Young Jewish athletes are in a league of their own

BY ELLIE S. GROSSMAN

Like so many families whose kids are involved in multiple sports and activities, the soccer field has become my home away from home lately. In fact, I relax in my nylon stadium chair more often than my leather couch at home. A typical Saturday morning soccer game starts out this way: First, I pull the heavy, collapsible contraptions out of the drawstring bags and unfold each one like a magician setting up for a magic show. Second, I play musical lawn chairs until everyone enjoys an unobstructed view of the upcoming action. Next, I grab bottled waters from the cooler and arrange a beverage in each empty cup holder. Then, I serve hungry fans handfuls of sunflower seeds, even though we just gobbled chocolate donuts for breakfast. Finally, by half time, I plop myself down and ask, “What’s the score?”

Both Jack and Sari love to play all kinds of sports, particularly during baseball and soccer season. As a parent, I witness how their favorite pastimes build self-confidence, encourage teamwork, promote health and fitness, and flourish new friendships. Most of all, these athletic programs teach children invaluable life lessons, such as how to win and how to lose. And, in my neck of the woods, where Catholic-affiliated organizations dominate competitive soccer, team sports also can introduce youngsters to religious tolerance.

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As the only Jewish player on her team, Sari is truly in a league of her own. Not only is she the only second-grader on the St. Alban’s Strikers who is not afraid to block the ball with her knees clenched together, but apparently she is the only player who feels awkward in a prayer circle. Sure, Sari always plays by the rules and has a great time with her coaches and teammates from school. So she joins hands with all the other pony-tailed girls in a big circle. When the rest of them bow their heads to pray, Sari says she daydreams or holds her head up high and is in her own thoughts. Judaism, by the way, doesn’t have a specific prayer for sports, other than the one that asks God for comfort in a dangerous situation or the Sh’ma, which covers it all and is an easy one to memorize. I suggest to Sari that she also can make up her own prayer because we all appreciate a little help from above sometimes.

In Catholic leagues, athletic prayers before a soccer match are common practice, and they are usually innocent enough. A typical prayer asks God for protection over the players and encourages good sportsmanship. An example of an athletic prayer is: “Most loving God, watch over all who are part of today’s game — players, coaches and fans … May this day be a source of enjoyment for all who are here … whether we win or lose …”

Furthermore, references to God are typically along the lines of “Loving God,” “Heavenly Father,” “Almighty God and Father,” and “Holy God.” On occasion, however, a coach sneaks in the J-word, or “Jesus.” Like many Jews, that’s when Sari gets as defensive as a goalie at her net. She is really thrown for a loop when they end the minute-long prayer session with the “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” gesture.

When my exhausted goalie asks me after the game why the other players make the Sign of the Cross, which actually looks like they swat at flies in front of their faces, I take advantage of the opportunity to talk about how Jesus fits into Judaism. I know she’s not in the mood for a sermon on the Old Testament versus the Christian New Testament, like I could give one anyway. Instead, I try to keep it simple and share my Jewish belief that Jesus was a real person and a great teacher. The difference is that Jews don’t pray to Jesus. We don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah. In fact, Jesus is simply not a part of our religion, and so we have no need to pray to him. Instead, when Jews pray, we go directly to the top. We pray to God.

As Sari unstraps her sweaty shin guards and kicks off her muddy cleats in the garage, I realize that her eye-opening experience in the prayer circle is a lesson in Jewish pride that she’ll never forget. Furthermore, I tell her that what makes a great Jewish athlete is not always what you do, but what you do not. To illustrate my point, I tell her about the Jewish baseball player Sandy Koufax, the Hall-of-Fame pitcher who refused to play a World Series game back in 1965 because it fell on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. “Now that’s a winner,” I tell her. “Hit the shower!”

“The Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to [email protected]