Jewish Athletes with Italian Roots

This is one of my favorite scenes from the classic 1980 movie “Airplane” (and a I have a lot of favorite scenes):

Elaine Dickinson: Would you like something to read?
Hanging Lady: Do you have anything light?
Elaine Dickinson: How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”

Okay, so maybe there aren’t many Jewish sports legends, but this week has been a great one for professional Jewish athletes with Italian roots.

Italy will be playing in the Euro 12 soccer championship game this week and they got there being led by Mario Balotelli, who grew up as the foster son of a Jewish mother.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “Balotelli dedicated the two goals he scored in Italy’s 2-1 semifinals victory over Germany on June 28 to his foster mother, Silvia, who raised him in northern Italy. Newspapers and websites ran a dramatic photo of Balotelli tearfully embracing his mother after the match.”

Moked, the website of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called the Balotelli’s emotional embrace with his mother “an emotion for all Italians and a special emotion for Italian Jews.”

Balotelli revealed the fact that his adoptive mother was Jewish in early June, when like other teams, the Italian national squad visited Auschwitz ahead of the start of the games.

Also, this week came the revelation that Jewish Italian tennis player Camila Giorgi will be moving to Israel after Wimbledon. Giorgi has reached the second week of Wimbledon competition. She was born to Italian parents of Argentinian descent and currently lives in France. The European Jewish Press reports that the Israeli Tennis Association (ITA) will offer Giorgi a $100,000 grant in return for a 30% cut of her prize money over the next few years.

I certainly hope Italy keeps churning out impressive Jewish athletes in the years to come. In the mean time I’ll be cheering for Balotelli in soccer competition and following Giorgi’s international tennis success. Buona fortuna!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Muhammad Ali Attends Grandson’s Bar Mitzvah

Jacob Wertheimer becoming a bar mitzvah this past April at Philly’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue doesn’t sound like a newsworthy story. It does make news when the proud grandfather is The Champ.

Muhammad Ali’s grandson Jacob Wertheimer was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at a small service of only about 150 people. Jacob is the son of Ali’s daughter Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer and Spencer Wertheimer, an attorney. Ali was in the congregation watching with pride according to the Sweet Science boxing website in an article written by Muhammad Ali’s personal biographer Thomas Hauser, as reported by JTA. There was no mention of whether the bar mitzvah boy floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee on the bimah.

Jacob Wertheimer, Muhammad Ali’s grandson on vacation with his parents

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay and raised as a Baptist, but famously converted to Islam in the 60s. Ali’s daughter Khaliah was raised as a Muslim. According to her, the young Jacob was given a choice and without pressure from his parents, “he chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture.” It sounds like Judaism won by a decision!

Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer also mentioned that it “meant a lot to Jacob” that his grandfather Muhammad Ali was in attendance. According to JTA, the theme of the bar mitzvah party was diversity and inclusiveness.

On the occasion of The Champ’s 70th birthday, JTA’s archivist Adam Soclof compiled a list of articles chronicling Ali’s bouts and bonding moments with the Jewish community dating back to 1970. Ali has made some critical comments about Israel over the years, but is still widely respected in the Jewish community. Perhaps Ali’s Jewish grandson will travel to Israel and change his grandfather’s sentiments.

While Billy Crystal has always amused me with his dead-on impersonation of Muhammad Ali, this scene from Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” is a personal favorite:

Mazel Tov to Muhammad Ali and his entire family on Jacob’s bar mitzvah!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Delmon Young and Mel Gibson

I couldn’t resist making this movie spoof poster with Mel Gibson and Delmon Young:

Delmon Young and Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson’s name was brought up repeatedly after the news broke about the Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Delmon Young getting arrested in Manhattan for second-degree aggravated harassment and uttering an anti-Semitic slur while he was intoxicated. Young has been given a 7-game suspension by Major League Baseball and also placed indefinitely on baseball’s restricted list.

More details have been released concerning the altercation. According to the NY Daily News, Delmon Young was arrested for “assaulting Jason Shank following his drunken anti-Semitic rant. According to police sources, Young began screaming the offensive remarks after a panhandler wearing a Star of David and a yarmulke approached him. Shank and three friends gave the man $20 outside the hotel, which ignited Young’s racist rhetoric.”

