Rooting for the Indians—A Memoir
Shortly before my ninth birthday, in the spring of 1948, as the British were preparing to leave Palestine and let the Jews and Arabs fight it out between themselves, I became a Cleveland Indians fan. Although I was born and raised on the West Side of Manhattan and had never been in Cleveland in my life, this struck me as no impediment. A new enthusiast for professional sports, I wanted to be different from the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers fans around me. When the major-league teams went south for spring training, I drew up a list of them and casually picked a favorite. The two teams whose names I liked most were the Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the catchy alliteration of which appealed to me. In the end, though, I settled on the Indians, lighting a torch for Cleveland that burned bright until, sometime in adolescence, my interest in baseball flickered out almost as suddenly as it had caught fire.
Yet perhaps not so casually after all. Jerusalem lay under siege while I followed the news from a distance, its lifeline of convoys ambushed on mountain roads. Was not choosing the second exile of being a Cleveland fan in New York (I was never to encounter another) the vain attempt of a neurotic sufferer to lighten his burden by broadening its base? And had not the Indians had their land stolen by the white man just as mine had been stolen by the Roman, the Arab, and the Englishman? Ever since I saw my first Western, roped into a boisterous children’s section that cheered at every red man toppled from his horse, I had rooted for them with the instinctive sympathy of like for like.
My cousin Jonathan, who lived a few blocks away, was a Yankees fan, adding to the rivalry with which we played slug and Chinese with a spaldeen on the sidewalk. (You won’t find it in any dictionary, but there wasn’t a New York boy in those years who could not have told you that a spaldeen, made by the same Spalding Company that manufactured baseballs, was the pink core of a tennis ball and the regulation playing ball of the city’s streets.) Scared of the Irish boys who came looking for fights from across Broadway, we mostly went in for indoor sports. In one of these contests, a heavyweight boxing match featuring my cousin, who was a half-foot taller and 40 pounds heavier, as Joe Louis, he knocked me, Jersey Joe Walcott, out for the count on my bedroom floor with a gash that required stitches.
When our bouts were stopped by the downstairs neighbors knocking on the radiator pipes, we took out the dice. Long before the advent of the binary computer we had discovered that, by combining the values of two randomly rolled cubes, each with one to six dots on its sides, and aided by a Monopoly board, we could represent practically any athletic event: track-and-field meets, tennis matches, seven-day bike races, the Kentucky Derby, nine-inning baseball games. These we broadcast live, one of us assuming the role of announcer while the other supplied the sound effects. The professional version of this old ticker-tape technique, sometimes still used in those years when New York teams played in far-off places like Chicago or St. Louis, could be heard nightly on Marty Glickman’s Today’s Baseball, which I never missed. We were in the last glory days of radio, no more aware of their rapidly approaching end than were the passengers of the great 19th-century clipper ships of the coming of the oceanic steamer.
One day the Irish boys caught us.
We were walking home on a Saturday morning from the junior service at the Anshei Chesed synagogue on West End Avenue and 100th Street when I spotted a gang of them coming toward us. Taking advantage of my size I turned to my cousin and said, “Look, I’m smaller and faster than you, so I’ll run for help”—and without waiting for an answer I was weaving through the traffic and heading for the other side of West End.
Too clever for my own good! No sooner had I gained what I thought was the safe ground of the opposite sidewalk than I found myself surrounded by more young Irishmen, three or four urchins led by a freckled commander. I was trapped—and without my cousin’s broad back to hide behind.
“Hey, kid! What’s your name?”
“Harold,” I said.
“How come you’re all dressed up?”
I bit my lip.
“You Jewish, Harold?”
“No,” I said. Which would have been bad enough had I not gilded the lily by adding, “I’m Catholic.”
“Yeah?” A flicker of interest tinged with disappointment ran through the circle of boys. “What church d’ya go to?”
What church? There was a big one on Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street—or was it Protestant?
“I don’t go to church,” I said. “I mean yet. I’m new in the neighborhood.”
There was a skeptical silence. Clearly, the first thing a Catholic did in a new neighborhood was go to church. The commander asked:
“Where d’ya go to school?”
I went to a Jewish day school called Ramaz on the East Side.
“The Ramsey School,” I said. “On Lexington Avenue.”
“There ain’t no such place,” a boy said.
