This Jew Won't Bunt

Why I pulled the U.S. fastpitch softball team from this year's Jewish Olympics

Responded one of my players, Mike Groves -- co-owner of a security consulting firm in northern Virginia -- "I support the majority of what the politicians in Israel choose to do domestically. Israel is a political state. As such, to confuse their domestic political dilemmas and decisions with religious ideology is a mistake. Some of those political decisions are for the Israelis only. Yet they would affect American athletes competing here. No, that's not what I signed up for."

The pressures built as the days wore on. Jon Puklin e-mailed our team and others on June 13, saying, "In 1997, I competed in my first Maccabiah Games -- it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I looked forward to this years' Games . . . I grew up in a predominantly goyim area and was always taught by my father to be proud of my Jewish heritage. I got into many fights with people defending my heritage. My father died recently and I have a strong feeling that I need to go to Israel.

"My wife is pregnant with our first child. She is not Jewish and does not understand why I want to still go to Israel for the Maccabiah. Our way of life in the U.S. is vastly different from the way of life in Israel. Do I take a chance of dying in Israel by going (even though I could die at home tomorrow)? Do I disregard my wife's wishes and possibly miss the birth of my first child? Each of us has our own choices in life to make. Where to live, what's best for ourselves and our children, and other tough decisions. From the letters I have read and the time people have taken on this important decision, each of us will make the right decision for ourselves. Whatever decision I decide to make or the committee makes for me, it WILL NOT MAKE ME ANY LESS OF A JEW."

Staff writer Paul Rubin collects a gold medal at the 1985 Maccabiah Games.
Staff writer Paul Rubin collects a gold medal at the 1985 Maccabiah Games.
A sadly typical scene in Israel in recent months, this one after the Tel Aviv bombing.
courtesy of the Associated Press
A sadly typical scene in Israel in recent months, this one after the Tel Aviv bombing.

On Thursday, June 14, the weekly Philadelphia Exponent quoted the committee's Bob Spivak, "Now that we have told them [the committee's athletes] we are postponing, they say, 'Thank God.'"

That morning, another key U.S. Maccabiah official, Ron Carner, sent an e-mail to several people. In it, he referred to the emergency session he'd attended the previous Sunday in Tel Aviv, along with Maccabi leaders representing 50 nations.

Carner is the U.S. Maccabi national sports chairman, and is international vice-president of the Maccabi World Union. He said he and his colleagues had "voted the overwhelming will of their constituencies. We analyzed the situation, discussed the facts, and came to the very sad conclusion that we could not stage the 16th Maccabiah. Not that we did not want to, but that under the circumstances, we could not. Now we are being hammered by the very people we worked three and a half years for -- the Israelis, who we try to bring closer to our youth."

"Yes, we want to come to Israel this summer; yes, we want to support our fellow Jews and let the world know loud and clear that we are one family and we love and care about each other. But not within the framework of a Maccabiah."

That sounded definitive. But the committee and Carner did a 180-degree turn within 12 hours when, without explanation, they announced the U.S. would be sending a team to Israel, after all.

It was the summer of '84, and I was playing fastpitch softball in some dust bowl in Las Vegas. A bear of a fellow from Southern California approached me after a game with an odd question, "Are you Jewish?"

"What's it to you?" I replied, in a less than genteel tone.

Dave Blackburn chuckled, then explained himself.

"You heard of the Maccabiah Games?" he asked.

Sure, I said, it's the Jewish Olympics.

Blackburn went on to tell me that, for the first time, the U.S. was sending a fastpitch team to compete in the 1985 Games. Tryouts around the country were scheduled for that fall. He suggested I give it a shot.

Understand something: I'm the guy they had in mind when they invented the word "secular." I sure didn't want to be around a bunch of ultra-religious types wearing yarmulkes and toting the Torah. But the lure of playing ball in Israel, whatever the level of play, was too great.

By way of background, I was raised as a Jew in a middle-class East Coast neighborhood that was mostly Catholic. (My dad owned a small junkyard, and my mom took care of her three kids.) That meant my share of street fights. One time, I pummeled a kid from another neighborhood for calling me a "kite." Actually, I didn't go off until the punk said he'd been saying "kike," which he explained was a derogatory term for a Jew.

A guy's gotta stand up for himself.

I remember our parents telling us about a land called Israel -- a perfect place, the way they described it -- where Jewish people were free to practice their faith, and to be themselves, without fear of retribution.

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