According to reports Shank, 32, and three of his friends were visiting Manhattan from Schaumberg, a Chicago suburb, for a weekend bachelor party. Delmon Young screamed “You bunch of f—— Jews!” and then got into a fight with Jason Shank on the sidewalk outside the hotel. Young was released from jail after posting $5,000 bail after his arraignment for an aggravated harassment charge that was classified as a hate crime. According to his LinkedIn page, Shank is an international consultant for Trident Worldwide in Missouri and a regional manager for Taggart International, a company with offices in Wood Dale and Missouri. Both companies specialize in importing and exporting. Neither Shank or his bachelor party friends are Jewish.

In 2006, Delmon Young was suspended for 50 games without pay while playing for a minor league team after he threw his baseball bat at an umpire who called him out after three strikes.

Ironically, Delmon Young’s agent is Arn Tellem of the Wasserman Media Group. Tellem, a 1979 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School is Jewish. I’m not sure if Daniel J. Ollen, Young’s criminal attorney in New York, is Jewish but that would be ironic as well.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be talking about the Delmon Young situation live on the Mojo in the Morning radio show on Channel 95.5 here in Detroit. The show will be broadcast live from a kosher pizza parlor and bagel shop in Oak Park, a suburb just outside of Detroit.

UPDATE:
Here’s the radio podcast from the Mojo in the Morning show:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Delmon Young’s Anti-Semitic Slur and the Problem With Athletes As Role Models

I already had a blog post planned for today. I was going to write an open letter to David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball League (NBA) in which I was going to publicly criticize him for allowing the NBA to only give Ron Artest (er, sorry Metta World Peace) a slap on the wrist with a seven game suspension. Artest blatantly elbowed James Harden on the back of his head after Artest’s slam dunk the other night. It was a vicious blow to Harden’s head that left him with a concussion. With Artest’s history as a trouble maker Stern should have banned him from the league.

My open letter to the Commissioner was going to ask him how I’m supposed to let my children watch NBA games if this is the type of behavior they will see. I don’t need Ron Artest to be a role model for my children; they have enough positive role models in their lives already. However, I cannot in good conscience allow my children to watch a professional basketball game (or even the highlights on ESPN) if such cheap shots are going to become commonplace in the NBA without serious repercussions.

And then I saw the news today. Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young was arrested outside of the hotel where the team was staying in New York City. Young was “highly intoxicated” according to a police source and he was arrested after allegedly shoving a man to the ground and making anti-Semitic remarks. The Detroit Free Press reports that Young faces an “aggravated harassment hate crime charge” for the anti-Semitic remarks he made during the incident.

When I read the news about Young, my heart sank to the floor. My oldest son is 8. In the past year he has become a die hard Detroit Tigers fan. He knows all the players by name. He knows their uniform number and their statistics (just like I did when I was a Tigers fan at that age). How am I supposed to explain to my son that Delmon Young was drunk, got into a street fight, yelled an anti-Semitic slur and got arrested? To my son, Delmon Young is a hero. He cheers for him. He prays that Young will hit a home run when he comes up to bat. I don’t think that it ever occurred to my son (or to me for that matter) that Delmon Young hates Jews in an inebriated, full-of-rage Mel Gibson sort of way.

Thanks to the Detroit Tigers organization and specifically owner Mike Illitch and Dave Dombrowski, the teams President/CEO/General Manager, baseball has become exciting again here in Detroit. The team has really made a concerted effort to reach out to children. That is great, but it also means that the organization has a responsibility to handle this matter quickly and appropriately. Delmon Young needs to be treated for his alcohol problem and a response to Tigers fans must be made soon concerning his anti-Semitic slur.

For me, I still don’t know how I will explain this to my son or if I will at all. The bottom line is that no one is asking professional athletes to raise our children. They are great athletes and not always shining examples of virtuous human beings. However, they need to know that children are watching. Impressionable children are watching how athletes behave on the field or on the court, as well as outside of their hotels. The NBA and Major League Baseball are both doing great things to help their athletes give back to the community and be good citizens. But they have to take care of the bad apples as well. I don’t know what the appropriate punishment for Delmon Young should be, either within the Tigers organization or in Major League Baseball, but I know that a strong message has to be sent to the young fans so they know this behavior is not tolerated.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

NASCAR and the Jews

For some reason NASCAR racing has never been a popular sport for the Jewish people. While kosher food and minyans (prayer groups) are common at many baseball, football and basketball games around the country, one would be hard pressed to locate the same at a NASCAR race. I think this has more to do with the culture of NASCAR racing rather than the actual sport. After all, I know a lot of Jewish people who enjoy cars and driving fast, but they probably won’t be tuning in to Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Short of Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) converting to Judaism in the Talladega Nights sequel, I don’t think NASCAR will ever become a popular sport for the Jews. However, there are a couple news items that could lead to more Jews embracing NASCAR racing this year.