“There is too,” said another. “It’s acrost the park.”
“Alright, Harold,” said the commander. “Let’s see what’s in your pockets.”
I was in luck. Because it was the Sabbath, I didn’t have a wallet or any money. All I had was . . . my yarmulka. I was done for.
“Come on, turn ’em inside out.”
I turned them inside out.
“That one too.”
Out it came.
“What’s this?” He held it up by the button, the cotton lining bellying down from the black satin top.
“It’s a handkerchief,” I said.
“That ain’t no handkerchief,” said a boy. “It’s a bra for his titties.”
“It’s a handkerchief,” I insisted, fighting back the tears.
“If it’s a handkerchief,” the commander said, handing it back, “let’s see you blow your nose in it.”
I blew my nose in it.
I blew harder.
Solomonic, he looked around. There were no more questions. “Okay, Harold,” he said, patting my head, “you can go now. Tell your momma to buy you a nice white handkerchief. And don’t let us catch you again without you been to church and seen the Father.”
I was free, the sickening taste of self-betrayal in my mouth. It was the bitterest moment of my life, and it would have made a Zionist of me on the spot, as the Dreyfus case had made one of Theodor Herzl, had I not already been one by parentage, education, and conviction. In Palestine it could never have happened. There I would have stood tall, even if I were hanged for it by the British like the Irgun fighter Dov Gruner.
Of course, Jews could fight back in New York, too. Hadn’t I heard of a place called Borough Park, where Jewish gangs roamed the streets beating up Christians? But Borough Park was a mythical kingdom to me, its Jewish gangs as distant as the Ten Lost Tribes who lived beyond the Mountains of Darkness. It would no more have occurred to me that I could get there by subway than that I could take the IRT to the far bank of the Sambatyon River, whose deadly torrent kept the tribes from being reached.
Palestine was real. I knew the map of it better than I knew the map of Manhattan, could draw it with my eyes shut—its gently curving coastline that fishhooked at Haifa Bay, its three lakes strung in order of size on the thread of the River Jordan, its wide-hipped Negev with its toe in the Red Sea. Among my most precious possessions was a viewer with a box of slides, given me as a birthday present, which showed me, when held to the light, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Plain of Sharon and the Valley of Jezreel, in colors brighter than any around me.
In times of sorrow I solaced myself with these scenes like a thumb sucker, braced by the sight of orange groves and cypress trees, the Western Wall and Rachel’s Tomb. Their dirt had clung to my ancestors’ feet in ancient times—the same dirt I had once seen in my grandmother’s apartment on the day she had beckoned me mysteriously into her bedroom, which smelled of heavy drapes and nitroglycerin pills, opened the bottom of a chest of drawers, pulled out a cloth bag no bigger than a change purse, and confided in a whispered mixture of Yiddish and English that she would be buried in its contents, leaving me too embarrassed to ask how even such a small thing as herself could fit into so little soil.
The map I could draw was that of the British Mandate, which I had the chance to study whenever my family sat down to eat, since it appeared on the blue-and-white Jewish National Fund box that stood on a sideboard in our kitchen. This box had a slot at the top big enough for a half-dollar and said “Fight for a Free Palestine” in flowing script; on Friday afternoons, before the Sabbath began, we emptied our pockets of coins and dropped them into it. It was still only half-full when the state of Israel was declared in mid-May, and the Fight for a Free Palestine went on being waged in our kitchen long after the slogan itself had fallen, like a captured flag, into enemy hands—the major Arab victory, as it turned out, of the 1948 war.
But now I became more interested in other maps: those of the fighting that appeared in the New York Times, showing the clashing armies as curved arrows with boxes on their tails, crescent moons in them for the Arabs, stars of David for the Jews. Haifa and Jaffa had fallen to the Jews; the Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv had been stopped; the Syrians, too, were held at Degania; but Jerusalem was still besieged, and all attempts to dislodge the Arab Legion from its blocking position at Latrun had ended in failure. I took Latrun myself one June night while lying in bed, filling my room with the tyuuu-tyuuu of rifle fire, the ta-ta-ta-ta-ta of machine guns, and the pkkhhhkhhh of heavy mortars before bringing in an old British Spitfire for a strafing run to drown out the laughter from the living room where my parents were entertaining.
