As a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-1960s, my loyalty was to the New York Mets, ensconced in last place with such heroes as Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda and Cleon Jones. But my heart belonged to Sandy Koufax, who grew up in the adjacent neighborhood of Bensonhurst and later played for the Dodgers in sunny Los Angeles.
It was October 1965 and Koufax was scheduled to pitch the first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins in Bloomington. But that day fell on Yom Kippur and the lefthander said he would not show up for work.
“From what I’ve been told, there are no dispensations for this particular day,” Koufax said five days before Yom Kippur. “If I’m told it isn’t proper to pitch, then I won’t because I wouldn’t feel right about it.”
For Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in the game, choosing G-d over baseball was no big deal. Although he did not describe himself as a religious Jew, his only place on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was in synagogue. Even during his erratic early years on the mound, Koufax set limits. In 1959, he skipped games to be with his family on Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
But many in the elite of the American Jewish community were in panic. The entire country was watching and Koufax’s decision could raise the ugly head of dual loyalty; the Dodgers might lose the World Series and the Jews would be blamed. Others said all Jews would now be seen as unreliable — willing to ditch their employers on the pretext of religious observance. Many still remembered World War II, when Jews were regularly attacked on the streets of Boston and New York. Indeed, Koufax himself had heard opposing fans scream from the bleachers variants of “Kill that Jew!”
Jewish tradition understands the fear of anti-Semitism. But unless there is a threat of imminent danger, a Jew is required to stand out. Maimonides ruled that a Jew must not try to assimilate into gentile society. He must dress, speak and behave as a Jew. A Jew must not ape the gentile in appearance, even in the way his hair is trimmed. And yes, the Jew must keep his beard.
Still, Koufax has kept a low profile. For the last 56 years, he refused to elaborate on that Yom Kippur or even say what he did that day. If he were like many former athletes, he would have built a second career through a never-ending tour of Jewish community centers, churches and schools, and eventually would have played himself in a biopic.
And that perhaps is the most endearing quality of a genuine man of faith. Whether it is one day, one week or 365 days a year, living a Jewish life is part of the course. It doesn’t need to be rewarded by man or explained as some existential crossroad.
It is unlikely that Koufax would have received the same reception in the Jewish state. Israel has essentially controlled sports, particularly football, and insists that games take place on the Sabbath. The tradition began during the British Mandate, when most Zionist sports clubs followed the German model in the use of sports for propaganda and social cohesion. Indeed, the Yishuv leadership refused to fund non-Zionist sports clubs regardless of their successes.
In January 2018, the Knesset was told by an official commission that 70 percent of professional football players said they no longer wanted to play on the Sabbath. Weeks later, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, citing economic and political concerns, issued an exemption that would continue football on the Sabbath, including transportation and operation of stadiums.
The Jewish state’s refusal to observe the Sabbath has not gone unnoticed. International sports federations have denied relief to Israeli Jewish athletes unwilling to compete on Yom Kippur. That means they lose by default. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, known as FIFA, also opposed any government-imposed changes in football schedules in member countries, including Israel.
As for Sandy Koufax, he returned from his Yom Kippur hiatus and led the Dodgers to another World Series victory. And, despite the fears of the American Jewish leadership, the rank-and-file continues to see Koufax as a hero. What is less mentioned is so do numerous gentiles, inspired by the faith of a great baseball player and a modest Jew. I learned that when I applied to my first daily newspaper job 14 years after Koufax’s decision to observe Yom Kippur. I had been hired as a cub reporter on an afternoon newspaper some 100 kilometers north of New York City. The question was how to tell the editor-in-chief that I observed the Sabbath.
After receiving the job offer in writing, I called the editor, Tim Dodson, a smiling man in his early 30s who had grown up in the Bronx. I opened with an excerpt from Judaism 1.01.
“Tim, ” I began. “I am an observant Jew. That means that I don’t work on the Sabbath, starting from Friday at sundown to Saturday night, until the appearance of three stars. I’d be happy to make up the time by working either Saturday night or Sunday.”
Tim didn’t sound surprised. “You know, Steve,” he said. “When I was growing up, I remembered how Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series because it was Yom Kippur. I was so inspired by that. There won’t be a problem.”
And there wasn’t.