The first is the sponsorship of a NASCAR team by Quicken Loans, the mortgage company owned by Jewish businessman and philanthropist Dan Gilbert of Detroit. In addition to owning Quicken Loans, the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and a host of other companies, Gilbert announced in late 2011 that Quicken Loans will be the primary sponsor of Ryan Newman’s No. 39 Chevrolet Impala. Gilbert isn’t the first Jewish business owner to sponsor a NASCAR car of course (Home Depot has been one of NASCAR’s largest sponsors and is owned by Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank).

One more way that Gilbert is becoming involved with NASCAR is with a new website dedicated to the racing sport. This week, Quicken Loans announced the launch of QuickenLoansRacing.com. The site provides fans an inside look at the world of NASCAR and provides unprecedented access to the world of stock car racing. Race fans will find exclusive interviews with Ryan Newman and his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) teammate, three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart (who won yesterday’s first Gatorade Duel), on the site. Additional content includes behind-the-scenes photos and videos from the Stewart-Haas race shop, interviews with the crew that helps get the No. 39 Chevrolet to the track each week, and more. Quicken Loans has also created a racing Facebook fan page, which can be found at facebook.com/quickenloansracing.

The Quicken Loans NASCAR sponsorship and new NASCAR website might not get more Jews to appreciate the racing sport, but a NASCAR car sporting the Israeli flag certainly could. According to its website, “America/Israel Racing was formed to promote awareness of and support by Americans for Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East. We hope to educate Americans on the importance the United States’ relationship with Israel through exposure provided by one of the largest spectator sports in the world – NASCAR. With the support of like-minded individuals, AIR will spread its message of American Israeli support throughout the entire 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and beyond.”

Sunday’s Daytona 500 would have been the first opportunity for NASCAR fans to see the Toyota with the painted Israeli and U.S. flags. However, the America Israel Racing team’s No. 49 Toyota driven by J.J. Yeley failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 with a last place finish in yesterday’s second Gatorade Duel in Daytona Beach.

In the Jerusalem Post, Rich Shirey, a Zionist Christian and co-founder of AIR explained, “As the only true democracy in the Middle East, we feel it is critical that the United States reaffirms its commitment to stand beside Israel. By fielding a car in the most-watched race of the year, we hope to show Israel just how many Americans feel the same way.” The Toyota racing car’s design was inspired by AIR’s mission of promoting American-Israeli support and prominently displays both the American and Israeli flags. A striking image of a bald eagle holding both nations’ flags in its claws and an olive branch in its beak is featured on the hood.

Had the American Israel Racing car qualified for the Daytona 500, its message of the importance of the American-Israel relationship would be seen by the 168,000 fans who watch the race in person and the estimated 15.6 million Americans who will tune in on television. By contrast, AIPAC’s policy conference next month will have 13,000 in attendance. There is certainly a strong possibility that the Israeli flag-adorned racing car will eventually compete in a major NASCAR race. Will it guarantee a love affair between NASCAR and the Jews? That’s unlikely, but it could help increase Jewish interest in the sport.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Tamir Goodman’s Sports Tzitzit

Tamir Goodman, known as “The Jewish Jordan,” made national headlines in the late 1990s when he decided not to play for the University of Maryland because they wouldn’t adjust their schedule to meet his Sabbath observance. Sports Illustrated even reported on Tamir’s decision to play for Towson State in 1999. However, a few years later SI reported:

In retrospect, maybe we went a little too far with the whole ‘Jewish Jordan’ thing. Three years ago (SI, Feb. 1, 1999) this magazine put that label on Tamir Goodman, described his game as ‘enthralling’ and reported breathlessly how he played ‘a foot over the rim when rebounding or dunking.’ The Orthodox Jew who starred for Talmudical Academy in suburban Baltimore was, we wrote, ‘built for basketball.’
Only, as it turned out, Goodman wasn’t built for college basketball. In September 1999 he reneged on an oral commitment to Maryland when he felt the school was lukewarm about his playing ability. He ended up at Towson, where any doubts the Terps might have had about him were borne out As a freshman Goodman scored 6.0 points a game, and last year he played in just seven games, averaging 1.9 points and 2.3 turnovers. His playing days at Towson ended after he accused his coach, Michael Hunt, of brandishing a chair at him in the locker room.