Things were off to a good start in the American League, too. The Indians, who had finished fourth the year before, were battling the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Philadelphia Athletics for first place. Yet in the night games I played, imitating the sound of a roaring crowd with a throaty hrrrrhrr and the crack of a bat with a cluck of my tongue, they were never sure winners, for while I was pitcher, batter, fielders, and ball all rolled into one, none of these was under my control any more than were the dice I threw with my cousin. As my eyes followed the loop of a fly ball to right field or the dotted line of a grounder to third, I no more knew what would happen next, whether the Indians’ Allie Clark would make the catch or Ken Keltner would throw the batter out, than I had known whether Latrun would be taken until I saw its Arab defenders break and run.
Bored in school, I also played day games. Toward the end of the school year my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Olitsky called my mother to say she feared I had a nervous disorder, since I was twitching my face, rolling my eyes, and making strange noises in class. I was hurried to the doctor, who pronounced me physically fit but recommended I see a psychologist. Luckily, it was the end of June. The psychologists were going away on vacation, and I was about to be sent off for the first time to summer camp.
If the miniature Zion in the Poconos to which I was bused from New York resembled in some ways the enlightened dictatorship that most summer camps aspire to be, it was in other ways a full-fledged police state, its tyranny meant to ensure that campers spoke only Hebrew during their waking hours and, if possible, in their sleep. This was made clear on the first evening. Gathered at sunset around a pole with two flags, the blue-and-white one above the red-white-and-blue, we were handed our copies of a small, brown English-Hebrew dictionary, compiled under the guidance of the director. This, we were told, would suffice for our daily needs. Henceforth, at this time of day, every day, a letter Ayin, which stood for Ivrit, meaning Hebrew in Hebrew, would be awarded or denied every camper on the basis of how much of the language—or how little English, itself now a prima-facie offense—he had used in the preceding 24 hours. Campers would be graded by their scores, the ultimate prize being a sweatshirt with an Ayin on its front, which we could now see being sported like varsity letters by the veterans of previous years. And since this incentive might prove insufficient, a penal code existed as well, whereby a camper or bunk might be docked from an activity, or assigned extra clean-up duty, should the quota of Ayins not be met.
In practice, as we were to find out, no counselor having enough ears to keep track of every word his campers uttered, the entire system depended on an army of lookouts, informers, and agents provocateurs. It was also not free of counselors who might be prevailed upon to award an unmerited Ayin or even a whole bunkload of them, much as a Soviet factory manager might fake production figures or fabricate a heroic worker for the sake of his career. Like any totalitarian regime, my new environment functioned by means of a fine balance of repression and deceit, each needed to keep the other in check.
I thrived in it. Not only was I a better Hebraist than most boys my age, but English, now that it was outlawed, assumed a cleansing flavor I had previously savored only in dirty words. In a society where speaking one’s native language was a crime, friendship was—had to be—a gesture of unequivocal trust. How lackluster all ordinary relationships would later seem as compared with the solidarity I shared that summer with my bunkmates, whose names and faces I still remember: Freddy Ashkenazi . . . Boruch Dunn . . . Roger Fein . . . Sammy Weinstein . . . West Virginia.
West Virginia’s real name I probably never knew. He was one of a small number of boys who hailed from beyond the eastern seaboard and whose names—Omaha, Alabama, Big Detroit and Little Detroit, Wyoming, Kansas City—testified to the impression made on us by their curious accents and by the fact that Jews lived in such places at all. What drew me especially to West Virginia was that he was a Cleveland fan, and a luckier one than I for he had seen the Indians play. It was he who taught me how Bob Feller went into his wind-up, kicking his left foot almost over his head; instructed me in the hook slide of Larry Doby, the first Negro player in the American League; and showed me the jack-in-the-box crouch, promptly appropriated for my own, from which Lou Boudreau, the Indians’ shortstop-manager, hit.
He gave me another lesson, too. One evening we were walking through the woods, arguing whether Feller or Bob Lemon should start against the White Sox in Chicago the next day, when in the path ahead of us two fallen logs rose hastily, snatched up various articles of clothing on the ground, and disappeared into the dusk. Counselors! West Virginia was the first to reach the scene, from which he held up an abandoned trophy, a double-coned object whose unfamiliar smell of honeyed sweat made me swoon.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A bra,” he said.
The Irish bastards!
