Sandy Koufax and the Aggies' Jewish Quarterback: A Yom Kippur Tale

Yom Kippur has come to its annual glorious end in the sound of the shofar and in the deeply rewarding experience that once again, as has been the case year in and year out for thousands and thousands of years, the Lord God of Israel has renewed His relationship with us. We have been forgiven our sins, and we can begin the year with a clean slate. And so in order to get a deeper grasp of this blissful moment, I went to that all-important contemporary Jewish theological text, The Big Lebowski, which reads:

The Dude:  You’re living in the blankety-blank past. 

Walter Sobchak:  Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax…  You’re blankety-blank right I’m living in the blankety-blank past!

And in order to demonstrate that he is faithful in deed to his theology:

Donny: How come you don't roll on Saturday, Walter?

Walter Sobchak: I'm shomer Shabbos.

Donny: What's that?

Walter Sobchak: Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don't work, I don't drive a car, I don't blankety-blank ride in a car, I don't handle money, I don't turn on the oven, and I sure as blankety-blank  don't blankety-blank roll!

Donny: Sheesh.

Walter: Shomer Shabbos!

Walter: Shomer blankety-blank Shabbos.

Breathtaking, this monumental Jewish idea passed down through the ages from Sandy Koufax to Walter Sobchak. Central to the American Jewish experience and the experience of Yom Kippur is that heroic stand for Jewish tradition by Sandy Koufax in front of all America. Sandy – or Sandeleh as his mother would call him – did not play in the World Series, refusing to pitch for the Dodgers against the Twins on October 6, 1965 because it was Yom Kippur.  He refused to play in the baseball stadium, the synagogue to the Great American Pastime, on one of its most sacred days, the World Series, the High Holidays of baseball. He said no because it was the real Yom Kippur. 

And Walter Sobchak is right! Judaism moves between two poles: Moses to Sandy Koufax. And Walter does not roll on Shabbos! As I contemplated the beauty and the depth of meaning of our tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax, I knew how so very right Walter Sobchak was.  If we really want to appreciate our tradition, especially its most sacred day, we have to appreciate what Sandy Koufax did for us. Moses gave us Yom Kippur at Mt. Sinai, and Sandy Koufax stood at Sinai again and gave Yom Kippur to American Jews.  Moses and Sandy are our two great heroes. 

It was this Sobchakian theology that was in my mind while catching up on the news that I missed on Saturday while I was in Shul. I read the story about the football game between Texas A&M University and the University of Alabama, or as they call it down there, Aggies vs. ‘Bama, a game portrayed as one of Biblical proportion that took place on Yom Kippur.

What did the Jewish students on these two campuses do when their game of Biblical proportions clashed with Yom Kippur? Well, I learned that one campus synagogue ended Yom Kippur services around 1:00 p.m. just in time for the 2:30 p.m. game; I read that a Jewish organization on campus showed the game on a big-screen TV; Some more theologically sophisticated Jewish students on campus decided on the one hand to go to the game, but because they were fasting, they decided to break the Aggie tradition of standing throughout the game and so they reserved about 20 seats in the stadium’s handicapped section.

One Jewish Aggie junior, in exquisite theological  reckoning worthy of Abraham arguing with God for justice, decided to resolve this great theological crisis by fasting on Friday instead of on Shabbat. He is quoted as saying, “We figured we’d make a deal with the Lord and do it a day early.” When asked whether or not the Lord agreed to his terms he said, “I sure hope so.  We’ll find out if we beat Alabama.” 

We are indeed a people blessed with wise children. It is worth noting that there was one Jewish organization in Birmingham, Ala. that did follow the tradition of Sandy Koufax and issued a strict rule: “NO FOOTBALL TALK ON YOM KIPPUR.”

Well, I think it’s fair to say that a football game is hardly a turning point in Western civilization, let alone Jewish history. Sandy Koufax, who sanctified the name of God on Yom Kippur 1965, where are you when we need you? 

And as if to add insult to injury, the quarterback for Texas A&M, one Johnny Manziel – a.k.a. Johnny Football – is Jewish! It is altogether possible that Johnny does not know much about American Jewish sports history. Indeed, someone once quipped that one of the world’s shortest books is, “Great Jewish Sports Figures.” But had little Johnny been read bedtime stories about great Jewish sports heroes he might have heard about Sandy Koufax refusing to play in the World Series on Yom HaKippurim.

His decision to play on Yom Kippur is all the more poignant when we learn that his great-grandfather, who emigrated from the Lebanese Jewish community to the United States, changed his first name from Yeshayahu (in English, Isaiah) to Bobby because, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal, he was concerned that people wouldn’t know how to pronounce his name. Now that’s fine. Millions of immigrants who came to the United States did the same. However, had Johnny remembered his great-grandfather’s Hebrew name, then there’s a possibility that he might have known that the words of the prophet Yeshayahu/Isaiah are read in all our synagogues on Yom Kippur. 

Cry with full throat, without restraint; Raise your voice like a ram's horn! Declare to My people their transgression, To the House of Jacob their sin….  3 "Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?" Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!...6 No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. 7 It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin… 13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, From pursuing your affairs on My holy day; If you call the sabbath "delight," The LORD's holy day "honored"; And if you honor it and go not your ways Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains -- 14 Then you can seek the favor of the LORD. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, And let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob (Isaiah: 58)

Walter Sobchak, you who taught us not to roll on Shabbos, please find young Johnny Football and teach him your Torah: We don’t roll or pass on Shabbos, especially when it is Yom Kippur, to boot. Though I hasten to add, not to punt!  


Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

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