After staging a return to the spotlight in 2007 to capitalize on his high school and college fame, Tamir Goodman has been running basketball camps, putting on clinics, and doing speaking engagements. Now he is turning into a businessman as well.

As any Orthodox Jewish basketball player will tell you, it’s not easy running up and down the court with four woven sets of strings dangling from the four corners of your undergarment. The photos of Tamir hooping it up with a yarmulke on his head and his tzitzit flying through the air as he leaped for a layup became famous and were sources of pride in the observant Jewish community. However, it was not comfortable for ballers like Tamir to wear mesh tzitzit under his jersey.

Now Tamir Goodman is releasing his own brand of sports shirts that come with tzitzit attached. ColLive.com reported on Tamir’s invention which he unveiled at the recent OK Kosher conference:

At OK Kosher Certification’s 13th annual international Mashgiach Conference held Monday, Tamir introduced the “Sport Strings Tzitzit.”
He described it as revolutionary tzitzis garment that features hi-performance properties and a compression fit – offering the wearer ultimate comfort and style for sports and everyday wear.
Tamir was joined at the conference in Chovevei Torah in Crown Heights by a friend who also embodies the notion that being religious does not interfere with his career: boxing champion Dmitriy Salita.
While Salita did not say if he wears the “Sport String Tzitzit” himself, Tamir made it clear that anyone would enjoy wearing them for their UV protection, moisture wicking and anti-odor features.

Goodman’s tzitzit are certified kosher by the OK Kosher certification agency. No word yet on whether NBA star Amare Stoudemire will be wearing the Sport Strings Tzitzit.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Finding Values in Detroit Sports: Tigers Fans, Lions Fans and Ndamukong Suh

As a rabbi blogger who writes about sports, I’m always interested in the values that can be learned from watching sports. There are many situations in which the players, coaches, management or fans will do something that leads us to discuss how the situation was values driven.

In Detroit, there are three situations that occurred here recently that I believe speak loudly about our values. One of these events makes Detroit look good. The other two? Well, not so much. The first occurred in mid-August at Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers. It was an event that had little to do with Detroit’s baseball team and much more to do with the Detroit fans. It was a scene that made me proud to live in Detroit.

When opposing player Jim Thome hit his 600th career home run against the Tigers, fans at Comerica Park gave Thome a thunderous ovation. The Detroit Tigers’ faithful didn’t simply stand and applaud as their team’s opponent circled the bases. They maintained a long and lasting cheer for the future Hall of Famer who has had a career of hurting the Tigers. Thome has hit over 65 home runs against the Tigers (more than against any other club) and no matter which team Thome has played for (Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox or Minnesota Twins) he has always found success against the Tigers.

This strong demonstration of commendation for an opposing player led sportswriter Pat Caputo, writing in the Oakland Press, to ask if it was appropriate for Detroit fans to give Jim Thome such a thunderous standing ovation. He argues that while “on the surface, that’s the way it should be, considering the magnitude of the moment. I mean only eight players in major league history have hit 600 or more career home runs… But it was a 3-run shot and turned a close 6-5 game into a bit of a rout. It was one of two home runs Thome hit Tuesday. The other was a 2-run blast that broke a 3-3 tie. The Tigers are in a pennant race. Those home runs were extremely damaging to their cause. Should fans really have been cheering Thome so lustily under the circumstances?” Caputo had no problem with the enduring standing ovation because he believes that “baseball lore trumps all,” but many fans who called into his radio show and his co-host Dennis Fithian were really upset by the response of the fans inside Comerica Park and called them “dupes.”

For me, I thought this was one of the highlights of the Tigers’ memorable season. It was an emotional sight to see Detroit’s hometown fans showing so much respect for an opposing player who accomplished such a momentous feat. Despite Jim Thome’s 2-run home run that broke a 3-3 tie in that regular season game, the Tigers still won the division and made it to the American League Championship Series. That home run didn’t change that, but it did make Thome feel good to have received such a rousing ovation in an opponent’s ballpark. And it made me proud to be a Detroiter.

