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Ki Tavo: Lessons From Hank Greenberg

10/14/2022 11:49:24 AM


Rabbi Ezray

There is a confluence of circumstance today. Almost 29 years ago, our congregant Adam Taub celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts where I served as the Associate Rabbi. The Senior Rabbi, Sam Chiel gave a memorable sermon about the baseball player Hank Greenberg for Adam’s Bar Mitzvah, and I remember thinking I would like to talk about the same topic one day. Adam saved a hard copy of the sermon that he gave me. In subsequent years I have read more about Hank Greenberg, particularly a sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit of Beth Am and an essay by our congregant Marcia Lee Berkman where she wove High Holiday thoughts in 2020 based upon Mark Kurlansky’s book, Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Did Not Want to Be One. Everything comes together today for Jack Emery’s Bar Mitzvah, who may be one of the greatest baseball fans I have ever met. One more connection; Hank Greenberg played for the Detroit Tigers, and my parents are from Michigan and his story reflects pieces of their history that shaped them and by extension, me.

          Let’s go back to the 1930’s and 1940’s. Hank Greenberg joined the Tigers in 1933 and played first base and outfield until 1946. In 1947, he played his final season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was an extraordinary player and he helped Detroit to four world series, winning two, and was the American League’s Most Valuable Player twice. All this despite taking three years off in the prime of his career to serve in the military. In 1938 he hit 58 home runs, and may have broken Babe Ruth’s record had they pitched to him at the end of the season. 

          In Mark Kurlansky’s book, we learn that Hank Greenberg never wanted to be known as the Jewish baseball player; all he wanted to do was play ball. But he played baseball during a terrible antisemitic period in American history. My parents remember the vicious, antisemitic diatribes on the radio being preached by Father Charles Coglin coming from Detroit; listened to by millions. Detroit was the city that Henry Ford and his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent promoted one of the most antisemitic books ever written, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a despicable book about how there was an international plot by Jews to take over the world. Hank Greenberg was subject to just about every antisemitic insult imaginable. “Every ballpark I went to” Greenberg recalled, “There’d be somebody in the stands calling me names.” Detroit Tiger catcher Birdie Tebbetts later commented, “I think Hank on the ballfield was abused more than any other white ballplayer or any other ethnic player except Jackie Robinson.”

Hank Greenberg had no choice but to be a Jewish baseball player. In his autobiography, he wrote that as time went by and he became aware of the persecution of the Jews in Europe, he came to feel that if he as a Jew hit a home run, he was hitting one against Hitler. This meant something at a time of intense powerlessness. Hank Greenberg came to understand the need to stand up for his people. For him, adversity created resilience. In his words: “Prejudice should spur you on to greater achievement rather than accept it and be licked by it.” Toward the end of his life Greenberg said that he was startled to find himself, “Wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.” In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Israelites stand on adjacent mountains and re-affirm their commitment to their faith. In many ways, Hank Greenberg’s life is an example of the reaffirmation that we do regularly, particularly at times of encountering hatred. 

At a time when antisemitism is rising once again and hate continues to sadly be a defining aspect our experience, we are spurred to fight, reject, and teach that we will never tolerate antisemitism. Sadly, the numbers are distressing. According to the ADL, antisemitic acts increased 39% in the past year. We open the paper and read about antisemitic graffiti on campuses, banners hung on our highways, statements from political leaders; it is everywhere. We will join with others of faith and goodness to fight hatred. What is different from Hank Greenberg’s times is the breadth, depth, and sincerity of those who join together with us standing united against antisemitism and hate. This week there was a gathering in the East Bay of political and civic leaders saying Here I Am organized by the JCRC or people standing together against hate. The White House just sponsored a powerful summit, United Against Hate. These efforts matter, comfort, and make a difference. And our work is not only to join these efforts, but to hold our heads up with pride and affirm who we are, just like Hank Greenberg did.

