Why Shouldn’t a Jew Play on Yom Kippur?

This Friday night, the Brewers will play the Diamondbacks, and the Phillies will play the Cardinals. Also on Friday night, Jews will be observing Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, by fasting, attending Kol Nidre services at synagogues, and praying in repentance for sins. But not necessarily all of them.

There haven’t been many Jewish superstars in American sports, so the few who have emerged have faced an oversized spotlight. Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, the two Jewish players in the Hall of Fame, refused to play on Yom Kippur, and since then, the column I’m writing now has been written every year: will [a given Jewish player] play on Yom Kippur?*

* Rod Carew married a Jewish woman but never converted himself, despite Adam Sandler’s contention otherwise. Similarly, Jonah Keri notes that Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau’s mother was Jewish, but he didn’t identify as Jewish, while Greenberg and Koufax both did. As I’m a Reform Jew, I tend to give greater weight to self-identity than matrilineage. Moreover, there may be no Yom Kippur conflicts this year: I am not aware of any Jewish-identified players on the Diamondback, Brewer, Cardinal, or Phillie rosters, and while the Rangers have Jewish players on their roster, and the timing of Saturday’s game is as yet unannounced, it is likely that the game will take place after sundown on Saturday night.

Whether a player plays on Yom Kippur is a personal decision of faith, identity, and purpose. And though Greenberg and Koufax came to the same decision, they did so for very different reasons, as Peter Levine writes:

Greenberg’s choice appeared as critical dilemma—how to balance loyalty to parents, religion, and tradition with commitment to his American profession and his desire to fully participate in his American life… By the time Koufax chose not to play, Greenberg’s dilemma no longer existed for most American Jews. While they proudly acknowledged Sandy’s decision, it hardly signaled hope for their own American ambitions or symbolically challenged insistent anti-Semitic claims of Jewish inferiority.

Different players have come to different conclusions. Two-time All-Star Shawn Green was not raised religious, and early in his career he played on Yom Kippur. Later he decided against it, saying, “I’m not trying to be ‘the next Greenberg or Koufax,’ but I am trying to do my part as a Jewish ballplayer.” Three-time All-Star Kevin Youkilis said he wasn’t sure: “I’ve never played on Yom Kippur. Hopefully if we were playing, it would be a night game, not a day game.” Back in 2004, Gabe Kapler explained his decision to play on Yom Kippur by saying, “I am very proud of my heritage and I want to be a role model for young Jewish people. But I am not really a practicing Jew. It would be selfish to be a practicing Jew on only one day.” Ryan Braun has explained: “I am half Jewish, and I am not Orthodox… So I never grew up celebrating the holidays. I’m going to play.” (Braun declined to comment for this article.)

Green, Youkilis, and Kapler represent three positions on the religious spectrum, and Braun is a player who identifies culturally but not religiously. For many Jewish players, the greatest dilemma of all is not a matter of observance, but rather a matter of conflicting loyalties: loyalty to teammates who want to win, and loyalty to a Jewish community that wants the player to be a role model of Jewish conduct.

Speaking as a member of that wider Jewish community, Melanie Greenberg, Hank Greenberg’s granddaughter, disapproved of a compromise that Youkilis appeared to have made: “Unlike my grandfather and Sandy Koufax… [Youkilis] did not go to shul [synagogue] but, rather, suited up and sat in the dugout — perhaps a reflection of his ambivalence. He wanted to honor his religious tradition, but it seemed his heart was in the game.”

(Two years ago, Youkilis wasn’t forced to confront the dilemma, because Major League Baseball actually moved a Red Sox-Yankees game from the evening to the afternoon so as not to conflict with the beginning of Yom Kippur; Bud Selig said it was in order to benefit the many Jewish fans of both teams.)

I spoke to Philadelphia Phillies prospect and reliever Michael Schwimer, a callup this year who was left off the postseason roster, about what he would decide if he were faced with a game on Yom Kippur. He had clearly thought deeply about the choice. He gave me two explanations for his decision to play, one religious and one secular:

I’ve been given this opportunity by God, and with all the blessings, He has shown that He would want me to play. I’ve thought about it and that’s what I come up with.
I do respect the holiday, but my situation is different… At this point in my career, I’m not a go-to guy, a superstar or whatever, I’m kind of a role player right now, and I enjoy helping my team…
It would depend on the situation in baseball. If I became a starting pitcher, and I wasn’t starting that day, I probably wouldn’t show up to the field…
That’s an individual choice, and as of right now, I would say that I would play. It could change two years from now.

Judaism is a very decentralized religion, and every Jew has a slightly different relationship with the faith and all the trappings of it, both outward and inward. I think many Jews (like me), who grew up on the secular-Reform spectrum, or in mixed-faith households, understand Kapler and Braun’s points: it doesn’t exactly feel right to claim religion just one day out of the year, when that’s not exactly how we live our lives the other 364 days.

Moreover, as Peter Levine points out, the community is in a different place than it once was. Jews have been visibly successful in American society for a long time at this point, so the actions of one Jewish person are not necessarily presumed to reflect on all other American Jews. When Hank Greenberg was one of the first famous, prominent, beloved Jewish Americans — much as his contemporary Joe DiMaggio was one of the first famous, prominent, beloved Italian-Americans — his actions gave made his entire community feel stronger, prouder, more American.

By contrast, what Braun does this Friday has no effect on my ability to advance in American society. When I was growing up, I didn’t pick my favorite athletes on the basis of religion. My heroes were Hank Aaron and my dad, neither of whom are Jewish. But I also understand where Green is coming from, and I respect and honor his decision, too.

Tomorrow night, I plan to be in synagogue. But even though I’ll be thinking about atonement, I’ll probably also be thinking about fixing the Braves’ offense. I’m a baseball fan; I can’t completely turn it off. Maybe that’s my version of suiting up for the game but staying on the bench, like Youkilis. Unfortunately for Youkilis and many Jewish Red Sox fans, baseball won’t conflict with Yom Kippur this year, which may make them all the hungrier. But they waited 86 years to break the curse. It won’t be so hard for them to wait 24 hours to break the fast.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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12 years ago

Jason Marquis (AZ) and Michael Schiwmer (PHI) are both Jewish.

12 years ago
Reply to  Dara

Erm. Schwimer.

12 years ago
Reply to  Dara

And this is why I need to read posts. Please disregard.