I recently learned that God is a huge baseball fan. In fact, the Torah places such importance on the sport that the very first words in Genesis are filled with baseball terminology. Take note of the opening words of the Torah:
IN THE BIG INNING,…
I’m a cantor and a teacher at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario. When I saw how excited the students of our Hebrew school were about the Toronto Blue Jays when they were oh so close to making it to the World Series, I decided to dedicate several classes on Jewish baseball players over the years.
The story of Jews in baseball, particularly in the early years, has provided many learning moments. Through the example of the great Hank Greenberg and others, the students have begun to explore the history of anti-Semitism in North America. That a hotel in the south would openly state that Jews were not welcome is an outlandish concept to our open-minded young students. That fans and other baseball players would hurl racist insults at Jewish ball players – and to learn what those epithets were – has been a shocking reality for our students to learn about.
One of our young students, Zev, was profoundly confused by these stories. After all, he asked, isn’t religion about people getting along? Aren’t people supposed to accept the diversity of others? Yes, Zev is right. That’s how things should be. But we all know the sad reality that tolerance is not embraced by everyone – and that has, unfortunately, been true throughout human history.
Hanukkah commemorates a war against great religious intolerance. The Hellenists who took over Jerusalem, wanted Jews to assimilate fully into their culture and their religion. If successful, Judaism would eventually no longer exist. The Maccabean revolt was a struggle to save Judaism. It was, to put it in today’s terms, a struggle for acceptance and tolerance.
This struggle is mirrored in the actions of these Jewish baseball players who sought to embrace the larger culture while preserving their Jewish identity. Our students have learned that Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax’s excellence on the field has been as much a source of inspiration for Jews as has their refusal to play on Yom Kippur. In learning about pitcher “Subway Sam” Nahem, who lobbied for complete racial integration for African-Americans in the ’30s and ’40s, the students understand that tolerance is not just something we should seek for ourselves but for everyone.
The Festival of Lights is perhaps the best-known Jewish holiday among our non-Jewish neighbours in North America because of where it falls on the Gregorian calendar. Many of us are happy to know that many places of business, shopping centres, television news sets and others, display a hanukkiah alongside the Christmas tree. It makes us feel that we are accepted and respected. It is also an indication that we have truly integrated into North American society while not abandoning our ethnic and religious identity.
The Jewish story is not about resisting the outside world. It’s about striking a balance. It’s not baseball vs. the dreidel; it’s baseball AND the dreidel.