Neilah or the ‘G?

Yesterday morning, after walking up the street to collect the papers and order a takeaway coffee, I was stopped by an elderly gentleman sitting down for breakfast, who like me, was proudly wearing his Richmond scarf — showing off his colors with tremendous pride. Saturday afternoon saw the club demolish the Crows by 48 points in the Grand Final, the long suffering Tiger Army winning their 11th premiership and breaking an agonizing 37 year drought. As I was walking out from the cafe with coffee in hand, the man congratulated me on the win. I offered my hearty congratulations to him in return but then felt a little silly that I had said ‘I’ve been waiting a lifetime,’ because surely this ‘lifetime’ of waiting had been a little longer for him that it had for me. Indeed, prior to this year, the Tigers had made the finals series and progressed to the next round only once in my lifetime- 2001, which I was too young to remember, but I couldn’t help but feel that the wait for this chap had been longer. With his wife looking up gleefully at her husband conversing with me, only a kid I’m sure they thought, he confessed that while the wait for number eleven had been long, he had in fact been alive for all ten Richmond premierships — their first being 1920, the year of this man’s birth. Yes, this chap who was as sharp as a tack and not remotely hard of hearing (so it seemed) was 97-years-old and had been a Richmond member for an astonishing 90 consecutive years. I was more than happy to concede him that much — his lifetime in yellow and black had been more joyous and more decorated, but the wait had been longer.

I had a blessed childhood and adolescence growing up in Richmond. The joy of walking to the MCG every Saturday and Sunday afternoon from our house is something I look back on with great fondness. I recall the energy and excitement that filled the streets of the suburb on game day, the yellow and black blood that charged through the veins of Swan Street when Richmond, sitting ninth on the ladder, had an opportunity to break things open and make finals. It never happened- not until 2013, but on more than one occasion, the Tiges showed late signs of redemption and flirted with September. And the suburb of Richmond was alight.

After a Friday night or Saturday night win, I would walk up Swan Street to our favorite cafe, Torch, in the hope that while ordering my hot chocolate, I would see the players enjoying breakfast after a win the previous night. A shy young boy was suddenly transformed into an eager and unapologetic young barracker- whether it was Wayne Campbell or Darren Gaspar, Troy Simmons or Greg Stafford, I would proudly approach their table and congratulate them on the win, telling them just how much it meant. And it did mean a lot. Richmond wins were a treasured rarity for many, many years. Being a Tiger was tough. The real joy for me, an unathletic kid who nevertheless loved his team and fantasized about kicking goals, was watching our beloved Number 12, the revered and adored Matthew Richardson. Many times I held my breath as he lined up for a set shot in front of goal, but he made up for the ones he should’ve kicked but sometimes didn’t, because when he wasn’t in front of goals, he could kick them from anywhere and he was the best pack mark I’ve ever seen. He was colorful and fiery — how I’d laugh when he waved his hands in the air begging for a free kick or shouted at his teammates for not kicking the ball in his direction. He was impassioned, animated and simply a joy to watch, and just seeing him kick a bag at the ‘G was reason alone to love the Tiges.

Being a Richmond supporter living in Richmond made me feel part of something. I felt part of a story, part of a culture. It was and still is a rich and vibrant old suburb of Melbourne — tough, working class, that eat ’em alive spirit. It remains the old stomping ground of 1920s gangster Squizzy Taylor as well as notorious underworld family the Pettingills, who our late next door neighbor, Alice, would recall paroling our street with guns tucked into their trousers during the ’80s. All these stories and the many decades of yesteryear seemed to be contained within the black jumper with the yellow sash — the suburb of Richmond and the Tigers were one in the same. Inseparable. Indivisible.

When I first started loosely observing Shabbat (and I say loosely because unaware I was of the whopping 39 forbidden categories of creative behavior the Sabbath prohibits), going to the football on a Friday night or Saturday was one of the last traditions to fall away. I would still go to games with my father, but he would have to carry my ticket and scan me in the turnstile. As he himself has joked, he’d been reduced to my mere Shabbos Goy. There was a time when I didn’t miss a single match played in Melbourne during the home and away season, but that was something that slowly became part of a past life. Slowly but surely, games on Shabbat became forbidden territory. The adjustment was hard, but I was doing what I felt was unequivocally right for me. It was hard to explain to others how giving up something I loved was in fact enriching me in a host of other ways, but I knew that to be true, and I was unwavering in my commitment to that ideal.
For a number of years now, matches played on Shabbat, just as with matches played interstate, have gone on without me. Each year when my new membership arrives, I put dots next to certain games on my fixture — those I can attend and those I can’t. This year, of the thirteen matches played in Melbourne that didn’t fall on Shabbat, I attended eleven. A great result, I thought, and more so that not one of those matches was a losing one.

