The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age

    Playoff Baseball on Yom Kippur

    As a newspaper columnist, celebrated Jewish filmmaker Aviva Kempner is a very good baseball documentarian.  In the Washington Post's 2014 Yom Kippur edition, Kempner blasts the lords of baseball for scheduling games on the holiest of Jewish holidays thus forcing those “who have to follow [their] conscience” to miss playoff games “[t]hanks to the insensitivity of Major League Baseball”. After citing with approval the Supreme Court's decision not to conduct hearings on Yom Kippur, Kempner concludes her op-ed thusly: “Too bad the Supreme Court is not the final arbiter [of whether games are played on Yom Kippur].” With all due respect, Kempner's position is absurd and I say that as a cultural but non-observant Jew.

    Actually, Kempner's arguments are not just absurd, they are downright arrogant and, perhaps worse, reveal a deep ignorance of what it means to live in a free society. Let's go right through them. First of all, nobody in the DC area is being forced to miss seeing their team lose to the visiting San Franciscans. Whether to turn on the TV, go to the ballpark, or sit for hours in a crowded synagogue is a choice that each American Jew gets to make.

    In fact, Kempner's ability to choose services and fasting, or baseball, or neither gives meaning to her choice. Thousands of years of anti-semitism, bizarre culinary rules, endless “holidays”, and medieval clothing and hair styles have all conspired to make Jewish life – at least for the most observant – arduous at best. Now, Kempner wants the state to make her choice pain-free or at least much less painful for her.

    If, (insert deity of choice here) forbid, we lived in a theocracy, the state would decide whether we could even play games on any particular religious holiday and, in a worst case scenario, require us to attend religious services. Then many of us would indeed be forced to miss games so that others would not. This undemocratic outcome is exactly what Kempner calls for when she expresses regret that the Supreme Court doesn't get to make the final decision.

    Recognizing that free societies don't force the many to accommodate the religious beliefs of a few, Kempner tries to universalize her suffering. She invokes the angst that many Jews are feeling. She asks us to sympathize with those billionaire team owners who won't even be watching their teams play. Am I the only one who sees how ridiculous this all is?

    If the games are rescheduled, working and middle-class baseball fans who were off work Friday night and Saturday evening might really be forced to miss them or risk losing their jobs. And what about baseball fans of other faiths? If observant Jews are accommodated, shouldn't the holidays of others be accorded an equal amount of respect?

    There are several million Muslims in America today. Many devote the holiest night of Ramadan, which was in July this year, to praying and fasting. If the Major Leagues can't schedule playoff games on Yom Kippur, principle demands that no games be played on Laylat al-Qadr either. Most people in this country and the Major Leagues as well (I'm sure) believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Good Friday - the day that is set aside to commemorate his crucifixion - is the holiest for religious Christians. This year, Good Friday was April 18. There was a full complement of Major League Baseball games that day.

    Kempner conjures up the specter of the late Detroit Tiger great Hank Greenberg – the subject of her most famous movie - and the still-kicking L.A. Dodger immortal Sandy Koufax. She notes that both players sat out games on Yom Kippur. With Detroit in first place late in the 1934 season, Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur and the Tigers lost. It didn't matter, the Detroiters still won the pennant, although they lost a seven-game World Series to the Cardinals.

    In 1965, Dodger ace Koufax declined to pitch game one of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins which L.A. lost. Koufax came back to start games 2, 5, and 7 winning the latter two and the series MVP trophy. Despite the fact that the Tigers and Dodgers lost the games their stars sat out, both teams were ultimately champions and Greenberg and Koufax remain heroes to this day.

    But what if the Tigers' Yom Kippur loss at the end of the 34 season precipitated a late-September collapse that handed the American League pennant to the runner-up Yankees? What if Koufax's arm had been too sore after he pitched a complete game 5 on short rest for him to pitch game 7 three days later and the Dodgers lost the series? Would Greenberg and Koufax still be heroes or would they just be two self-righteous superstars who put their own interests ahead of their teammates?

    Before they lost last night to the Giants, the Nationals had previously played five days earlier on Sunday. Did the long break hurt the home team? Probably not. But it is somewhat interesting that the surviving wild card teams in the playoffs, which had much shorter lay-offs than their heavily favored opponents, are a combined 3-0. If Kempner had her way, the first Division Series game in DC would have been Sunday leaving a rusty Nats team after an unnaturally long six day lay-off. Kempner lives in the DC area and is presumably a Nats fan. But her “solution” to the religious problem would hurt her team's chances to advance to the National League Championship Series.

    Kempner wants special treatment. Unsurprisingly, she views those who refuse to provide it as insensitive. But, considered from any but the narrowest perspective, Major League baseball made not just the correct decision to schedule games on Yom Kippur but the only legitimate one.



    I would get a DVR and set it to record automatically before the holy days start so I could enjoy the game after the holidays are over with. 

    According to Rabbi Lyle Fishman of the Ohr Kodesh Synagogue in Chevy Chase, MD, DVRing for subsequent playback is cheating and he forbade his kids from doing this when they were younger.  Full disclosure: Rabbi Fishman officated at my wife Mindy's and my wedding many years ago.

    I have never thought of any of this, Hal, and found it so interesting, but throughout your piece I couldn't help but think about Christmas day and how careful we are to make it a universally observant holiday.  It's only been recently that stores of any kind have taken to opening on Christmas day.  So much for Christian "persecution".

    I went to schools in Detroit that closed on Jewish holidays.  That meant we got days off that the kids in the suburbs didn't.  We loved that!

    Thanks for enjoying Ramona.  Yes, most people get Christmas off but not necessarily sports teams.  For example, the New York Knicks perennially play on Christmas Day.  The game is perceived as a gift to their many Jewish fans who otherwise feel left out that day.

    Lol.  For some reason that makes me very happy.

    I was going to disagree with you by asserting that they would never play a game on Christmas, but evidently that would just have proved how little I follow the game. That said, I would think the issue would be more important for observant Jews who would play the game (and hence be forced to choose between not playing or observing Yom Kippur) than observant Jews who merely cannot watch the game (again probably betraying the fact that I don't think it's that big of a deal to not be able to watch a game).

    Thanks Hal, fun piece.   As someone who just broke another fast on Yom Kippur, I understand the choices one makes on matters of faith.  Kempner is either kidding or is just completely out of line.  Heck, some of the best baseball ever played has been on the Jewish holidays.  I just checked cause it was 46 years ago (yikes), but Game One of the '68 series featured Bob Gibson and Denny McClain and it was Yom Kippur.  I remember it well -- cuz me and Howie Markowitz watched the game after temple, and Gibson struck out 17!  Don't tell Kempner we cheated--and it was worth it! :)

    In 1965, Dodger ace Koufax declined to pitch game one of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins which L.A. lost. Koufax came back to start games 2, 5, and 7 winning the latter two and the series MVP trophy. Despite the fact that the Tigers and Dodgers lost the games their stars sat out, both teams were ultimately champions and Greenberg and Koufax remain heroes to this day.

    I remember this.

    You know Koufax destroyed my team's chances in 1965!

    He was amazing.

    He threw so goddamn hard, his career was shortened.

    Kind of like Woods, but damn he was fun to watch. 

    We all have rules.  We have societal rules and we have personal rules.

    Protocols as it were.

    A great blog by the way.. 


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