One of the most powerful moments of affirmation for Hank Greenberg came in 1934.  He was just 23 years old and the star of a terrific Tiger’s team that was battling the dreaded Yankees for first place, the chance to win the pennant, which Detroit had not won in 25 years, and play in the World Series. Amidst this pennant race, Greenberg needed to decide whether he would play on Yom Kippur. The stakes were high. That year, Greenberg was batting .339 with 139 runs batted in. As he decided whether he would play on Yom Kippur, some baseball fans worried that the Tigers would lose without Greenberg in the line-up. Think of the pressure on him as he decided whether to play. He was not particularly observant, and his team needed him; but he was Jewish. In her essay, Marcia Lee Berkman writes: “Despite his youth, he did not make the decision lightly. He could not please both these demands and knew that the decision could only come from the most profound reaches of his own conscience. Although he was young, he knew that there was more at stake than a ball game. He later recalled that he really wanted to play, but he must have instinctively known that some decisions are larger than our own lives.” He decided not to play and went to synagogue to observe Yom Kippur.  In his autobiography he writes that when he came into services everything stopped and people began to applaud. He writes: “I was embarrassed; I didn’t know what to do.  It was a tremendous ovation for a kid who was only 23 years old, and in a synagogue no less!” And in case you wanted to know, the Tigers lost the game to the Yankees that Yom Kippur day. But they won the pennant and played the Cardinals in the World Series, which they lost.

But it is not about the outcome of the game. It is about having the moral courage to do what is right. And that is the call of this morning’s Torah portion and of the month of Elul. As you look through the list of blessings and curses, it is a call to do what is right, especially when you think no one is watching and you won’t get caught. Responding to the call of conscience may be one of the most difficult and important things we do.

People may not like our decision. I appreciate Marcia Lee’s analysis that his decision not to play on Yom Kippur required him to dig deep into his moral conscience. His story also epitomizes that our lives are often defined by singular moments. Rabbi Chiel brought the teaching of Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Nasi, Rabbi Judah the Prince, who once said, “There are some people who are able to acquire eternity in one instant.” For Hank Greenberg, that instant was Yom Kippur in 1934. Here is what Marcia Lee Berkman wrote approaching the High Holidays of 2020: “I believe that Hank Greenberg’s decision to uphold the highest ideals of his faith, despite the trials that he endured, speaks eloquently to our own day. I am filled with more hope than despair as I reflect upon single acts of courage that change, however small, the inequities of the world in which we make our home.” That is the call for this moment. Let’s think about our actions and their impact and hold onto the impact of people of every faith to change destiny through acts of goodness.

Know that our actions impact and ripple in ways we cannot imagine. In ways he could not imagine, Hank Greenberg helped the Jews of America and Detroit feel pride amidst the antisemitism that was so prevalent, and that changed everything! He helped shatter stereotypes that were so prevalent, that Jews were weak or not good athletes. Jewish kids could be baseball stars! My parents, who were toddlers in 1934 grew up on the stories of Hank Greenberg going to synagogue on Yom Kippur instead of playing baseball. It gave them pride. And in 1965, walking in the footsteps of Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax sat out Game 1 of the World Series because it was Yom Kippur. I know that played out in my life when my mother, who knows very little about any sports, quoted Sandy Koufax when I wanted to go to afternoon football practice when the rule was that if you didn’t practice, you didn’t play. When Mom said, “Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur,” there was no response. Who we are is more important than any game. Those moments of standing up for who we are ripple as we all face decisions every day.

And Hank Greenberg’s embrace of following conscience and doing what is right continued to play out in his life. In 1947, at the end of his career, he was one of the few players to publicly welcome Jackie Robinson as he became the first African American player to play in the major leagues. At one point in a game between Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates where Greenberg ended his career, Greenberg walked and ended up next to Robinson who was playing first base. He said to Jackie Robinson: “Don’t pay attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you. Stick in there…I hope you and I can get together for a talk. There are a few things I’ve learned down through the years that might help you and make it easier.” Jackie Robinson was moved by Hank Greenberg’s support. Rabbi Prosnit writes that the meeting of Robinson and Greenberg at First Base was a summit of outsiders, committed to being part of the great American experiment. It is a symbol of what America can and should be, lifting up one another in the face of trials and adversity and holding onto the ideals represented by that moment at first base.

In this month of Elul, on this special day when baseballs fly across the field, let’s honor Hank Greenberg and allow his choices to inspire ours. Let’s uplift heroes who teach us who we should be so that when that when moments happen upon us, and they will, we too can make choices that affirm our essence and impact others in beautiful ways.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783