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Team Israel and the future of Jewish history

How a baseball team, with its mascot, anthem, and camaraderie, nourished the Jewish identity of its players

Team Israel’s “Cinderella” run through the World Baseball Classic was fun, wasn’t it?

Despite bowing out of the second round of the tournament on Wednesday after falling to Japan 8-3, the players certainly enjoyed themselves as much as their fans. They sported T-shirts that read “Jew Crew.” Utility man Cody Decker, one of the most colorful characters in professional baseball, brought along WBC’s newest and most famous mascot, Mensch on a Bench. The stuffed rabbi doll has been featured in the Washington Post, is a hit among Korean and Japanese reporters, and even enjoyed a locker stocked with gefilte fish and Manischewitz wine, courtesy of Team Israel players.

Decker even waxed philosophical about the Mensch. “He is everywhere and nowhere all at once. His actual location is irrelevant because he exists in higher metaphysical planes. But he’s always near.”

Cheesy jokes abounded in the press. “One very well could call this the greatest miracle for Jews since the oil burned for eight days,” said Yahoo! Sports after the team’s early success. ESPN dubbed Team Israel, “the Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC.”

And why should they have been taken seriously? Israel’s national baseball team is ranked 41 in the world. Only a thousand Israelis play in organized leagues, and the Israeli premier league boasts only three teams.

Then they started winning games. Israel knocked off South Korea, ranked number 3 in the world, and number 4 in Taiwan. Last Thursday, Israel beat a Netherlands team stacked with major league talent to win their pool and move on to the second round in Japan. There, they beat the Cuban squad, one of the best teams in the world, before falling to Netherlands in the rematch.

Despite the good vibes — and more importantly, the success on the field — some Israelis found more to criticize than praise in this team.

Haaretz’s Simon Spungin called the squad, “Team Nice Jewish Boys.”

“Sure, they’re Jewish and, by Israeli law, they could become Israeli if they wanted to,” Spungin writes. “But they’re not. They are Americans and they have been brought in as ringers, plain and simple…. If, however, the only way for the national team to enjoy success is to recruit foreigners — and, yes, American Jews are foreigners, until such time as they take the plunge and move to Israel — then maybe it’s not the kind of success we should be pursuing.”

Spungin went on to argue that Team Israel’s success at the WBC papers glosses over deeper problems of funding in Israel, as Israelis beg the Diaspora for money, instead of finding a way to fund important programs themselves.

“There is some truth in the words of their detractors,” opined Idan Vinitsky of Walla! Sports. “’If they are so Zionist, they should come to live in Israel,’ they say, and we can’t ignore them. And some have a problem with the fact that this is a team built around Jewish identity, not Israeli…Taking off the hats and replacing them with kippot during the national anthem might have been a fully understandable act for the players and their American followers, but it wasn’t exactly greeted with a smile among some Israelis.”

The attitude adopted by some Israelis to their country’s representatives at the WBC — not to mention the smallness of bringing the conversation to funding issues — misses the point of what this moment means in Jewish and Zionist history. Perhaps it is not surprising that native-born Israelis struggle to understand what Israel baseball team has meant as much as they struggle to understand the game itself.

For the players — the majority of whom grew up surrounded by non-Jews with limited avenues to explore their Jewish roots — this experience is a profound opportunity for them to connect to an essential part of who they are.

At its essence, the modern State of Israel was created on the belief that despite living in vastly different conditions and speaking diverse languages for thousands of years, there was something deeper connecting all Jews across the globe. Jews were part of the same people in the most elemental sense. Jews in Asia and Argentina and western Europe are members of one unbreakable community, with mutual ties and responsibilities to one another.

The Jewish religion — the Torah and the commandments — was one powerful way to tie this community together, but it obviously has limited relevance when so many Jews are completely secular in practice and in outlook.

Israel is the other tent in which to contain Jews around the world. It provides both a physical home, and an idea that Jews all have something that is theirs, even if they have never been.

And here on Team Israel, Jewish players — some who have had no meaningful connection their Jewish roots — are playing on the world stage with the word Israel across their chests and the star of David on their hats.

The message this sends is clear: You don’t have to live in Israel, or even visit, but Israel represents a core element of what every Jew is, and every Jew can represent it if they so choose.

And perhaps this moment is the beginning of something even deeper, something that could have far-reaching effects in the Jewish world.

For both tents under which Jews have gathered — the Torah and the State of Israel — actions are an important part of belonging. The mitzvot in the Torah and Zionism’s pioneering spirit and emphasis on Jewish labor encourage active participation in their projects.

But time leaves its mark. Both the Torah and state have, to many Jews, become entities in principle. Many struggle to connect to what they see as abstractions.

The players of Team Israel found another way to be part of the Jewish story. They were only able to discover the meaning of community and commitment once they began actively participating. They began to awaken and discuss ideas for the first time. For these players, rituals objects and Jewish history alike took on new meaning.

Israel’s WBC team gives life to the possibility of a living Jewish consciousness that emerges through action, through participation as Jews in a Jewish project.

The players emphasize how close-knit the team is because of their shared reawakening of their sense of community, and how vital that is to their success. “We’ve got this very personal thing we all have in common,” Decker reflected.

“This is the first time in my life, besides playing for the JCC when I was 14-years-old in a basketball tournament, where you’re in a locker room full of players and coaches and trainers and they’re all Jewish,” said pitcher Josh Zeid. “You go in the lobby of the hotel, and everyone’s mothers are there, and they’re all talking to each other.” The image of Jewish mothers sitting in the lobby and gabbing might be evoke a chuckle, but it an expression of the unstated and deep-rooted ties that members of the same community innately feel toward one another, one that was awakened through their participation.

Players’ thoughts turned to the great themes of Jewish history as well. “We’re out here playing for a nation of people who have fought and battled to be as great as they are,” said Zeid. “And we want them to believe we represent them the right way. I hope we’re doing that.”

“Two generations ago, the way that this team was put together, would have meant that we were being killed,” noted catcher Ryan Lavarnway. “It was, I mean, we were being picked out, just because of the way that we were born and our lineage.”

The idea this team is representing, even creating, can be tough for Israeli Jews to swallow. Many have grown up on the idea of Jewish identity being intimately tied with living in Israel, while the Torah holds together those who remain in the Diaspora. Jewish players who are neither religious nor have any intention of moving to Israel, yet play with a Star of David on their uniforms and don kippot as a team, are a challenge to that idea. Small-minded arguments over government policies in Israel is a way to avoid confronting the true meaning of this team.

This is a moment Israeli Jews should be embracing, as Jews around the world have. The emerging “community through action” model could well bring many Jews to do the same with the Jewish faith and the Jewish state. It also opens new possibilities for their own expressions of Jewish belonging and identity.

At a time when Jews have to remove their yarmulkes in European cities, when the Iranian regime openly calls for Israel’s destruction, when UN bodies and NGOs single out the Jewish state, when Jewish children in schools and community centers have to be evacuated because of bomb threats, the image of Jewish athletes from the diaspora, the Israeli flag emblazoned on their uniforms, wearing yarmulkes on their heads as the “The Hope” plays — as long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart, With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion, Then our hope, the 2,000-year-old hope, will not be lost — truly a milestone that should be contemplated and embraced.

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.
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