Jewish Baseball Players: Yentl at the bat pt I: Jewish women & baseball

By Bill Simons

Traditional Orthodox Judaism is patriarchal, evidenced by restricting the rabbinate, minyan and Torah study to men as well as gender separation in the synagogue. The 1983 Barbra Streisand movie “Yentl” dramatized these barriers. In America, Jews encountered a more open society. As the symbol of America, baseball gave many Jewish males a means to affirm their growing comfort in the physical world. The role of baseball in the assimilation of Jewish males has received significant comment. However, Jewish women in baseball remain subject to neglect. Girls and women with baseball interests are typically relegated to softball and spectatorship, and, for Jewish females, ethnicity has added an additional barrier. Although occasional exhibits, conferences and publications have referenced Jewish women in baseball, more work is needed. Our starting point is with three storytellers, women who tell truths about Jewish baseball. 

“Yentl at the Bat” focuses on filmmaker Aviva Kempner, sports scholar Rabbi Rebecca Alpert and biographer Jane Leavy. Still prolific, they are of the same generation, born within a five-year period between 1946 and 1951, thus with experiential knowledge of the Neo-Victorianism that prevailed during their 1950s childhoods and of the Second Feminist Wave that emerged during their entry into adulthood. Historical context necessitated that Kempner, Alpert and Leavy confront the place of women, namely their role, within two patriarchal institutions to which they were wedded, Judaism and baseball. Women, as outsiders to the fraternity, view baseball with a different sensibility, perspective and sensitivity than their male counterparts. As documented by their work, Judaism adds an additional component to baseball’s gender prism. 

Circumstances of history and birth rendered baseball documentarian Aviva Kempner an observant outsider to America and its national pastime. In 1925, her father, Harold Kempner, a Lithuanian immigrant, arrived in the United States. Pursuing an elusive American Dream, Harold found antisemitism a barrier to medical school. During World War II, Harold served in the American Army that liberated Europe. While stationed in Germany, he married a Holocaust survivor, Helen Ciesla. Their daughter, Aviva, born in December 1946, was the first American-Jewish child born in postwar Berlin. In 1950, the Kempner family settled in Detroit. 

Prior to the war, identification with Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg facilitated Harold’s Americanization. For Harold, the ballpark more than night school resonated with the true American vernacular. He shared Greenberg lore with Aviva and her brother, Jonathan. To young Aviva, Greenberg seemed part of the Kol Nidre. Her father gave Aviva a counterbalance to the canards that Jews were timid, weak and physically inept. 

And it was the filmmaker’s mother, the artist Helen (Hanka) Ciesla Kempner Covensky who inspired her first film, “Partisans of Vilna” (1986), a documentary chronicling Jewish resistance to the Nazis. A native of Poland, Helen survived the Holocaust by posing as a Gentile, but Auschwitz consumed the lives of her parents, sister and other loved ones. 

Aviva named her film company the Ciesla Foundation. It preserves the name and legacy of her mother’s family while combatting negative images of Jews by focusing on heroic episodes and individuals. Her second film was “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (1998). 
For Kempner, the heroic Jewish freedom fighters of her mother’s Europe and the heroic Jewish baseball player of her father’s America were linked chapters in a larger story. 

The September 1934 controversy concerning Greenberg’s competing obligations to the Detroit Tigers, fighting for the American League pennant, and his Jewish heritage, requiring observance of the High Holidays, is central to Kempner’s film. After agonizing soul searching, heightened by conflicting advice, Greenberg played on Rosh Hashanah. His two home runs paced the Tigers to a 2-1 victory. With the pennant all but assured, Greenberg did not play on Yom Kippur. 

The great strength of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” rests with Kempner’s ability to capture the consciousness and conversations of the generation of Jewish Americans who came of age with Hank Greenberg. Kempner’s most important audience did not live to see the film. Divorced, Aviva’s father, Harold, moved to Israel in 1973, telling her there were two things he would miss – “his kids and baseball.” Harold died in 1976. Through Harold’s hero, Aviva found a powerful pathway to her father. When Aviva presented “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” at the Baseball Hall of Fame on Father’s Day 2000, it evoked Barbra Streisand’s moving song “Poppa, can you hear me?” from Yentl. 

Most of Kempner’s films have focused on neglected Jewish issues and courageous protagonists. In addition to her Hank Greenberg documentary, another Kempner film features a Jewish ballplayer, catcher Moe Berg. 

“The Spy Behind Home Plate” (2019) captures Berg’s outsider status – catcher hidden by a mask, an intellectual in pre-analytics baseball, accomplished linguist secretive in multiple languages, ethnic Jew distanced from ancestral traditions, enigma alienated from family, target of speculation about sexual orientation and America’s unknown top atomic spy during World War II. Primarily a good field, no-hit major league backup catcher (1923, 1926-1939), Berg held degrees from two Ivy League universities and a Sorbonne certificate. 

Berg’s Jewishness is central to “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” albeit that ethnic identification in Kempner’s film relies more on assertion and implication than on close examination of beliefs, values, and lifestyle. During World War II, Berg, an OSS operative, monitored Italian and German scientists in Nazi-dominated Europe. He prepared to assassinate Werner Heisenberg, Germany’s leading atomic physicist, with a pistol and then take his own life with cyanide, actions ultimately rendered unnecessary by delays in Germany’s atomic development. 

As a Jewish woman and thus a baseball outlier, Kempner reports from a vantage point distinct from the men’s club. She had to fight hard for funding for her Greenberg film at a time when foundation money flowed to Ken Burns’ Baseball series. Then, denied general release, Kempner engaged in a campaign of hard travel to promote the Greenberg film, ultimately a popular and critical success – and her signature work. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American 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.