The two of us had fled into the woods to seek refuge from the Sabbath-eve dancing that was held every week at this time during the long, mosquito-ridden hour before dinner. Boys in white shirts and creased white ducks with buttoned flies, girls in blouses and skirts, we were shepherded from evening services to a field beneath the dining room where a fat Israeli dance counselor made us join hands in a circle. A limp semblance of one having been achieved, we commenced a round of galopades in which a boy or girl had to skip within the enclosure we had formed and choose from it a member of the opposite sex, whereupon the two circled together hand-in-hand until the chooser retired and the chosen chose someone else.
“Rightward, rightward, leftward, leftward,” the fat counselor sang as the circle revolved in one direction and its orbiting couple in the other, the boys roughly pushing each other into it to avoid being chosen themselves. Amended by them to
Y’mean her, y’mean her,
Smell her, smell her,
the chant caused the girls to shrink back with the already martyred expression of their sex.
These Friday-night dances, in which we did the jigs and hops that had been popular among the halutzim, the pioneers in Palestine, a generation earlier, much as the quadrille and the reel continued to be danced in the colonies of the New World long after being abandoned in the mother countries of the Old, were but one of many activities designed to transmute the base alloy of exilic existence into a higher reality. The entire camp was one vast symbolic enterprise, a minutus mundus of arcane correspondences, starting with the director himself who, with his khaki shorts and cotton-candy puffs of graying hair on either side of a balding head, could have doubled for David Ben-Gurion were it not for the thoughtless omission of a paunch.
The wooden cabins in which we lived were not ordinary bunks but collective settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim bearing the names of Nahalal, Beit-Alfa, Tel-Hai, and Ein-Harod. The walks we took every week around the lake, at the far end of which we stopped to eat the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches we had prepared after breakfast to give the kitchen staff the day off, were hikes to the Sea of Galilee. The barren patch of ground behind the basketball court in which, by some reverse miracle of nature, even weeds would not grow, was not just a vegetable garden but a desert tract of the Negev magically transported to the green hills of Pennsylvania.
In response to our complaints about being brought to this vest-pocket wasteland to tend the radishes and cucumbers we had planted during the first week of camp and seen no subsequent sign of, the gardening counselor—a mournful man with a limp and a Russian accent who sometimes accompanied us on his harmonica while we scratched aimlessly at the ground—could only repeat incomprehensible phrases about the sanctity of labor and the return to the soil. Years later I came across these very words in the writings of A.D. Gordon, the great apostle of Labor Zionism. Once recovered from my impression that he had plagiarized our gardener, I was delighted to discover in them the moral of a parable over whose bare text I had sweated unfruitfully the summer I was nine.
The hieroglyphics of our existence extended to the athletic field as well, where we were encouraged to play soccer, the Jewish national sport. Yet this game proved to be based on so perverse a conception of the human body, treating the feet as though they were hands and the hands as vestigial tails, that we soon broke out our bats and gloves. Even so, however, every moment of the games we played had to be conducted in Hebrew; the only permissible exceptions were words not found in the little brown dictionary, which had a whole section of baseball terms.
It was during one of these games that I struck out and was bounced by my counselor Sammy Sonnenschein, who was umpiring behind home plate. The count was two-and-two as I coiled myself into my Lou Boudreau stance and waited for the pitch. It was low and outside.
“Kadur!” called Sammy. Three-and-two. The next pitch was down the middle but even lower. I flung away my bat and headed for first base.
“Hakhta’ah!” Sammy cried. Strike three. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Go take a flying fug!” I said—in English. My mispronunciation was a consequence of having read Sammy’s copy of Norman Mailer’s newly published The Naked and The Dead, secretly taking it from the shelf above his bed and returning it with each finished installment. Unaware that its strange spelling was a concession to the censor, I had assumed it to be the correct form of a word I had been garbling all my life.
“You’re out of the game!” Sammy said. “And you’ve lost your Ayin for the day.”
I was resigned to the heave-ho; it happened in the majors for less. But the Ayin was unfair. I had spoken more Hebrew than the rest of my team combined.
“So how do you say it?” I challenged.
“What I said. Show me in the dictionary.”
Sammy Sonnenschein scratched his head. The fat Israeli dance counselor was unavailable for consultation. “You little son-of-a-bitch!” he said—in English too. That evening around the flagpole I was given my Ayin, extending my hitting streak. The sweatshirt would soon be mine.
