This Jew Won't Bunt
I was watching CNN on the evening of June 1. The news hit me hard.
"It was the beginning of the Sabbath weekend," anchor Bill Hemmer said, "and countless young Israelis were out to enjoy a Friday night. The mood shattered, though, when a suicide bomber wandered into the crowd and blew himself up. The result was carnage: 17 dead, at least 86 injured. The blast hit a popular nightclub on the shores of the Mediterranean in the city of Tel Aviv."
The camera cut away to an eerily lit tableau of death and destruction, of screaming victims and frantic emergency crews. A close-up of a sign appeared -- the Dophinarium. I was floored. The popular club along the seafront promenade was one of our hangouts during my three trips to Israel (1985, '89 and '93) as a member of the United States Maccabiah Fastpitch Softball team.
My next thought went to my ball team, the 2001 edition of the Bad News Jews, as we'd dubbed ourselves. As head coach, I had worked for a year putting together a fastpitch team of Jewish-American players to compete in the quadrennial Maccabiah Games this July.
Now I knew that, short of a miracle, our dream of competing for a gold medal in Israel surely was dead.
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On the evening of June 14, I sent e-mails to Bob Spivak and Jordan Weinstein, two leaders of the overall United States Macabbiah team.
"I know that you have put your hearts and souls into the total effort, as have I with our fastpitch program," I wrote them. "However, I can only conclude that your 'main priority' has shifted from the safety of the U.S. athletes to keeping the peace with the Israeli faction of the World Maccabi committee. After speaking with a majority of my squad this afternoon, it is apparent that we will NOT be able to field a team at the Games if they are held next month."
As I pressed the "send" button on my computer, I was overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and anger. In a flash, the Bad News Jews had become just bad news.
The reason for my sadness was simple: I knew that my squad, 11 terrific guys from around the nation, would not get to wear the U.S. uniform in Israel at one of the world's largest sporting events, the so-called Jewish Olympics (more than 5,000 athletes from 53 countries competed in 36 sports at the 1997 Games).
Nor would they have the opportunity to seek a gold medal, an honor I'd had three times, winning gold twice, and silver once.
Perhaps most important, my guys wouldn't share the joy of exploring Israel, wandering freely through the ancient streets of Jerusalem, or checking out the shops (and the Israeli women) on Tel Aviv's bustling streets.
The targets of my anger were more complex.
I was infuriated at the madmen who, with bloody terrorist act after act, had driven a stake into my team's heart. I was disgusted with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for releasing dozens of terrorists from jails last fall, an act that led to the extraordinary escalation in violence against Israeli citizens.
My well of anger also extended to the United States Committee Sports for Israel, the nonprofit organization charged with the mammoth task of pulling together the U.S. Maccabiah team every four years.
Earlier on June 14, I learned that the Philadelphia-based committee had capitulated at the last minute to political pressures from top members of the Israeli government, and heavy-hitting American financial backers.
The pressures may be summarized like this: We know that you on the committee want the Games postponed for a year, and that you probably won't take a team to Israel if the Games do go on as scheduled. But please, PLEASE, don't let us down! YOU MUST GO TO ISRAEL!
Just 10 days earlier, Spivak (the president of Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel) and Weinstein (chairman of the U.S. Maccabiah Steering Committee) had issued an urgent message:
"Maccabi USA always has, and continues to focus on the best interests of the team as our main priority. With this in mind, the Maccabi USA Executive Committee met on Saturday night, June 2, to review many issues affecting the US Maccabiah Team and the 16th Maccabiah Games in light of the increase in terrorism in Israel. Therefore, Maccabi USA will immediately meet with Maccabi World Union to urge the postponement of the 16th Maccabiah Games."
But on June 14, the committee dramatically reversed field about U.S. participation in the Games. Now, Spivak/Weinstein proclaimed, the U.S would attend:
I was stunned. And I knew immediately that our fastpitch team was kaput. Four of my 11 players had told me in the preceding week that they flat didn't want to make the trip to Israel under the current perilous circumstances. Thank God, they'd told me, our leaders have common sense.
Another three players were iffy, at best. That meant we wouldn't be able to field a team this July, even if I wanted to.
Like the committee, I, too, was changing my mind, but in the opposite direction. I had stayed the course for months, even after reading chilling accounts of car-bomb attacks in central Jerusalem, and in the beautiful beach city of Netanya, 30 miles north of Tel Aviv. I still had planned to go, even after talking with my many Israeli comrades, a majority of whom urged me to stay away this summer.
The June 1 bombing at the Tel Aviv beachfront swayed me that my Israeli friends -- none of whom would ever be accused of being wimps -- were right.