The other two events did not make me feel proud to be a Detroiter. And they both occurred yesterday on Thanksgiving day at the Detroit Lions game. The first has nothing to do with sports, but a lot to do with respect. The halftime show at the Lions Thanksgiving Day Classic always attracts big name recording artists like Kid Rock, the Allman Brothers Band, and Mariah Carey. This year Canadian rockers Nickelback was invited to perform at halftime. Some Detroiters disagreed with the decision to have a Canadian band perform on Thanksgiving Day. Others disagreed with the choice because they don’t find Nickelback to be talented musicians and they don’t care for their music. Thus, a petition was circulated on the Web by a University of Michigan student at change.com that ultimately had over 10,000 signatures urging that Nickelback be banned from performing in Detroit. The irony of this is that Detroit is one of the band’s strongest markets.

Ultimately, the petition didn’t do anything other than stir up some controversy, lead to Nickelback having some fun with the situation and making a FunnyOrDie parody video, and launch an alternative half-time show by Jewish musician Mayer Hawthorne (né Andrew Cohen) outside of his parents’ home in Ann Arbor. When Nickelback took the stage at Ford Field, the Detroit fans should have applauded them. Even if they don’t care for their music and even if they would have preferred American performers, it only makes Detroit look bad when the hometown fans booed the band. Detroit is working hard to improve its image and booing the halftime show performers on national TV is not a step in the right direction.

The third situation occurred not long after the Nickelback halftime show when Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was ejected from the Lions-Green Bay Packers game. Suh stomped on an opposing offensive lineman after pushing the player’s head onto the turf twice. Suh was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game. This stuff happens on occasion in the rough and tumble game of football, but it happens when Suh is around much more often.

What actually occurred on the field is not what I look at for a lesson in values. Rather, it is Ndamukong Suh’s post-game explanation that makes him look bad (and by extension his team and Detroit). In a press conference following the game (he probably shouldn’t have participated in any interviews), Suh said, “I want to apologize to my teammates, my coaches and my true fans for allowing the refs to have an opportunity to take me out of this game… What I did was remove myself from the situation the best way I felt, with me being held down.” Suh then went on to try to defend himself, saying he was trying to keep his balance while freeing himself from the brief scuffle. His fabricated story went like this: “My intention was not to kick anybody, as I did not, removing myself. I was on top of a guy, being pulled down, and trying to get up off the ground — and why you see me pushing his helmet down, because I’m trying to remove myself from the situation, and as I’m getting up, I’m getting pushed, so I’m getting myself on balance.”

Suh is a professional athlete and represents his team. He is an adult. The story he tells to defend his unsportsmanlike antics sounds more like a defense that a child would concoct to prove his innocence. Suh shouldn’t have pushed his opponent’s head into the turf and he shouldn’t have stepped on him while he was down. But what he should have down afterward was own up to his actions and apologize. That is not the image that Detroit wants to convey. Especially not on national television.

I’m a proud Detroiter and a proud Detroit sports fan. It’s moments like the one in Comerica Park this past August when Jim Thome made history and the fans recognized that beautifully that make me even prouder to be a Detroiter. It’s moments like the two that happened in Ford Field yesterday that should remind us that we can do better.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Athletes’ Public Displays of Religion

This past Friday evening I sat with my family at Adat Shalom Synagogue as we watched a performance by Storahtelling, which is known for its innovative and arts-focused take on the Torah. The Storahtelling performers interpret the themes from the Torah in new ways, acting out a theatrical midrash. In “Like a Prayer,” Storahtelling veterans Jake Goodman and Emily Warshaw presented a creative exploration of the power of prayer by invoking the stories of our biblical ancestors Aaron the High Priest, Hannah, Sarah and Hagar.

Each of these biblical characters prays in a unique way. Jake and Emily got the audience to consider that a synagogue might be the most traditional place for prayer, but our prayer can take place virtually anywhere. I immediately thought of the recent controversy when Israeli Knesset Minister Meshulam Nahari of the Shas party harshly criticized Gilad Shalit for going to the beach with his father on the first Shabbat of his freedom from Hamas captivity instead of going to the synagogue for prayer as I had blogged about just a day prior. If Gilad Shalit chose to be thankful to God on a beach instead of a synagogue, then who are we to judge?

Watching the Storahtelling production also led to me to consider athletes’ public displays of prayer on the playing field. There are those who are critical of athletes (from professional on down to the high school level) openly giving thanks to God after a good play or a victory. I’ve also noticed an increase in the public displays of religion among the fans at sporting events as well. Sure, fans holding signs proclaiming the John 3:16 verse from the New Testament is nothing new, but lately the TV cameras at sporting events have caught fans visibly praying for their team. This was certainly the case in the recent Major League Baseball playoffs.

