The Sultans of Simchat

In the hilarious 1980 movie Airplane!, stewardess heroine Elaine asks a passenger if she would like anything to read during her flight.

“Do you have anything light?” asks the passenger.

“Uh … how about this leaflet,” says Elaine. “Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”

That old, self-effacing chestnut was unearthed once more by the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, the makers of the film, who used this antique stereotype of Jews not being good at athletics to humorous effect. But, like all such generalizations, it’s not true, and we’re witnessing an example of that now with the Israeli national baseball team during the World Baseball Classic.

Yes, the World Baseball Classic. A pastime played around the globe and one of the hardest sports to excel in. An activity in which players at the highest levels frequently have to hit a ball thrown at speeds reaching 100 miles an hour or more. A game of inches. A competition befitting champions.

Few experts in the arena expected the Israeli team to be as competitive as it has been so far. But take a look at it now: The club has beaten powerful teams from Korea, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Cuba … all of which have significant baseball bloodlines and have produced players who have competed in the big leagues—in other words, Major League Baseball. That’s pretty damn good company. And even though the World Baseball Classic takes place during spring training, is exhibition-esque and doesn’t necessarily feature the top players from each country on all teams, the meaning of Israel’s achievement is profound. These guys aren’t accountants, lawyers, doctors, violinists or any other pigeonholed career professionals we might think Jews fall into. They’re muscular. They’re athletic. And they’re talented.

Really. They’re talented. Believe it. Because when you play on the world stage and beat four impressive teams that have played, for a much longer time, a sport you’re relatively new to, you’ve gotta have something going for ya.

Maybe it’s the “Mensch on a Bench,” the unofficial mascot used by team Israel to bring it luck. Or maybe it’s the blue-and-white uniforms that are doing the trick. More probably, it’s 96-mph fastballs, good pitch selections and solid situational hitting that are winning the games. That’s what Israel’s bringing to the table. Who knew?

Yes, the club mostly comprises Americans with Jewish heritage. Who cares? They can be citizens of Israel, too, and count just as much as anyone else. They’re the new Hank Greenbergs, the new Sandy Koufaxes. They’re Jews with bats and balls, and they’ve come to play. They’ve come to slide. They’ve come to bunt. They’ve come to win.

What’s in store for them next? Darned if I know. What’s clear, however, is that they’re making a big splash in a pond much larger than the little country with the big heart that they represent, and it just might get noticed. Perhaps what also might get noticed is the idea that many Jews are good at sports. That many Jews can be successful in physical recreation. That we can kick ass at anything if we try hard enough. That we can be respected in every sector we pursue greatness in.

Once upon a time, there was a joke that you could count the Jews who excelled in athletics on your hand … that you could document them in something as thin and insignificant as a leaflet. No more. Team Israel definitely has ripped apart that leather ceiling. It has spoken. It has made a vocal statement.

Now the question is: Who’s pitching Friday?

I guess we’ll all have to wait, put on our rally kippot and see.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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