My Hebrew also entitled me sometimes to read out the daily news bulletin that was broadcast every evening after supper. After reviewing the situation in the Middle East, where an Arab-Israeli truce was precariously holding, and announcing such events of the day as the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the nomination of Henry Wallace by the Progressive party, I recited the day’s baseball scores to a tumultuous dining room. First came the National League. Then, ha-Liga ha-Amerika’it:
Ha-Yankim mi-New York 11, he-Humim mi-St. Louis 2.
Ha-Garbayim ha-Adumim mi-Boston 4, ha-Nemerim mi-Detroit 1.
Ha-Indiyanim mi-Cleveland 2, ha-Atleti-ka’im mi-Philadelphia 0.
The White Sox and Washington Senators were rained out. It was the middle of August, and the American League was witnessing the closest pennant race in its history, with New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia all still within a few games of each other.
Yet whatever enduring fame I acquired that summer came as an actor. Alone among the boys in my bunk, I was cast in a dramatic pageant staged by the waterfront in the last week of camp. Its subject was the Jewish state’s heroic struggle to defend itself against seven invading armies, and I had the bit part of a Hagana intelligence scout who, having penetrated enemy lines disguised as an Arab, appears out of the darkness to inform his comrades of an imminent attack. Cloaked in a white sheet, a checked towel on my head, I waited for my cue by the dim flicker of torches and shooting stars. A mournful flute played the hymn of the Palmach.
The music stopped; I was on. Gathering the folds of my sheet, I stepped onto the dock, thinking it was the wooden ramp that led to the stage, and plunged into the lake. As the Arabs were beaten back without benefit of my warning, I was fished from the water like a slice of wet bread, comforted by the stagehands that my entrance would be remembered long after all else was forgotten.
I came home from camp with my sweatshirt and a fever and was put to bed, surrounded by pillows, sucking candies, the morning’s Times, the afternoon Post, and a Howard Pease sea novel brought home from the public library by my father. Mostly I listened to the radio, an old wooden table model with leather knobs and a large, fibrous speaker that was placed near me on a serving cart and tolled my day more faithfully than church bells. In the morning there was John Gambling, The Breakfast Hour, Queen for a Day, Quick as a Flash, Strike It Rich, and The Sixty-Four-Dollar Question, followed by Luncheon at Sardi’s and my own pillow-propped lunch, after which came a baseball game: Mel Allen and the Yankees on WINS, Red Barber and the Dodgers on WHN, or Russ Hodges and the Giants on WMCA at the bottom of the listening dial. (Ah, gentlemen: where is the CD that will bring back to me your voices: yours, Russ Hodges, as crackling and warm as a log fire; yours, Red Barber, as purringly sly as a cat’s; and yours, Mel Allen, Caruso of the diamond, golden tenor of my youth, whose tones had more body and flavor than the beer they promoted and a milder, smokier aroma than the cigar they deigned to praise!)
After the game, if I hadn’t dozed off during the seventh-inning stretch, came the last of the afternoon soap operas, Lorenzo Jones or Mary Noble, followed by the early-evening thrillers: The Green Hornet, Captain Midnight, Sky King, Jack Armstrong, Sergeant Preston of the Royal Mounted Police. Dinner was brought on a tray while I listened to the news commentaries delivered with the evangelical gloom of Gabriel Heatter or the patrician smugness of Fulton Lewis, Jr. At seven there was Today’s Baseball, followed from out of the thrilling days of yesteryear by The Lone Ranger and afterward, if I was lucky, a night game.
Then, however, the lights were turned out and the radio was returned to its place in the corner. I had to get out of bed and tiptoe across the room, where I crouched with my ear to the speaker in the orange glow of the tubes at the back of the set, ready to shut it off and dive back into bed like a runner beating a pick-off throw if I heard my parents’ footsteps in the hallway. How then did I allow myself to be caught off-base by my mother, who came to check that I hadn’t thrown off my blankets in my sleep and found me standing in my bare feet, my cough not yet gone, the telltale tubes still fading in the dark?