In fact, I was contacted by a reporter from the Detroit Free Press last month during the playoffs as my hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, were playing in the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers. She told me she was writing an article about baseball players and religion. Her first question caught me off guard when she asked me if I thought God was a Tigers fan. We then discussed whether religion should have a role in spectator sports. I explained to the reporter that I appreciate when athletes give it their all and are so intent on winning that they don’t hide their religious convictions.

Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, director of Kosher Michigan, said he took no offense at Christian displays of faith on the field.

“In America, we take our sports seriously and baseball as the American pastime has been elevated to almost the level of religion,” said Miller of Farmington Hills. “When I see a player like Jose Valverde of the Tigers pointing to heaven or crossing himself, I can tell my children that he is a religious person and is grateful to God for his successful performance and God-given abilities.”

Later that night as I sat in the stands at Comerica Park in Detroit watching the Tigers beat the Rangers in Game 3 of the ALCS, I thought more about athletes publicly displaying their gratefulness to God during the game. Watching the players take a moment to pray and thank God was quite meaningful. They are so grateful to be in the position of playing a fun game in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions more on television that they recognize the importance of giving thanks.
We should appreciate when players publicly demonstrate their faith, whether by asking God to help them achieve success and not get injured during the game or by thanking God for their triumph. If we are going to teach our children that God is accessible anywhere and that we don’t have to be in a church or synagogue to pray, then let us embrace the notion that a sports field is an appropriate place for players and fans to welcome in God.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Ryan Braun Yom Kippur Debate

When Hank Greenberg walked down the long aisle of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit on September 20, 1934 on Yom Kippur, he received a standing ovation. That day, the Detroit Tigers faced the New York Yankees in a key game late in the season. Despite the pennant race, Greenberg sat out the game and went to synagogue instead. The Tigers lost.

Greenberg had played ten days earlier on Rosh Hashanah leading the Tigers to victory with his two home runs, although in his autobiography he describes how he sat out batting practice to mull over the decision. A rabbi gave him the go-ahead leading the Detroit News to run the headline: “Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play.”

After the Rosh Hashanah victory, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline that read “Happy New Year, Hank.”

While the Milwaukee Brewers star player Ryan Braun is sometimes referred to as “The Hebrew Hammer” just like Greenberg was and he even lived in a house once inhabited by Hank Greenberg, Braun is going to play in today’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Or to use the language of Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: Ryan Braun will not Koufax his teammates today. The game starts at 4:00 PM Central Time, which theoretically would give him a couple hours of playing time before the commencement of Yom Kippur at sunset. However, that is a moot point because Braun was never a synagogue-going guy. His father is Jewish, but Braun wasn’t raised Jewish (his mother is Catholic).

So what’s the debate about? In truth, there are three debates here. The first debate is about Braun playing on Yom Kippur. The second debate is about Braun’s Judaism. And the third debate is about why people care and have made this into a debate.

When I was contacted by NY Times sports reporter Richard Sandomir yesterday on this matter, I explained that the real issue is why Jewish people are so infatuated with Jewish baseball players and Yom Kippur. Professional Jewish athletes in other sports play on Yom Kippur without any fanfare. There’s something inherent in major league baseball that makes this an issue.

Second, I explained that the authenticity of Braun’s Jewishness doesn’t seem to matter to many Jewish people who otherwise wouldn’t consider him Jewish. I agree with that. It shouldn’t matter if only Braun’s father is Jewish or if he wasn’t raised Jewish. What should matter is if Braun considers himself to be Jewish today. No one is saying that he should be counted in a synagogue minyan (prayer quorum), but there is no reason not to feel Jewish pride that the “Hebrew Hammer” has taken his team to the post-season and is a candidate for National League MVP (Braun was NL Rookie of the Year in 2007).

It comes down to the difference between Judaism as a culture and Judaism as a religion. From a religious viewpoint, Ryan Braun is not Jewish. From a cultural viewpoint, he should be considered a Jewish ballplayer, included in sets of Jewish baseball cards, and eligible for induction in the Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here is the article from today’s NY Times:

For Braun, Stadiums Remain His Temple
By Richard Sandomir

If a player with Jewish heritage reaches baseball’s postseason, the inevitable question is: will he play on Yom Kippur or go to synagogue? It is not a query on the level of the Four Questions that are asked during the Passover seder. But it is one of those curious baseball inquiries — maybe on par with, Does a rising fastball really rise? — that pop up sometimes.

