By Bill Simons
The Doppler radar weather map predicted a night of heavy rain and possible flash flooding. Nonetheless, several thousand people came to Palisades Credit Union Park, located in Pomona, a small village in Rockland County, NY, about 32 miles north of Manhattan.
Pomona didn’t flood, but the rain came and it was continuous, sometimes heavy. Ordinarily, such precipitation would have meant game cancellation. But on the evening of July 12, the New York Boulders of the Frontier League, an independent minor league linked to MLB by a working agreement, resolved to wait. Despite a two-hour rain delay, few fans departed – and they remained upbeat.
The great majority of fans were Jewish. They were there to support the Israel National Baseball Team in an exhibition game tune-up for the Tokyo Olympics, with a start date only 11 days away. Several males wore yarmulkes, with tallit fringe visible on some. Team Israel ballcaps were ubiquitous.
Aside from enclosed skyboxes, rain pummeled the ballpark seats, leading fans to cluster together in the roof-covered concourse where they kibbitzed and noshed on kosher hotdogs and hamburgers. During the rain delay, Team Israel manager Eric Holtz, some coaches and players, uniformed in blue shirts with “Israel” emblazoned on their fronts in white letters, worked the crowd, shaking hands, signing autographs and posing for photos. Team Israel third base coach Nate Fish called out my name and made some introductions.
While a buoyant mood pervaded the ballpark, threats of violence necessitated precautions. A strong police presence, augmented by armed but less visible Israeli agents, reflected the recent resurgence of antisemitic attacks in the U.S. Some of the police had scoped rifles.
At around 9 pm, despite continuing precipitation, pre-game ceremonies finally commenced. Fans stood and cheered robustly for both “Hatikvah” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthems, respectively, of Israel and the United States. An Israeli flag, conjuring up a tallit, draped the singer, standing at home plate, who performed “Hatikvah.” The stalwart grounds crew, removing tarps from the infield, received a loud and appreciative ovation. A moment of reverent silence honored the 11 Israeli athletes slaughtered by Black September terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. When the two teams were announced and lined up, fans saw that the Boulders, in a classy gesture, wore shirts that spelled their franchise name in Hebrew.
Despite representing Israel, the Olympic team includes only two native-born Israelis. The other 20 players on Team Israel grew up in the U.S. and obtained dual Israeli-American citizenship in order to qualify for the Olympic baseball team. Criteria for Israeli citizenship required the Americans to document their Jewishness; considerable paperwork and travel to Israel were part of that process. Israel lacks sufficient interest and talent in baseball to produce an Olympic caliber team without the participation of Jewish-American ballplayers.
Although Alex Bregman, Joc Pederson, Max Fried and other current Jewish MLB players cannot participate in the Olympics given the demands of the major league schedule, Team Israel includes eight former major leaguers: Ian Kinsler, Danny Valencia, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Jeremy Bleich, Jon Moscot, Zack Weiss and Josh Zeid. A five-tool player, Kinsler was a four-time MLB all-star, and Valencia hit 96 MLB home runs. Most of the others have minor league experience. Several Team Israel players are the children of mixed marriages, with Jewish and Gentile parents. For some players, Team Israel provides an exploration and heightening of their Jewish identities. These themes run through the life of shortstop Zach Penprase.
At age 36, Penprase – 6’2”, 190 pounds, handsome, thoughtful and a devoted father – exemplifies the nuances common on Team Israel. Until rejoining Team Israel a few days before the game between Team Israel and the Boulders, Penprase was the Boulders’ starting shortstop. The son of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, he attended a Jewish preschool, enjoyed the lighting of the Hanukkah candles and the Passover family gatherings, but told me that he did not have a bar mitzvah. After graduating from Mississippi Valley State University, Penprase played professional baseball from 2006-15, including a stint in Australia. A solid contact hitter, strong gloveman on defense and an exceptional baserunner, he stole 47 bases in 52 attempts with Fargo-Moorhead of the American Association in 2012. Coping with depression, Penprase delved into spirituality and mindfulness, helping others as an Extreme Focus Certified Coach. After receiving Israeli citizenship, Penprase returned to baseball to play for Team Israel in the 2019 Olympic qualifying tournament, improbably hitting two home runs in a single at bat in Bulgaria.
On July 12, with Penprase at shortstop, Team Israel bested the Boulders by a score of 7-1. Despite challenging field conditions, the Israel defense was stellar, the pitching effective and the hits timely. Five runs in the third inning gave Team Israel a big lead that it never surrendered. At the end of five innings, the two teams and the remaining spectators recognized that it was time to officially end the rain-soaked game. Around midnight, the wandering Jews of Team Israel loaded two buses. Hartford was the next stop on their barnstorming tour of the Diaspora.
Having defeated the New York City firefighters team 12-3 at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Park the previous night, Team Israel now boasted a 2-0 record. At this juncture, Team Israel had eight more exhibition games scheduled in the Northeast before flying to the Tokyo Olympics – in a land still ravaged by the COVID pandemic. The underdog Israeli team had improbably qualified as one of the six teams competing for the baseball gold medal. All 24 players on Team Israel knew that the aspirations of Jews in Israel and America accompanied them.
The challenge of synthesizing Jewish and U.S. identities remains as critical as it did in the era when immigrants first caught sight of the Statue of Liberty. For members of Team Israel and their American partisans, those feelings will heighten on July 30 when the Israel and U.S. Olympic teams compete on a ballfield in Yokohama, Japan.
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.