This special holiday post comes from guest blogger Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, Executive Director of Hillel at Texas A&M University. Thank you, Rabbi Matt!
“Rabbi Matt, they’ve scheduled the Alabama game for Yom Kippur.”
Hearing these words while still living in Los Angeles did not mean much to me; more to the point, I didn’t understand just how significant they were. I was finishing rabbinical school and preparing to move to College Station, Texas to be the executive director of Hillel at Texas A&M University. I thought, “Why are they telling me this?”
How naive I was.
Now, two months into my job at Texas A&M, I have a far richer appreciation for the role of football in Texas. As a new rabbi just out of rabbinical school, where for the last six years I was immersed in the traditions of our ancestors, there was nearly nothing holier or more important than the Day of Atonement. Yet, here we were, with this dilemma: Alabama vs. Texas A&M, the biggest football game of the year, was going to take place on that very Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. Saturday, September 14, with a kickoff time of 2:30 p.m.
I was truly grateful for the 2:30 p.m. kickoff. It made my life so much easier. I realized I wouldn’t have to abbreviate services or start Yom Kippur morning services at a strange time. We could easily complete the additional musaf service and perhaps mincha well before kickoff, before alumni or students needed to rush off from our brand-new Hillel building across the street to Kyle Field, the football stadium where the Aggies would hopefully defeat their opponents from Alabama.
With such a kickoff time, I determined that we’d be able to resume our closing services at 6 p.m., which should coincide with the end of the big game. After the game and after my congregation returned from Kyle Field to Hillel, we’d be able to hopefully rejoice in not only the exhilarating feeling one experiences after a long day of fasting for Yom Kippur but also in the exhilaration of an Aggie victory. Alternatively, if the Aggies were to lose, the chest-beating of the confessional “ashamnu” prayer would take on new meaning for my new congregation.
One of the traditions of Kyle Field is that students remain standing throughout the game. For my students attending the Alabama game on Yom Kippur, they’ve elected to try to pull tickets in a special section for those who need to remain seated. I do hope, for my students’ sake, that the weather is mild and not the 100-degree-plus weather we’ve been having in these days leading up to the High Holy Days.
For me, this juxtaposition of atonement and football will be an enlightening experience, one which I have never experienced before but I was trained by my teachers in California to be flexible and creative within the bounds of our tradition. To meet our congregants where they are, and emphasize the importance of Jewish life not “in place of” other things we value, but right alongside them – and certainly not of lesser importance. With the Alabama game, I appreciate the opportunity to exercise that flexibility in bringing Torah to the world.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. They had arranged a viewing of the College World Series because our very own Mississippi State Bulldogs were playing in the championship.
I must admit that although I was raised an avid Yankees fan and then secretly (well, now not-so-secretly) converted to being a Red Sox fan when I moved to Boston in 2004, I haven’t watched a single baseball game since I moved to the South. Besides a rogue Atlanta Braves fan you might stumble across every now and then, football reigns in these parts. But when your local team makes it to a national championship, you buckle down, eat a hot dog, and show your support.
Typical of a museum nerd, I was wandering through the exhibits during most of the game while my friends gathered around the multiple TV screens. It was the bottom of the 6th inning by the time I sat down, and Mississippi State was behind. The crowd was quiet and the mood was sullen. I looked up at the screen. They were showing aerial views of Omaha, Nebraska, the city where the College World Series had been held for the past 63 years.
“So..why is this in Omaha?” I asked my fellow fans.
“Not sure, it’s just always been there,” one fan answered.
Not sure? Not acceptable. I pulled the internet out of my pocket. I read the information from the College World Series site aloud “The College World Series was first played in Omaha in 1950 and total attendance was 17,805. Although the College World Series is now a profitable event, it lost money for 10 of the first 12 years that it was in Omaha – 1950-1961. Four Omahans who maintained their faith and interest in the College World Series during those lean years are due much of the credit for the tournament’s continued presence in Omaha. They are the late Ed Pettis of the Brandeis Stores, the late Morris Jacobs and the late Byron Reed, both of Bozell & Jacobs, and the late Johnny Rosenblatt, Mayor of Omaha and an avid baseball fan.”
“Jews!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, right. The old stadium was Rosenblatt field,” my fellow fan replied.
I spent the rest of the short and sad innings reading about Johnny Rosenblatt, the mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, from 1954 to 1961. He was one of six children born to Jewish immigrant parents, and played semi professional baseball for 20 years.
My reaction to “Jews in Omaha” is probably pretty similar to the reaction people have when they hear about “Jews in the South.” I don’t know much of anything about Omaha (except something about steaks and that it’s home to one of our favorite scholars, Dr. Ron Wolfson). I would have never guessed it was a hub not only for college baseball, but also for Jewish community involvement.
I look for these instances often. After all, I’ve had to arm myself with similar Southern Jewish trivia bits when I’m asked about Jews in the South. Locally, my favorite response actually involves Mississippi State fans again, when I surprise them that their voice of the Bulldogs local sports announcer Jack Cristil is Jewish and from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Clearly, I enjoy the feeling of discovery – and luckily, we’ve got resources like Wikipedia, Google, and more specifically, for those not familiar with Southern cities, we’ve got the great Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities to help make these discoveries more often.
Living with these resources makes it a great time to be curious, especially during boring sports events. Have to sit through another little league tournament this weekend? Here are a few searches to get you started:
For the music lover- Where was Dinah Shore from and what was her original name?
For the history student- Who was the secretary of state for the Confederacy?
For the traveler- Who came up with these crazy South of the Border signs?
Have fun discovering!
For those of you with teams in the tournament, or whose brackets are still alive, enjoy the weekend. I’ve been sitting shiva for my team of choice, the Kansas Jayhawks, but thought it would be good to get a basketball-related post out while I had the chance.
In honor of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, which takes place this weekend in Atlanta, I want to commemorate the years when Jewish players were an important part of collegiate basketball. As basketball grew in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century, it became especially popular with working class kids in urban areas where cold winters and a scarcity of sports fields made other sports less accessible. Of course, Jewish boys were no less enamored of the sport than anyone else. In the 1930s, young Jewish talent coming out of New York City established area schools like NYU, CCNY and Long Island University as early powerhouses in the history of the college game, which attracted large audiences well before professional leagues took shape. By the 1950s, Jewish players—some from northern cities and some homegrown—regularly played for universities across the South.
A quick perusal of Vanderbilt rosters from the 1950s, for example, yields Al Weiss, Thomas Grossman and Ralph Schulman. While I don’t know much about Weiss or Grossman and cannot guarantee that they are Jewish, Ralph Schulman is a different story. In an oral history from 2010, Nashville’s Betsy Chernau recalled going to a ZBT dance with Schulman, who she knew from high school. In fact, she met her eventual husband, Stan Chernau, at that party. Stan had grown up in Chicago and played for the freshman basketball team at the time.
The most famous Jewish players at southern schools were probably Lennie Rosenbluth, who led the University of North Carolina to its first national championship in 1957, and Art Heyman, who played for Duke and starred on the school’s first Final Four team in 1963.
By that time, though, the era of Jewish basketball was coming to a close. Both racial integration and the growing popularity of the sport made college basketball more competitive, and Jewish players were soon represented in numbers that better reflect our actual population. While basketball is no longer a niche sport for Jewish athletes, we still see the occasional Danny Schayes, Jake Cohen or Jordan Farmar, and it is good to remember the Jewishness of these players would have been less exceptional in earlier decades.