One of the many casualties of the pandemic is the YU basketball team: The Maccabbees. They entered the NCAA Division III championship tournament on a roll. They had a school record 27 consecutive victories, and then went on to win their first two tournament games. They were in the Sweet 16! Then Covid-19. Oh, the might have beens!
Of course, they weren’t the first YU group to make the big time. Remember the Maccabbeats? The a cappella group founded in 2007, became prime time in 2010 with their Chanukah hit song ‘Candlelight’. They were on many national TV shows, performed at the Knesset and the White House, twice.
But that wasn’t the first time, either. For my money, the biggest media splash ever made by YU was in May, 1963.
YU competed in the nationally televised program General Electric College Bowl. This show was a staple in my house. My mother OB”M loved quiz shows. She watched Jeopardy! religiously until her passing at 96. But this was special.
For the record: The YU team beat University of Louisville the first week. Then crushed the University of Nevada, Reno, the second. In the third week, they come up against Temple University, and lost a nail biter to the eventual champs from Philadelphia.
But it was an exhilarating ride. It was my bar mitzva year, and as part of my prep I was for, the first time, going to shul regularly. I was thinking as seriously as a 13 year-old can about my religious commitment. Then there were these three young men and woman on TV competing for a national title in knowledge. It was heady stuff!
Here’s the thing: These guys were wearing yarmulkas. On TV! It wasn’t an old grainy documentary about Europe before the War. This was in a New York television studio. They were wearing them as if it were normal.
That same year a lawyer from Boston came to our shul and spoke about being an orthodox lawyer, and how hard it was. He showed us that he was so committed to Jewish law that he wore a toupee (yeah, a rug, a sheitel) in court. The idea of wearing a kipa was just ludicrous. What would people think?
This was a watershed.
It marked a major shift in thinking about outward manifestations of religious observance. My father OB”M continued to object to my wearing a kipa in the street, until I entered YU in 1968. But the 60’s marked a shift in thinking about being Jewish in America.
In 1969, I visited the Massachusetts’ House of Representatives, and a guard came over asked me to remove my ‘hat’. I informed him that it wasn’t a ‘hat’. He politely withdrew.
In 2011, I brought a group of seventh graders to the United States Senate Chamber. A guard came over to me to inform me that young men in the group would have to remove their baseball caps, but that he could provide me with kipot. The US Senate keeps a supply of kipot for visitors!!! We’ve come a long way, baby!
Look, as Jewish practices go, I’m not sure how important kipot are. But the symbolic importance of this small item is profound.
Those College Bowl broadcasts were a rallying cry for renewed Jewish pride. The 60’s brought a brave new world for Orthodox Jewry.
Next: Shall We Dance?