By Ronen Dorfan/JNS.org
Aly Raisman has been one of America’s biggest Olympic stars in recent years and a huge celebrity in the gymnastics arena. When she’s not on the television program “Dancing with the Stars” or gracing the covers of magazines, she also “represents” Israel, as she proudly announced at the Rio Olympics last year.
Yet unlike the athletes currently comprising Israel’s new national baseball team, Raisman obviously represents the U.S., and it was the American national anthem that sounded when she received her Olympic medals. She simply believes that her Jewish identity is inextricably linked to Israel, making her proud to also represent Israel symbolically.
I was reminded of Raisman this week when Israel’s World Baseball Classic (WBC) team scored an incredible international surprise by defeating host nation South Korea’s squad in the opening game of the WBC. The Israeli team, which is made up of 25 American Jews, began the tournament with four consecutive wins before falling Monday to the Netherlands.
This achievement has nothing to do with American immigration to Israel—in fact, relatively few American Jews make aliyah. Many of the baseball team’s members are Conservative or Reform Jews, and some of them are not even considered Jewish under stringent standards of Jewish law. Therefore, many religious and political institutions in Israel would not accept them. But many of them wear Star of David and Chai necklaces, and even tattoo Jewish symbols on their bodies. One of them, despite attending church regularly, feels Jewish because of his grandmother.
This team tells the story of America at its best: a very patriotic nation, but not one that requires its citizens to pledge exclusive loyalty to the state or to any god.
The Sandy Koufax precedent
On a completely different note, why is this team so good? Aren’t Jews in the Diaspora supposed to be studious scholars who pore over books all day? So first, a clarification: The fact that a team of American Jews has been winning at an international baseball tournament is surprising because the team doesn’t include the most successful Jewish players in Major League Baseball—like Alex Bregman, Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler. Actually, this Israeli team is just a footnote in the glorious Jewish history of America’s pastime.
At the inaugural Jewish American Heritage Month celebration in May 2010, President Barack Obama remarked, “We’ve got senators and representatives, we’ve got Supreme Court justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic athletes—and Sandy Koufax.”
Koufax is widely considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Jewish or not. He earned his place in Jewish history, though, thanks to his decision to sit out game one of the 1965 World Series game because it coincided with Yom Kippur. He later won that year’s World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was named series MVP.
David Trager, a Brooklyn judge who also taught at Tel Aviv University, succinctly explained the meaning of Koufax’s Yom Kippur act. He said, “Our parents’ generation was religious, but they still worked on the Sabbath….In the workshops and even at respectable companies, if you didn’t work on Yom Kippur you were fired. Koufax didn’t justify his decision with big words about religious faith. He was a completely secular man. He simply said, ‘The Dodgers know I don’t work on Yom Kippur.’ He set the precedent that, like any American, Jews can tell their employers that there are days when they don’t work.”
But Koufax wasn’t the first. Thirty years before him, Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg also sat out a crucial game on Yom Kippur, at a time when Michigan faced a wave of anti-Semitism that was fanned by industrialist Henry Ford.
Israel’s sports landscape
American Jews are far better at sports than Israeli Jews. Jewish-American athletes have racked up more than 100 Olympic gold medals—to Israel’s one gold medal. It isn’t about the quality of Jewish life in America. Even the Jews of Hungary won 50 gold medals under terrible anti-Semitism. Rather, an athlete performs well when the athletes in the surrounding environment are highly skilled. No Chinese child plays soccer as well as Argentine children. Similarly, Israel won’t produce American-caliber baseball stars.
Yet there’s no need to bash the Israeli sports landscape, and no need to slam Israel’s national soccer or basketball teams for not being as prolific as this newly renowned baseball team. The players that comprise the baseball team hail from a baseball superpower, America, even if they represent a different country at the WBC, Israel, that isn’t an athletic superpower of any kind.
The Israeli baseball team’s American players, meanwhile, aren’t likely to become heroes in Israel anytime soon. But due to their achievements on the international stage, the world finally knows that Jews are good at baseball.
This op-ed first appeared in Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed in the U.S. exclusively by JNS.org.