Why such interest in whether a ballplayer plays a game or worships on a High Holy Day? Call it the Greenberg-Koufax Yom Kippur Precedent: In 1934, Hank Greenberg went to temple rather than play a game against the Yankees during a pennant race. In 1965, Sandy Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series out of respect for his religion.

They are still heroes to their faith. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shawn Green sat out a critical game in 2001 to observe Yom Kippur.

This year, the question has been put to Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who play the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday afternoon in the decisive Game 5 of their National League division series. The game begins just after 4 p.m. Central, and Yom Kippur starts at sunset at 6:23 p.m. In theory, Braun could put in five or six innings, then scoot to temple.

During Rosh Hashana last week, Michael S. asked on Twitter, with some ire: “Why did Ryan Braun even play last night?!?! He better not play on Yom Kippur!”

Except that Braun is not religious. Although his father is Jewish, his mother is Catholic, so he is not a Jew according to religious law. Braun played on Rosh Hashana and will play Friday. Perhaps it should not be an issue, but it has become one in some quarters, particularly on the Internet.

“The Jewish community is always looking for Jewish baseball heroes,” said Rabbi Jason Miller of Farmington Hills, Mich., who blogs about Jews and sports. “Braun is not considered a Jewish player, yet Orthodox Jews would cite him as their Jewish hero.”

Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers also has a Catholic mother but celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays as a child, according to Sports Illustrated. If he felt qualms about playing Saturday, he need not fret. Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. between Texas and the Tigers will not begin until after Yom Kippur ends at sundown.

Anticipating what Braun and Kinsler would do, The Tablet, a Jewish publication, said on its Web site recently, “Millions of Jewish boys and their mothers are watching.”

Ron Kaplan, the sports and features editor of New Jersey Jewish News, said he gets requests from readers wondering if a player is Jewish or if he will play on Yom Kippur. One letter he received this week advocated that Kinsler sit out Yom Kippur.

Kaplan said that Jews are excited to see Jewish ballplayers because there are not many of them. “Jews are so underrepresented,” he said, “so whenever there’s somebody who has any tangential relationship to their religion, we claim them as our own.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Hebrew Hammer Hinders Homer Hobbling Home

Ryan Braun, known as the “Hebrew Hammer”, is having a remarkable year. The Milwaukee Brewers’ All-Star left fielder, who was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2007, has 25 home runs so far this season. He’s also on his way to becoming one of the best Jewish players Major League Baseball has ever seen. He’s also helping his team have one of their best seasons ever.

In recognition of his great season with the Brewers, Braun and some teammates were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. Of course, that honor had people in Milwaukee nervous. Would the infamous Sports Illustrated Jinx affect Braun and Brewers? I’m not sure if the SI Jinx was in effect Wednesday night, but Braun committed one of the worst base running bloopers I’ve ever seen.

Braun was attempting an inside-the-park homer on Wednesday night when he tripped and fell between third base and home plate. He was easily tagged out as he got to his feet and tried to run back to third base. Not only did the TV cameras catch Braun shamefully walking back to the dugout, but they also caught former NBA star Reggie Miller laughing at Braun’s slip and fall from the stands.

Inside-the-park home runs are an uncommon feat in baseball and Braun blew his chance to add one to his impressive statistics. But Braun did give his teammates some good material for a major league prank. Braun’s teammates Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum and Marcus Hanel created a crime scene with Braun’s body outlines along the third base line. Here’s a photo of their handy work:

It’s great to see Ryan Braun having such a great season. I’m hoping that his Brewers get a chance to meet my Detroit Tigers in the World Series this year. I first met Braun during his rookie season when the Milwaukee Brewers were in Phoenix to play the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Brewers were staying at the same hotel where I was staying and I had a chance to talk with Braun while he waited for the team bus. I told him it was great to have another Jewish player in Major League Baseball and some of his teammates sitting close by were surprised to learn he was Jewish (I guess that isn’t something that a rookie broadcasts in the big leagues).

Braun told me that he lived for a short period of his childhood with his grandfather in a house that previously belonged the great Hank Greenberg. If Braun keeps playing the way he has, that house won’t be the only thing he shares with Hank Greenberg.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller