received the diagnosis – glioblastoma – and the prognosis – 12-15 months – he came out swinging hard. He was determined to beat the monster. He believed in the dream that he could be the outlier, the one who beat the odds. He kept hard at that practice, pushing himself through physical therapy to mend a shoulder mangled by a seizure, eating healthily to keep sugar and medication-induced diabetes at bay. About halfway through the season, after pitching not a single winning game, he started to move more slowly, his energy clearly flagging. He listened to the commentators – in this case, his doctors – who were unfailingly realistic and honest about his chances. As time moved forward and no magic cure arrived no matter how many times he might have rubbed the bat, he settled into the reality that this was his final season. And when the time came to take his last round of the bases, he made the decision to end his life-prolonging medication and, with the bravery of Lou Gehrig, said to his fans – us – that he felt he was the luckiest man alive.

In his final year of life, my husband couldn’t attend High Holiday services, which was an enormous sadness for him. He was pious and observant and believed in the richness of Jewish liturgy and tradition. Although for the first time, the services were being offered streaming live, he did not have the focus or energy to sit through and watch such a long enterprise – looking at screens hurt his head. But he joined in for a short time, reading his machzor, the special Jewish prayer book designed only for the Days of Awe, along with our rabbi and congregation.

Several years after he died, I opened the book for my own prayers and discovered that he had dogeared a page with a kavanah – an intention, an alternative interpretation of the text – that told him this: “When we deny the existence of death, we are pretending our lives are something other than what they are. Living a full life – acknowledging and relishing all of who we are – requires both the recognition that the spark of life within each of us transcends us, and that the time will come when our bodies will return to the dust … let me live the fullness of my days, and when my time comes, die with dignity.”

This was my husband’s return, his understanding that teshuva would only come to him one more time, in his final acts. This was his final time to round the bases, bringing with him the entire history of his people, his life and the world he created. Being able to set the course of his final weeks, his death was indeed one of dignity. Now when I watch Field of Dreams, I cry for my husband and his own son, who can no longer have a catch. And when our son swings his bat, tips his cap and reaches to the sky, he is upholding the legacy left him by the player he admired most of all.

About the Author
Karen Paul is the principal of Catalyzing Philanthropy, and the former Executive Director of Tikkun Olam Women's Foundation of Greater Washington. She is currently in the MFA writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.