It was because the Indians, neck-and-neck in the homestretch with the Yankees and Red Sox, were playing New York in Cleveland; because, down 6-4 in the bottom of the ninth, they had loaded the bases with one out; and because . . . but I would have to wait, unable to fall asleep, for the morning paper to learn the outcome. Cleveland had scored one more run before switch-hitting Dale Mitchell, batting right-handed against lefty reliever Joe Page, grounded to Rizzuto at short to end the game. The Indians had slipped to third place.
After that summer, I didn’t go back to the junior service. I had outgrown it—more so, at any rate, than I had outgrown my fears of the Irish. From now on I joined my father on Saturday mornings on his mile-long walk to the synagogue of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on Broadway and 122nd Street, where he taught.
We were accompanied by his friend and colleague, the Bible scholar H.L. Ginsberg, who lived nearby. While the two of them argued about Ginsberg’s latest proposals for emending verses in the Bible, which he regarded as an inexhaustible compilation of scribal errors, I concentrated on the cracks between the paving squares on the sidewalk, either avoiding or stepping on each of them, or quizzed myself on the cars parked along Broadway. Although you could walk the entire distance without identifying a foreign make, there were, beside those of the Big Three manufacturers, numerous automobiles as extinct today as the woolly mammoth: Packards, Hudsons, Nashes, Kaiser-Frasers, Crosleys, and Studebakers, the last with its 1948 model whose back looked so like its front that drivers were said to have climbed into the rear seat before noticing the absence of a steering wheel.
Ginsberg was a nervous man with a rapid-fire stutter that disappeared when he sang, which may have been why, despite a shrill, reedy voice, he was compassionately tolerated on the High Holy Days as the synagogue’s cantor for the Shaharit, the opening part of the liturgy. In the second row in which he and my father sat along with other senior faculty members like the homiletics teacher Max Arzt, the medieval Hebrew literature professor Shalom Spiegel, the rabbinics scholar Max Kadushin, and the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, he was known as “Blitz” because of the speed with which he led the prayers.
These were my father’s social cronies. The third row was occupied by junior faculty, while the first was mostly empty, its long pew reserved for four eminences: the Seminary’s chancellor Louis Finkelstein, the renowned Judaica scholar Louis Ginzberg, the great talmudist Saul Lieberman, and the legendary librarian and bibliographer Alexander Marx. A tall man with twinkling eyes and a goatish beard on which he chewed, Marx sat in front of me and sometimes spun around to grab my ear. He had served, I was told, in the German cavalry in World War I, which heightened his stature in my eyes.
Lieberman, who sat next to him, was my uncle, the husband of my mother’s elder sister. A Lithuanian Jew with a no-nonsense attitude toward religion, he once, when I was a college student, was to startle me by saying that he considered prayer a waste of time, since it interrupted his study of Talmud and he had nothing to say to God. I did not contradict him by remarking that, standing diagonally behind him as a boy on Yom Kippur, the only day of the year on which he covered his head with his prayer shawl, I had glimpsed beneath it the tears running down his cheeks.
Had he believed on that occasion that his fate for the coming year was about to be sealed in the great Book of Life? Until recently I had conceived of this volume as a heavy ledger with lines ruled in gold. Now, old enough to understand that it was a metaphor, an all-knowing God having no need to keep records like a school principal, I asked myself how, if God knew in advance what would happen to me, I could have any choice but to do what He knew I would. Why reward my good deeds or punish my bad ones if I only performed them because I had to?
I did not know that, from Augustine to Spinoza, there wasn’t a philosopher who had not wrestled with this problem—that in fact there wasn’t a major philosophical question that most children had not asked themselves by the age of ten, after which it was a matter of either refining or forgetting it. The best I could do was hypothesize that, if my actions originated as thoughts in God’s mind, He had left me a thin margin of freedom, just as the players in the baseball games that took place in my head retained the ability to surprise me.
The Indians had bounced back from their loss to the Yankees and were now going into the last game of the season, on October 3, a game ahead of the Red Sox. They had only to beat fifth-place Detroit to win the title and open the World Series on the 6th against the Boston Braves. This was perfect timing. The Jewish New Year fell on the 4th and 5th, and I would not have to miss an inning.
But it was not to be. Cleveland lost, shut out by Hal Newhouser, while the Red Sox beat the Yankees. The season had ended in an unprecedented dead heat. A one-game playoff would be held in Boston the next day.
