Hinda Eisen Labovitz
Hinda Eisen Labovitz

What Sports Fandom Can Teach Us About Being Jewish

It was a good experience.

Everyone was dressed for the occasion.

As action occurred, the people would chant together. I could feel the energy of those moments, but could not understand what had happened.

I went with someone who was knowledgeable and passionate, who was fluent in the language, but I had no idea what was going on. I just couldn’t follow.

I asked questions, but could feel people staring at me as if I was an outsider.

Even if I asked questions, the action kept going. I always felt one step behind.

When invited to attend a second time, I hesitated.

… Sound familiar? This was a description of… my first experience attending a NFL football game, New York Jets versus the New England Patriots with my husband, Bob. (Bob would like me to say “Go Pats!” at this point.)

But how similar does it sound to feedback we’ve heard from folks coming into shul for the first time, who are slowly learning the landscape of our service, or returning after a long hiatus?

I want posit that the ways in which our parents taught us and we teach our children to be sports fans can teach us deep lessons about the ways in which we might teach our children — and our grandchildren — to be committed Jews.

Many years ago I heard Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, who was the executive director of National Ramah Camps, liken prayer to baseball. I have used this analogy many times since with my own additions, and you may have heard it from me before. He said that davening practice is like playing baseball. Sometimes you strike out — It isn’t meaningful at all. Sometimes one moment, one word jumps out at you; that’s a “single”. Sometimes you have two or three such moments; “double” or “triple”. Rarely do we experience a “home run,” but we spend much of our life searching for that amazing, transformative experience in prayer which is that all-encompassing success. I would add, the highest career batting average of a Major League Baseball player was Ty Cobb’s .366 — which means the guy with the best career record in baseball didn’t get on base 64% of the time! But, of course, I would also remind us, that the opportunity to “get on base” is only real if we take the chance at bat — which is to say, “I don’t daven because it’s not meaningful to me” is problematic, because by abstaining from it, we never give it the opportunity to be meaningful.

But the analogy of sports fandom to Jewish ritual participation runs deeper than this — or should, I argue — particularly as it relates to how we teach our children to be “fans” and active participants, in four primary ways.

1. The Running Commentary.

As a kid, I remember attending baseball games at Shea Stadium with my dad. Now, there are two primary ways to enjoy a baseball game. Some, on one hand, enjoy a game mostly emotionally, enveloping themselves in the experience: happy and cheering when their team is doing well, upset when their team is doing poorly. Others enjoy a game analytically, taking pleasure in understanding the logistics of play and predicting what might come next. My dad is in the latter category. My dad isn’t the type to stand and cheer when something amazing happens, but he can tell you exactly how to notate it on a scorecard.

So there we’d sit in the stands of Shea Stadium, then Citi Field, and most recently Nationals Park, scorecard open, golf pencils out, notating every pitch, ball, strike, hit, error, play, and out. He was always my personal sports commentator — “Hinda, you see that player on second base? Well, now he’s about halfway between second and third bases. If you watch, I’m pretty sure he’s going to steal third when the pitcher isn’t looking.” Or, “Bases are loaded — they could get four runs this play if the hitter hits a home run, but this guy isn’t a home run hitter. I bet he’s going to bunt.” Inevitably, my dad would be right.

I had similar experiences as a kid sitting in shul with my dad. “Hinda, do you know why it’s really important to keep your feet together during Kedushah?” “Rosh Chodesh is coming. What tunes do you think we should use in Birkat Ha-Chodesh that are relevant to the new month?” Kabéd et avikha ve’et imekha: honor your mother and father, we’d read in the Torah. He’d pat me on the head.

I wish we all had a running sports commentator for services. Heck, I even wish that I could provide running commentary on what’s happening in any given service that I’m leading. From the pews, are you aware that there are situational changes that happen from week to week? That tunes aren’t chosen at random, but rather specifically and with intention?

“Did you notice the Cantor used the tune for HaTikvah for the words which ask God to return our focus to Jerusalem?” the Prayercaster might ask. “Why do you think she did that?”

Prayercaster again: “The Cantor’s doing this text in Torah Trope. I wonder if this text was in this week’s Torah reading.”

Prayercaster a third time: “Well, there’s a quick tune to Sim Shalom. It is 11:42. Seems like we’re running late and he’s trying to make up time in the final lap.”

Which brings me to…

2. The Structure, but Watching for the Drama.

When I ask people why they don’t enjoy being in services, most of the time their response is, “It’s boring. It’s always the same.” When I ask the same folks why they think sporting events are more interesting, they say, “Well, that has drama and action.”

But let’s think about this, really — and here’s where my experience at that football game on Thanksgiving weekend was really eye-opening for me. To the untrained eye, a football game looks like this:

  • Two lines of guys facing each other, the guy in the middle has the ball.
  • The guy with the ball throws it backwards between his legs to some other guy, who either throws the ball or starts running.
  • The team that doesn’t have the ball tries to block the guy who has it from running in the direction of his team scoring.
  • If the team who has the ball keeps it, the play keeps going in the same direction. If the other team gets the ball, the play starts going the other way.

That’s — it.

As an untrained participant in the football-watching experience, the complexities of what was going on were lost on me. I had no basis for comparison, so everything was new — aside from the folks around me cheering or booing, I couldn’t tell what was great and what was routine. Maybe I could tell what was a “great catch,” or obviously impressive interceptions, but in the regular course of a football game, I could tell very little more than what I just said.

Now, if I’m watching a game on TV at least I have sportscasters and blue and yellow lines to tell me what’s going on and I don’t have to ask Bob for the play-by-play. In person, I could barely tell which players were on which team.