I did appreciate the committee's predicament: They had worked for almost four years to prepare for the Games' 16th edition: If they did send a team to Israel in July, they'd be placing hundreds of athletes -- many of them teens -- into a high-risk, tense setting that the U.S. State Department officially has advised its citizens to avoid. (Ten Arizonans were selected for the U.S. team. I spoke with four of the other nine last week -- two said they were going to Israel, two said they weren't).
But if they chose not to send a team, the Americans surely would incur the wrath of the Israeli government. The Israelis didn't seem likely to postpone the Games and "bow to terrorism," as more than one Israeli editorial writer phrased it.
Though the Spivak/Weinstein tandem assured the U.S. contingent in a June 20 e-mail that, "there was no political or financial 'pressure' exerted on Maccabi USA to participate at the 16th Maccabiah," the opposite seems more plausible.
One way or the other, the import of the decision could not have been overestimated -- politically, financially, spiritually and psychologically. The tapestry shared between Israelis and Jews from around the world is rich and complex, with each constantly demanding support from and seeking to exert influence over the other.
The dynamic that evolved over this year's Maccabiah Games is a case in point.
I had been anticipating this summer's trip to Israel since being named head coach of the fastpitch softball team more than a year ago: My own experiences as a player in Israel at the 1985, 1989 and 1993 Games were wondrous, and I'd hungered to lead a team of men who could play some ball -- and were fun guys to boot.
I wanted my guys to feel the same unbridled joy I'd felt after we upset the Canadians in '85 and '89 to win gold medals. Just as important, I wanted the team to explore Israel, and to learn some things about themselves and their common heritage.
But I didn't count on the tremendous escalation in violence that has haunted Israel since last September. It's news there on a day when there hasn't been a bombing or violent death of a child (Israeli and/or Palestinian).
Tel Aviv is Israel's largest city, but until the recent madness had been spared much of the terrorism that again has dominated headlines in the nation of 6 million since last September. Not any longer.
"Scratch an Israeli," a story in the Jerusalem Post started a few weeks ago, "and under the surface you're likely to find some kind of psychological trauma carried along like an invisible backpack. These last eight months of daily terror and bad news add a new stratified layer of trauma to the battered Israeli psyche."
Even before the Tel Aviv bombing, I was starting to have second thoughts about what lay ahead for our team. Already, I'd lost one player, and a good one at that, because he (and, most assuredly, his wife) feared he'd fall prey to a terrorist act.
On June 3, two days after the Tel Aviv bombing, Jon Puklin -- one of our frontline players and a schoolteacher/coach from Illinois -- sent out an e-mail. "Puck" earlier had told me how much it would mean to him to place a note to God about his late father in the Wailing Wall. Second, he said, it would be incredible to win a gold medal for himself and his country.
Now, things were different.
"I just want you guys to know that I am having serious reservations about going to Israel after this past weekend's events," Puklin wrote. "My wife is pregnant. Just thought you should know. What is the committee's position on these recent events and our safety?"
We found out the next day, when the honchos I'd be writing to less than two weeks later, issued a loud-and-clear message to the 600-or-so American athletes on the team, and to parents, coaches, sponsors and others: We want the Games postponed, and we're going to tell Israel as soon as we can. The implication to every person with whom I spoke was obvious: If the Israelis don't postpone, the U.S. ain't going.
The committee's apparent decision not to go had not been met with unanimous approval. Messages danced around the Internet, a call-and-response in the tradition of a people who usually welcome a spirited debate over almost anything.
One man wrote, "If and when, God forbid, there is an all-out war or if the State of Israel asks us not to come, we should listen. However, I believe it is more important to go at this time than it will be at any time in the future."
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."
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.
Years passed, and I moved to Arizona, where I discovered a remarkable sport. Said one of my players, New York City artist/filmmaker/shortstop Jeremy Spear, in his recent documentary, Fastpitch, "The ball isn't soft, and the game is hard."
Fastpitch is dominated by pitchers, who hurl a 12-inch ball from 46 feet away. That's Little League distance, no lie. A batter facing a major-level pitcher has less reaction time than some sucker has against Randy Johnson. It's an invigorating, often humbling sport.
By 1984, I was a 33-year-old who had played in hundreds of games against the best teams and pitchers in the world. That October, I tried out for the U.S. Maccabiah team in Los Angeles. It was one of three tryouts held around the nation by head coach Larry Shane, then the baseball coach at Villanova University. We had about 50 players at our session. I did my thing, and knew I had an excellent shot at making the 14-man team. My hopes soon were confirmed.
As the Games approached the next summer, my excitement remained tempered by nagging doubts (after all, I'm a Jew, and we're supposed to have nagging doubts). What was I getting myself into?
