Monday, April 15, 2013

Rabbi Lew and Jackie Robinson

היום עשרים  יום שהם שני שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty days, which is two weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבתפארת
A day of foundation in a week of compassion

A tough day for our country--for the world. Why anyone wants to make such a huge statement that means lives will be lost is totally beyond my comprehension. Maybe I'll write more about this tomorrow, maybe not. But today, to keep some normality, the topic is baseball.

It was 66 years ago today that Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. All the major league players are wearing number 42 today in his honor. One of the best ways I know to pay homage to his memory is to share some words from a big fan--my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z''l. Here is an excerpt from my favorite Rabbi Lew sermon, Yasher Koach,  given on Rosh Hashanah 5760/2000.

I have been a baseball fan all my life. The most vivid memory I have is my first visit to Ebbets Field in 1948. My Uncle Benny, my favorite uncle who died a few years later, took me. It was the day the Dodgers clinched the pennant that year, and after the game the crowds poured out onto the street outside the Dodger dressing room and waited for their heroes to come out. In those days, athletes used to wear sport coats with white shirts -- no ties, collars spread wide open -- and as long as I live, I will never forget the sight of Gil Hodges immense Adam's apple protruding out of the open neck of his white shirt. He was a god. 
Another sight I'll never forget; a short while later my father took me to my first night game, also at Ebbets Field. Coming into the park, I caught my first glimpse of that glistening green grass diamond bathed in the arclight. My heart still stops a little whenever I walk into a stadium and see that 
And, of course, in 1948, Jackie Robinson began the civil rights revolution by penetrating baseball, because both he and Branch Rickey seemed to understand that baseball was at the heart of the American psyche, and if America was going to change, it had to change here first. You know, Louis Finkelstein, the great chancellor, perhaps the greatest chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, had the same insight. He used to say, you can't be an American Rabbi unless you know baseball. 
And in fact, I learned about social justice and civil rights and racial prejudice, not in school, not in synagogue, but through baseball. 
Pee Wee Reese, the little colonel, died the other day. When Pee Wee Reese became the only player on the Dodgers to befriend Jackie Robinson, he also became my favorite player and he remained so until he retired. 
Most of the ballplayers then were from the south. Pee Wee Reese was from the south too. Louisville, Kentucky, to be precise. But when the other players got up a petition saying they wouldn't play with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese refused to sign. And then one afternoon in Cincinnati, when the fans were taunting Robinson mercilessly, and even some of the players were joining in, Pee Wee Reese walked over and put his arm around Jackie Robinson and stood beside him. Later, Jackie Robinson said, I never felt alone on a baseball field after that. 
So When Jackie Robinson couldn't find a house to buy, I sent him a letter inviting him to come live in my neighborhood. He wrote me back. He said he was sorry that he couldn't live in my neighborhood, because he and his family had just purchased a house in Stamford, Connecticut. 
Baseball mirrors life in a subtle and deeply spiritual way. It has a deep aesthetic and we pour our souls into this mythic diamond and allow our deepest aspirations and conflicts to play out there. 

Zichron'hem l'vracha - the memories of both Rabbi Lew and Jackie Robinson are blessings to us today.

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