I grant that, to the untrained eye or ear, a Shabbat service can feel equally repetitive. We use a script (the Siddur). The words are always the same. We always stand and sit at the same times. Tunes to congregational responses stay roughly the same from week to week, and there are a few melodies which we do use 90% or more of the time.

But, as I mentioned earlier, every week our services are not the same. The intention behind the words isn’t always the same. One week, sim shalom,our daily prayer for peace, may be an ode of gratitude to the God who has accomplished a step toward peace in our world, and one week it might be full of angst and pleading toward the God whose help is required to bring peace. One week a text which questions the place of God’s glory really enables us to ask “Where is God’s glory?” and another week it is a celebration — God’s glory resides with us.

I’ll let you in on my little secret: I like to take what I call a “Sesame Street Approach” to crafting a service. “This morning’s service is brought to you by… X.” By… Peace. By… Love. By… God’s Kingship. By… Healing. I look: where do I find these concepts in the text? What can I do musically, within the traditional nusach/prayer modes, that would evoke this for the people around me? What do I need emotionally today? What does this congregation need emotionally today? And yes, sometimes, with my watch on the shtender, I choose quick tune because it’s 11:42.

Each prayer experience has drama. No two services are the same. Whether a cantor leads your services or lay-leaders do, I invite you to question our judgment.If this isn’t in the culture of the people who most frequently lead your services, challenge them to engage with the text this way. Engage in the drama. If you hear something unexpected, check out the text. Check in with yourself — what am I experiencing that’s different today? And, in those “anchor” moments when you know you anticipate chanting or singing along, contributing your voice to this community, ask yourself, “What do these words mean?” or “How do they strike me today?” 

3. The “Experience.”

When you walk into a sporting event, you see people dressed for the occasion — jerseys, team colors, sometimes make-up. People have the “gear” to show their support for their team. As a baseball fan, I know how putting on my team’s colors or a jersey sporting their logo ignites my excitement for the game, my pride for my team. When I arrive in the stadium, I can immediately recognize that the thousands of people who are dressed like me are my compatriots, and instantly know which people are rooting for the other team because they are sporting that uniform.

Walking into a synagogue, there’s a dress-code. We dress nicely, with respect for the place, for the community, and for the Torah. We teach our students to come to shul adhering to a certain code of modesty and formality. What kind of kippah or tallit someone is wearing when they walk into our sanctuary for the first time — and whether they were wearing a kippah when they walked in the building — can sometimes tell us about their level of comfort with the space (though I will admit that this generalization should be taken lightly, since generalizations are generally never really a good idea).

So much goes into what creates the experience at a ball game, more than just being present for the team. The smells, the uniforms, the sounds of the walking vendors, the music that’s played to entice cheering and chanting. Each fan has his or her own most-special or most-memorable piece of this experience.

What creates the experience of being Jewish? On Chanukkah, for me, it’s the glow of candles and the smell of onions and potatoes. On Pesach, it’s the smell of chicken soup, the sound of setting the table and the sight of my kitchen wallpapered in aluminum foil. In shul, some of us are devoted to sitting in the same seat with the same people every Shabbat. How that experience is created or interpreted is both universal and completely individual. The important part is that we create these associations for ourselves and for our children.

4. The Passion and Participation.

Whether analytically or emotionally, fans of sports teams are often passionate. It’s important to them to cultivate this fandom in their children — so much so that relationships have been broken over sports allegiances. Think Fever Pitch or West Side Story. As a kid, I asked my mom, “If you’re a Democrat, and Dad’s a Democrat, does that mean I have to be a Democrat?” She responded, “No, but I’m a Mets fan and Dad’s a Mets fan, and you’ll always be a Mets fan.” One of the biggest hurdles in my asking my parents to accept Bob into our family was the fact that he is a Red Sox fan.

Passionate fans are devoted to being at games regularly in person, to engaging regularly with their team even at a distance — checking scores, watching games on TV or listening on the radio, creating friendships with other fans of their team and sharing team experiences with those friends. They teach their children not just the rules of the game but how to watch. They know stats and history and the names of their team’s best players.

Let us consider: In what ways can we be passionate “fans” of our Judaism? We can be committed to showing up for our Judaism and engaged with it daily too. There may be no scores to check (the Rabbi and the Cantor are on the same team, most of the time), but Judaism can inform every minute of our day. We can sustain relationships and friendships with our fellow members and share experiences together in shul and outside. Even when we’re not in our synagogue, there are so many ways to engage from a distance, with your shul and the wider Jewish community. Synagogues often curate information with which we want to engage our members on our Facebook pages, websites, and which we send out by email. Jewish law does not ask us to see our rabbis and cantors as intercessors on our behalf — Judaism is accessible to all, and, at any shul, even if there is a lot of time between when you come in once and when you come in you again, there are ways to engage, even from a distance, all year round.

As Spring Training starts this week and we brave the transition from the end of football season to the beginning of baseball, and as we start to re-engage with our teams, I hope we find the opportunity to re-engage with our Judaism as well.

This post was originally delivered as a sermon at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, MD on Shabbat Shirah, February 11, 2017.

About the Author
Cantor Hinda Eisen Labovitz is the cantor of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and serves on the executive council of the Cantors Assembly. The is a graduate of Hebrew College's School of Jewish Music where she was ordained Cantor and earned a Masters of Judaic Studies degree and Boston University, where she earned a B.A. in Religion and a concentration in Special Education. The views expressed in her blog are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the congregation or the organizations in which she participates.