Once again, the perennial High Holiday dilemma

By Bill Simons

It is mid-afternoon on a mellow September day in the mid-1950s. Several young men of high school age play ball at Kiley Field in Lynn, MA. Members (alephs) of the local chapter of AZA, a Jewish fraternal group, they are taking a break from a long day of synagogue prayer. Neither an official game nor formal practice, it is different than other AZA ballfield gatherings. For today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, our holiest day. Their coach/advisor, Shep, is with them, as is his pre-school-aged son. A vendor approaches with bottles of soda. The players are thirsty and so am I. With anger and a hint of physical threat, Danny Singer runs in from the field and confronts the vendor, shouting at him to move on and not tempt us for we are fasting. Shep quells Danny, but commends him for upholding the commitment to fast. 

The memory of that long ago Yom Kippur afternoon at Kiley Field remains vivid. Although Dad and I sat with male members of the Simons family during services at Ahabat Sholom on Yom Kippur, the meaning of the Kiley Field incident eludes closure in terms of the roles of Danny, other AZA ballplayers, my father and the Gentile vendor. The Kiley Field memory finds itself in juxtaposition with a story that my father frequently told me, one from which he derived inspiration, about Jewish baseball slugger Hank Greenberg’s observance of the High Holidays.  

In my father’s telling, Greenberg confronted the rising antisemitism of the 1930s and then sacrificed the peak years of his baseball career to World War II military service. According to my father, Greenberg always observed the High Holidays and would have broken Babe Ruth’s then single season record of 60 home runs in 1938, instead of finishing with 58, but for choosing synagogue over ballfield. As I found out decades later, the full story was more nuanced. 

In 1934, the Detroit Tigers had their first shot at an American League pennant in a quarter of a century. Detroit, a tough city battered by the Great Depression, harbored two of America’s most notorious antisemites, radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who castigated the New Deal as the Jew Deal, and automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, disseminator of canards of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world’s economic and political power. Baseball provided one of the few bonds shared by Detroiters. Tiger partisans expected Greenberg, their premier slugger, to take the field on the High Holidays while religious Jews exhorted him to worship in the synagogue. Amidst intense, conflicting pressure juxtaposing secular and religious obligations, Greenberg attended September 10, 1934, Rosh Hashanah services in the morning and evening at Detroit’s Sharrey Zedek Synagogue. But in the afternoon, Greenberg hit two home runs, leading the Tigers to a 2-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox. On September 19, the Hall of Fame first baseman, absenting himself from a game against the New York Yankees, spent Yom Kippur in the shul. The history and mythology surrounding Hank Greenberg’s 1934 High Holiday decision still resonates in the Jewish-American consciousness. 

The years between the end of World War II and the victorious Six-Day War witnessed a decline in American antisemitism. Nonetheless, the decision of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, coming off an incredible 1965 regular season (26-8 won-lost mark, 2.04 ERA, record 382 strikeouts) not to take the mound for the October 6 game one of the World Series assumed great importance amongst American Jews. When the usually commanding Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale, starting game one in Koufax’ place, was removed during a drubbing from the Minnesota Twins, he allegedly told manager Walt Alston, “I bet you wish I were Jewish, too.” Koufax’ Yom Kippur observance morphed into legend when he came back to lead the Dodgers to World Series triumph. After suffering a rare post-season loss in game two, Koufax shut out the Twins in game five, yielding just four hits and striking out 10. On only three days’ rest, Koufax dominated the Twins in game seven on October 14, again shutting them out and adding another 10 strikeouts, this time allowing but three hits. Koufax’ baseball heroics added gravitas to his decision not to pitch on Yom Kippur, a choice that Rabbi Moshe Feller termed “the greatest act of dedication to our Jewish values that had ever been done publicly.” Yet, Koufax, a private man and secular Jew, has never explicitly confirmed that he attended synagogue services on Yom Kippur 1965. 

The 2021 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductions raise anew the perennial High Holiday dilemma. Responding to the COVID pandemic and hotel availability, the Hall of Fame planned to induct both the class of 2020 and 2021 on Wednesday, September 8, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The late Marvin Miller, longtime executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, will join Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Barney Dreyfus and Bud Selig as the fifth Jewish member of the baseball shrine. One of the most impactful figures in baseball history, Miller augmented the compensation, benefits and mobility of MLB players, and, for that reason, club owners, placing pecuniary interests above social justice, long conspired to delay the labor leader’s election to the Hall of Fame. Due to the 2021 scheduling conflict, Jewish Americans cannot both observe Rosh Hashanah and attend Miller’s belated Cooperstown induction. 

In responding to the Hall of Fame’s determination to hold its 2021 induction on Rosh Hashanah, the words of Nathan Perlmutter, former executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, remain relevant. When Jews protested the scheduling of two 1986 National League playoff games involving the New York Mets on Yom Kippur, Perlmutter observed, “The Mets aren’t an office of government, or a public university or a grade school. They are a private enterprise. Part of the cost of being Jewish is that you sacrifice some worldly indulgences and you don’t impose on the rest of the world to adopt your ways and your beliefs. For those whose faith is the Mets, they ought to go to Temple Shea. Those whose faith is Judaism, they will know what to do.”

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.