Basketball, Jews and Tolerance

The rights of Jewish athletes to keep the Sabbath in the USA is not a simple accomplishment .

Dr. Rafael Medoff

OpEds Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff
צילום: INN:RM

The controversy over the Jewish high school basketball team in Houston that would not play a tournament game on the Sabbath reveals much about how Jews see their place in American society--and also a great deal about how American society's attitude toward Jews has changed over the years.

In his book Judaism's Encounter with American Sports, Prof. Jeffrey Gurock describes how, in 1934, "in an uncaring if not intolerant America," baseball slugger Hank Greenberg came under tremendous pressure from the public and news media to play on the holiday of Rosh Hashana in a game that was crucial to his team's pennant chances. Greenberg gave in and played. (The Detroit Free Press declared that the two home runs Greenberg hit that day were "strictly kosher.")

In 1965, by contrast, "a far more understanding American society" accepted Sandy Koufax's refusal to pitch in the World Series on a High Holy Day. (When his replacement, Don Drysdale, was pulled from the game after yielding six runs in less than three innings, Drysdale reported said to manager Walt Alston, "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.")

Another episode from the history of American sports is similarly instructive. 

The 1936 Olympic Games were scheduled to take place in Nazi Germany. Jewish organizations and other critics of Nazism urged athletes to boycott the games, warning that Hitler would use the event to gain legitimacy from the international community. 

Remarkably, only a handful of Jewish athletes agreed to join the boycott. Most American Jews were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and antisemitism was at an all-time high in the United States. Many Jewish sportsmen and women were insecure about their status in America and afraid of being seen as putting Jewish interests first. 

"We were really American athletes of Jewish religion, not Jewish ballplayers," Herman Goldberg, a member of the U.S. baseball team in the 1936 Olympics, later explained. "[We were] selected to represent our country."

The mostly-Jewish New York University basketball team declined to take part in the Olympic tryouts--not because of their opposition to Nazism, but because the players all held part-time jobs and "felt they couldn't spare the time from their work" to go overseas if they were selected, according to a team spokesman. (The only basketballers who refused to participate as a protest against Hitler were the Long Island University Blackbirds.

But that was then, and this is now:

In recent years, Towson State University revised its basketball schedule to accommodate Orthodox Jewish player Tamir Goodman; the Illinois High School Association changed its wrestling schedule so that the team from Chicago's Ida Crown Jewish Academy would not be required to play on the Sabbath; and the sponsors of the national mock trial championship, in Atlanta, altered their schedule so the Sabbath-observant Maimonides School of Boston could participate.

By way of contrast, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools last week initially refused to move the Friday night game in which Houston's Robert M. Beren Jewish Academy was scheduled to play. If this were 1936, that would have been the end of the story. But in 2012, the Jewish players and parents in Houston felt sufficiently secure of their place in American society to go to the news media and the courts to seek redress--and they succeeded. The Association agreed to reschedule the game.

Equally significant, perhaps, is the fact that several Christian teams in the league that had been scheduled to play previous games against the Beren Academy on Friday night or Saturday promptly agreed to reschedule when they were asked. It seems the teams had a better grasp of the importance of inclusion than some league officials.
Happily, the spirit of tolerance evident in the world of amateur sports is increasingly found in other segments of American society.

Just last month, the Republican Party of Nevada immediately agreed to a request to add an extra, post-Sabbath session of its presidential caucuses, to accommodate the state's small number of Orthodox Jews. Even though this caused a delay in the reporting of the final results, there were no audible protests. The principle of inclusiveness was upheld by a party that, in the 1930s, was widely perceived as standing for the opposite. 

American Jews have come a long way--and so has America.