Throughout my career, starting in August, I would be asked whether I would play on Yom Kippur and even Rosh Hashanah.
We should pause for a quick history and culture lesson. Yom Kippur is the holiest day in Judaism. The greatest Jewish pitcher ever (yes, there is more than one, psfttt) made a famous decision almost 50 years ago. On Oct. 6, 1965, Sandy Koufax elected not to toe the rubber for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. It was Yom Kippur; he had no choice. He owed God for injecting his left arm with lightning.
Sandy and others ruined it for all of us “bad” Jews. He wasn’t alone. Shawn Green piled on. He spoke to The New York Times in September of 2004 about his decision:
"It's something I feel is an important thing to do…partly as a representative of the Jewish community and as far as my being a role model in sports for Jewish kids, to basically say that baseball, or anything, isn't bigger than your religion and your roots."
Now, Rosh Hashanah isn’t Yom Kippur’s spiritual equal. According to chabad.org, however, it’s a pretty big deal:
“Rosh Hashanah thus emphasizes the special relationship between G-d and humanity: our dependence upon G-d as our creator and sustainer, and G-d’s dependence upon us as the ones who make His presence known and felt in His world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, “all inhabitants of the world pass before G-d like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die . . . who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.” But this is also the day we proclaim G-d King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe is dependent upon the renewal of the divine desire for a world when we accept G-d’s kingship each year on Rosh Hashanah.”
Granted, I’m not Sandy Koufax. I’m not even Kevin Youkilis or Shawn Green. Hell, I’m probably not Scott Feldman. The likelihood of my being in the lineup on any given Jewish holiday was roughly the same as the odds of a left-handed pitcher (or Kent Bottenfield) being on the mound.
That didn’t stop the reporters from asking. “Gabe, what’s your plan? Will you play?”
My reply was always the same.
“I’m ridiculously proud of my Jewish heritage. I have a Star of David tattooed on my body for that reason. That said, I don’t practice Judaism. It would be awfully hypocritical for me not to be available to my manager and my team if I wouldn’t be attending synagogue. I’m just as likely to be setting my fantasy football lineup as reading from the Torah.”
This answer was almost consistently respected. Occasionally I’d witness a disappointed countenance, but those incidences were few and far between.
Once in a while, I’d get a letter in the mail from a Jewish fan requesting that I not play. One day, a yarmulke-clad Rabbi leaned over the dugout at the old Tiger Stadium to proposition me.
“Will you come to my temple’s service this year?”
Thanks, rabbi, but I’ll be in the lineup that day. I might even crush some Brussels sprouts with bacon that morning.
This isn’t an article about whether to play (or work) or not to play. Nor is it a discussion about Jewish holidays. Instead, it’s just a chance to ask the media the question I was always asked. There are lots of Jews in the New York media who will be deciding whether to be loyal to their synagogue or to the Captain on September 25th. I won’t be in Yankee Stadium the day Jeter waves goodbye; I’ll be in Los Angeles. What will you do? Before you answer, I have your rabbi on speed dial. How’s that for some good old-fashioned Jewish guilt?