As the Tiges edged closer to September and hungrily pursued a top four finish, tensions rose and excitement intensified. Was this going to be the year the drought was broken? Could we really go all the way? Could we overcome our finals curse and proceed to the next round and then to the Big Dance? It seemed too unimaginable to even contemplate- too inconceivable, particularly when it was confirmed that should we win our preliminary final, we’d be facing off against the remarkably classy and formidable Crows.

But everything, amazingly (and to our credit) fell into place. It was a dream come true.

As fate would have it, the Grand Final- our first since 1982, was scheduled for Yom Kippur. I knew for months in advance that Grand Final Day ’17 coincided with Yom Kippur, but I couldn’t help but laugh that our year was to be this year. This secular year (2017), I became Jewish. Next to football, Judaism is one of the great loves of my life. It has enriched me and empowered me, nourished me and fulfilled me. I never lamented the fact that part of the ‘deal’ was bidding farewell to Friday and Saturday football matches, because I was still able to partake in so much of what footy had to offer- namely those games not played on Shabbat.

Though I’d love to say it was, the possibility of me walking to the ‘G for the match on Yom Kippur afternoon didn’t cross my mind. Wouldn’t have happened. I knew that and I was at peace with that.
I remember all those years ago, when I first started observing Shabbat in the general sense, someone a few years my senior who had also transitioned to observant Judaism let me in on a rule he had made for himself:

Swap it, don’t stop it.

No longer able to attend every match played in Melbourne as I once had, of critical importance was not to simply give away football altogether, but rather to make every effort to attend as many matches not played on Shabbat- to be there with my father as much as I could, to partake as much as possible within the parameters and constraints I had assigned myself.

In doing this, I have learnt to truly value and treasure that which has been so much a part of my life since I was a boy. I anticipate and look forward to those matches with a special type of excitement and eagerness. I look forward to sharing a beer with my father at the footy in a way that is manifestly different to the time we spend together outside of the footy. I have learnt to place enormous value on something which I had previously never thought twice about. I have learnt about the crucial importance of maintaining that part of my identity- of nurturing that part of me, making space for it to exist, not merely because old habits and rituals should be maintained for their own sake, but because Judaism itself doesn’t want them to simply vanish. As I came into Judaism, I brought with me all that had shaped me and fashioned me. That alone has made my Judaism richer, realer and more authentic. Because it’s who I am.

And so, as fate would have it, the Tiges got home comfortably in front of 100,021 fans — the overwhelming majority of which were adoring Tigers fans. Had it been five years ago, it would have been 100,022 at the match- but life takes us on weird and wonderful journeys that change the course of our paths in ways we can’t predict. In the last few days, as I’ve been bathing in my beloved Tiges’ premiership glory, not once has it crossed my mind that had I not become Jewish, I would have been there. Life is a story of give and take. While I wasn’t there to rise to my feet as the final siren sounded, so much of me was there.
Before I headed to Swan Street later on that evening- the streets of my childhood, where I nursed a few beers and immersed myself in the jubilant celebrations, I watched the replay while breaking my fast. The waterworks weren’t on full display, but the last few minutes of the match did squeeze a few Tiger Tears out of me. It was pure elation. You can take the boy out of Richmond, but you can’t take Richmond out of the boy.

Ushering in 2017 almost 11 months ago, had I been asked what two things I wished for most to arrive imminently, I would’ve said to become Jewish and for the Tiges to win the flag. Though the first was indeed quite probable, the latter was a stretch. But with 2017 not having even reached its conclusion, both wishes were granted- I became Jewish, and my beloved Tiges took the silverware home to Punt Road Oval.

Ki L’Olam Chasdo… His kindness endures forever!

So let us rejoice for all that is good in our lives — for the best parts of ourselves and for all that makes us who we are — for both the profane (dare I call football profane!) and for the holy, which guard our steps and guide us on unremittingly and with strength until the final siren’s gone.

About the Author
Ike Curtis is twenty-two years old and lives in Melbourne, Australia. In June 2017, he completed a five year process of orthodox conversion to Judaism through the Melbourne Beth Din. He is currently undergoing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Monash University.
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