At dinner that night, my father recited the blessings over the wine and hallah, which we ate dipped in honey to make the new year sweet. A guest from Israel had brought a pomegranate, a first fruit from the Jewish state, in a diplomatic pouch, and my father’s voice shook as he held it and said, “Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hath given us life and sustained us and brought us to this day.” Our guest showed me how to eat it, scooping out the blood-red seeds.
“I remember one Rosh Hashanah,” he reminisced, “when I was a halutz in a work gang on the Afula-Tiberias road. We didn’t work that day, but we didn’t pray, either. Although we all came from religious homes, work had become the only prayer we knew. We were sitting outside our tent, not knowing what to do with ourselves, when I picked up my violin and started to play. First I played all the sad tunes I could think of, and then I played the quiet ones, and then I played the happy ones. Before I knew it we were all dancing on the Afula-Tiberias road.”
The service in the Seminary’s synagogue the next morning was a lengthy one. I kept looking at my watch. Apart from the prayers, there was the blowing of the shofar to draw things out. The shofar blower had a bad day, producing an arpeggio of false starts and muffled squeaks for every true note that he sounded, wiping his mouth with his jacket sleeve and peering down the opening of his horn as though he expected to find a dead mouse. As soon as the prayers ended, I asked my father for the key to our apartment and raced home ahead of him.
I ran the whole mile, reaching home in the bottom of the second inning with the score tied 1-1, in plenty of time for Ken Keltner’s three-run homer in the top of the fourth. After that, it was the Indians all the way. Boudreau homered twice, the knuckleballing Gene Bearden kept Boston at bay, and Cleveland took the game and the pennant. As Keltner charged Birdie Tebbets’s grounder in the ninth and fired it to Eddie Robinson for the last out, I pounded triumphant fist into palm to make the sound of ball meeting glove. Then I ran to the window of my room and flung it open. In the waning autumn light I watched the dusk-crazed pigeons circle and wheel over the buildings between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, the chrome-colored sunset glancing off their pale wings.
Given that it took the Indians six more years to win their next pennant, during which they broke my heart every summer, you could call it beginner’s luck.
The new year started off with Cleveland winning the World Series four games to two, the last of them on the day before Yom Kippur.
Though not yet required to by Jewish law, I decided to fast. Now that I was attending an adult synagogue, I would do as the adults did.
I was to regret it. Hunger came and went in sharp spasms, leaving me now grim and resolute, now drained and past caring. Each time the congregation recited the Al Het, the public confession of sins arranged in alphabetical order by some liturgical bureaucrat, I beat my breast until it hurt. The roster was endless, interminable; to each sin, whether guilty or not, I had to confess with the other defendants as though in a purge trial. And as if hunger were not torture enough, I was made to rise to my feet each time the ark was opened and stand there on stiff, weary legs as if I were in a courtroom whose judge kept absent-mindedly coming and going.
Although the Shaharit was tossed off at his usual pace by H.L. Ginsberg, even he could not make it any shorter. Then my father, the Seminary’s regular Torah reader, chanted the day’s portion about the scapegoat sent to die in the wilderness; in the notes of his delivery, famed for its exactitude, there was a great sadness. H.L. was relieved and a new cantor took his place for the Musaf, the next round in the day-long devotions; fresh from the bullpen, he lingered over each page of the prayer book as if in hopes of wearing God out. The airless synagogue had a smell like that of rotting leaves, the debris, so I thought, of fallen prayers.
Minhah, the afternoon service, was recited and with it the story of Jonah, who bolted in a panic from God to end up in the belly of a fish. Then the entire congregation rose to its feet once more for Ne’ilah, the closing service of the day. One last time the list of sins was recited, sin by alphabetical sin. Now I took no part but listened numbly, overwhelmed by my physical ordeal and the magnitude of my iniquity, my sole concern being to stave off the impending levitation of my body. The prayers unfolded in turn: the shmoneh esreh was behind us; avinu malkenu; aleinu; the final kaddish; and the congregation repeated seven times “the Lord is God,” each repetition more ragged than the one before, like breakers collapsing on the shore.
Then the shofar was blown—this time loud and clear—and everyone exclaimed hoarsely, “Next year in Jerusalem!” while hurriedly putting away his prayer shawl. It was—I knew it, half-dead though I was—the most sensible wish of the day.