To sum up, our three weeks together as a team proved to be phenomenal. The 14 of us quickly forged an unbeatable team chemistry, the likes of which I've never experienced, before or since. It helped that we had a super coach in Shane, who allowed us leeway to explore before the competition began.
Some of the guys would head for the Dophinarium, and to the same bar that later would be the site of the Tel Aviv bombing. I'd take long walks on the boulevard with my teammates Mitch Kline, Kenny Schwartz and others.
When the Games began, we found ourselves up against a confident Canadian squad whose players had grown up playing fastpitch, unlike our baseball-dominated team. But we clawed our way to the gold medal, beating Canada 3-0 on a homerun by Philadelphia's Neil Kabinoff (driving in me and our star of stars, Marty Rubinoff). Dave Blackburn -- now a co-chairman of the U.S. Maccabiah fastpitch team -- threw a shutout in the big game.
We also won the gold in 1989, again squeaking by the Canadians in the third game by a 1-0 margin (Mesa's Steve Roberts got the winning hit in that one, another Blackburn shutout.)
Then, in 1993, the Canadians finally got us for the gold, 4-3. Just before that game, I sidled up to Canada's ace pitcher, Mark Bendahan, against whom I'd competed in each of the Games. We marveled at the size of the crowd at the out-of-the-way venue -- a field of dreams built on a kibbutz at Gezer, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
"It's all about being here in Israel competing against other Jews," Bendahan said. "Who would have believed this?"
Minutes after we lost, I handed my camera to someone, who took a picture of me and Bender, just as he'd consented to photos after losing the previous gold-medal games. Miserable as I was, I knew it was the right thing to do.
The right thing to do.
That became the phrase of the hour after the U.S. committee's remarkable change of tune on June 14.
That night, I sent the e-mail to Weinstein and Spivak withdrawing our participation, and told them I planned to forward my message to others in the Maccabiah movement, including my fellow coaches in other sports.
A few hours later, I wrote to my players, confirming what I'd already discussed with all but three or four of them:
" . . . I think the U.S. Committee has made an enormous mistake, and has bowed to political pressures, the magnitude of which I can barely imagine. In the wake of their stunningly inappropriate decision, I'm left with a bunch of guys who never got to show their stuff on the field, or to experience the beauty of Israel when things are not so desperately dangerous for all concerned."
Weinstein responded via e-mail the next morning.
"Of course you are entitled to your opinion, even though you clearly have made some conclusions without knowing all the facts," he wrote. "I can accept this. I am sorry you feel the way you do. However, your last comment about communicating your opinions to all team coaches and others, is not only inappropriate, it will severely damage the U.S. Maccabiah Team. Is this your intent? If you disagree with our decision to go to the Games and softball does not want to participate, then no one else should either? This is very wrong Paul, and I implore you not to do this. . . ."
I respected Weinstein's wishes, with a few exceptions (people who asked me what was going on with softball). I don't suspect he wrote a similar e-mail to Dave Pottruck, the chairman of the wrestling program, and the president of the Charles Schwab Corporation.
On Friday morning, June 15, Pottruck sent an e-mail to the committee, and attached a copy to the rest of the U.S. team:
"My colleagues [and I] have decided that we are not going to go, and we are going to urge all the wrestlers to, of course, follow their own conscience in deciding what is best for them. I certainly wouldn't ever ask anyone to do what I am not willing to do myself. The three of us believe it is risky and a mistake to go to Israel now for this athletic competition."
Maccabiah swimming coach Seth Baron, who serves in the same role at Georgia Tech University, came to a different conclusion in a June 18 e-mail.
"Ladies and Gentlemen -- I AM GOING TO ISRAEL -- and I want everyone to join me and the rest of your fellow Maccabiah Athletes! We are going to have a blast."
Certainly, the biggest break for the beleaguered U.S. committee in the aftermath of its flip-flop came June 18. That morning, the committee issued an e-mail on behalf of Lenny Krayzelburg, the Russian-born swimmer who won three gold medals at last summer's Olympic Games for the U.S., his adopted country.
"I am very excited about representing the U.S.A. at the Maccabiah Games next month," Krayzelburg wrote in his e-mail. "I urge all of you to join me as we march in to the Opening Ceremonies of the Maccabiah."
So much for Jordan Weinstein's plea to me to let everyone make up his or her own mind. By the way, the committee claimed last week that two-thirds of the original contingency, or about 400 athletes and support personnel, may be attending the Games next month.
Could I have made my own fervent plea to my players to follow the party line and traipse to Israel in a show of "solidarity" with our Jewish brethren?
But I didn't want to. If truth be told, I couldn't have "won over" nine of my players -- you can't play with fewer than that -- if I'd wanted to.
Under the present circumstances, I didn't.
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