To play or pray: Yom Kippur and Jewish pro athletes

By MARK MIETKIEWICZ

Yom Kippur is a time for soul-searching for all Jews, and that has been certainly true for a number of Jewish athletes who have faced the dilemma of whether to compete on the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. Although some of the most famous predicaments have involved baseball players, stars from the worlds of football, tennis and chess (yes even chess!) have grappled with the question: to pray or to play?

Baseball

Let’s start with the most famous dilemma: the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax. Would he pitch against the Minnesota Twins when Game One of the 1965 World Series fell on Yom Kippur? To get a real taste of what Koufax’s decision to sit out the game meant to North America Jews, don’t miss a lovely clip from the documentary, “Jews & Baseball: An American Love Story.”

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Rebecca Alpert, author of “Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball,”

 “And he says ‘I’m going to choose to honor my religion.’ … Amazing. Enormous. Makes a huge difference. Even though Jewish people were assimilated at this point, probably pretty comfortable in the United States, I think it gave us a new burst of energy. I think it was part of that period of time when people started paying more attention to what it meant to be Jewish and I think Sandy Koufax was a big part of that.”

Decades earlier, the Detroit Tigers’ Hank Greenberg, aka the “Hebrew Hammer,” made headlines while his team was in an American League pennant race. Greenberg did play on Rosh Hashanah but not on Yom Kippur. His decision was immortalized by poet Edgar Guest in that week’s Detroit Free Press:

“Came Yom Kippur — holy fast day world wide over to the Jew,

 And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true …

We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat

 But he’s true to his religion — and I honor him for that!”

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(The Tigers lost that night but went on to win the pennant.)

Football

For Gabe Carimi, a 6-foot 8-inch, 292-pound left tackle for the University of Wisconsin Badgers, the question was whether to fast just before an evening game against Iowa in the Big Ten Conference opener. Carimi fasted. He then played. And he won. “Religion is a part of me, and I don’t want to just say I’m Jewish. I actually do make sacrifices that I know are hard choices.”

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Carimi credits another Wisconsin player, Matt Bernstein, who also decided to fast right before taking on Penn State. Bernstein then chose a very unorthodox method to get rehydrated after the fast. According to the ESPN story, “The Wisconsin junior feasted on a pregame IV bag, and during the game, moved on to turkey slices, fruit and the Penn State defense.”

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Tennis

Just last month, the Israel Tennis Association refused to play a Davis Cup match that had been scheduled on Yom Kippur. When its Belgian opponents turned down Israel’s request to reschedule the game, the International Tennis Federation stepped in and ordered the Israel Tennis Association to pay more than $13,000 to cover the cost of adding a day to the tournament. In its statement, the Israel Tennis Association proclaimed, “As an institution that represents the State of Israel and its values, we … stand proud, before all those who refuse to recognize the importance of the Jewish tradition, on behalf of Israel and Jews world over.”

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Chess

Things went a bit smoother for Israeli chess Grandmaster Boris Gelfand. Last year, he was scheduled to compete at the London Grand Prix Chess Tournament on Kol Nidei evening. The tournament concluded in a three-way tie between Gelfand and his opponents from Azerbaijan and Bulgaria.

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Most of us will probably never face the dilemma of deciding whether to pitch at the World Series on Yom Kippur. Our temptations are more prosaic like the one in this apocryphal tale:

Sidney telephones Rabbi Levy. He says, “Rabbi, I know tonight is Kol Nidre night, but tonight the Yanks are in the playoffs. Rabbi, I’m a life long Yankee fan. I’ve got to watch the Yankee game on TV.”

Rabbi Levy replies, “Sidney, that’s what TiVo is for.”

Sidney is surprised. “You mean I can record Kol Nidre?”

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