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Op-Ed: The Har-Bowl: The Essence of Thanksgiving

The meeting of two brothers on opposite sides of the gridiron this Thursday night sheds light on what the holiday is all about.
Published: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 11:26 PM


 

Americans living in Israel fall into two separate camps concerning Thanksgiving. There are those who celebrate it, and will join family and friends for a festive meal of turkey and cranberries this Thursday night, just like back in the 'old country'.

Some of them, for convenience sake, incorporate the turkey into their weekly Friday night meal instead.

And on the other side of the spectrum there are others who simply don't celebrate the occasion at all. Some for reasons of ignorance: 'Is that today?' But most non-celebrants usually claim it's because the holiday is 'too goyish', 'too American' or simply 'too much trouble'.

I fall into a third group. I don't eat turkey and I don't watch the Macy's Day Parade in Manhattan (although I do get a kick out of the giant Snoopy balloon).  But I do engage in one activity that is as much a Thanksgiving tradition as the big turkey dinner, watching American football.

The stereotype is tired, yet true. After a heavy turkey meal, the men of the typical American family retire to the family room , crack open cans of beer, loosen their belts a notch or two, and watch teams like the Lions, Packers, and Cowboys (teams that traditionally play on Thanksgiving) battle it out on Turkey Day.

Even without the turkey, I will still tune in this Thanksgiving to watch the undefeated Green Bay Packers face the Lions in Detroit, followed by the second game, the Miami Dolphins at the Dallas Cowboys.

But the most intriguing football game on Thanksgiving may be the third and final one of the day pitting the San Francisco 49ers against the host Baltimore Ravens. John Harbaugh is the fourth year head coach of the Ravens, and his younger brother is Jim Harbaugh, the first year head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. This is the first time in NFL history that two brothers face off as head coaches for opposing teams. The media has already dubbed this matchup 'The Har-Bowl'.

The real surprise is not older brother John, who has compiled winning seasons with the Ravens ever since he was hired to be head coach in 2008; but younger brother Jim Harbaugh, who in his first season as an NFL head coach has led his 49ers to an astounding record of 9-1.

One might expect that the way Jim Harbaugh turned his team around, the once proud 49ers franchise  had not had a winning season since 2002, was by bringing in a bunch of new players, but that was not the case. The team is basically identical to the roster from previous losing years. The only real difference is Harbaugh and his coaching staff.

Jim Harbaugh is a former NFL quarterback, so he knows the game. But players say that there is more to him than that. He relates to players. Jim Harbaugh has been known to give up his first class ticket on the team charter so he could sit with the rest of the players in the back of the plane. He may not be 'the genius' that the late legendary 49ers 3-time Superbowl champion coach Bill Walsh was, but Harbaugh definitely knows how to motivate and get the most out of his players, and the results have been amazing. Before every game coach Harbaugh shouts to his players, "Who's got it better than us?" and in unison they shout back, "Nobody!"

This is one particular lesson that coach Jim Harbaugh imparts to his players before every game. SF Gate reported that when he was a little kid, the family's motto was "Who's got it better than us?" His dad, Jack, would ask the question and Jim and his brother John would shout in unison, "Nobody!"

At the time they lived in a tiny two bedroom-house in Iowa City, where Jack was an assistant coach at University of Iowa. Sometimes they had a car. If not, they were walking -- what a terrific opportunity to work on basketball dribbling skills! Jack convinced the boys how great it was that they could bunk together in a tiny bedroom and talk philosophy and share each other's dreams.

"Who could possibly have it better than you two guys?" Jack would ask.

Nobody. Obviously.

"Then as you get older you realize that people do have it better than you," said Harbaugh, who went back to look at the tiny house on a scouting trip. "That was the smallest house I'd ever seen."

But the message was received, processed and believed.

"The message there was not having things handed to you, that things that don't come easy are really a blessing," Harbaugh said. "If it's harder it makes you better in the long run. That's what my dad was selling."


"Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what he has."
Fast forward some 40 years to the modern state of Israel. I am watching the 49ers-Ravens game on Thanksgiving night, long after my Israeli neighbors have gone to sleep. Thanksgiving is not about turkey (nor, dare I say, American football), but about reflecting. About being thankful for what we have. As Ben-Zoma said in Ethics of our Fathers, "Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what he has."

Yes, Israel has its problems. Yes, many things need to be improved, nothing comes easy in Israel. But as I sit in front of my TV on a still Thanksgiving night in the modern state of Israel and crack open a can of Maccabee beer, I think to myself: Who's got it better than us?

Nobody!