In the two days since the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles nailed down spots in the playoffs, hard-core Nats fan Lisa Goldstein has been poring over a Talmudic and logistical issue: How is she going to deal with the first playoff games falling on Yom Kippur, the most sacred holiday on the Jewish calendar?
Even nonobservant Jews try to keep what is known as “the Day of Atonement” somewhat holy, going to synagogue, fasting and minimizing earthly activities like television or work. But for a playoff-starved region, the key word here is “minimizing.” So the 35-year-old lobbyist is asking herself: Can she turn the TV on before the holiday, and leave the sound off? Could she watch it, even with the sound on, between the afternoon and evening services Saturday?
“I just don’t know,” Goldstein said Thursday, sounding stressed. “The whole point is to be contemplative and in prayer, and considering your sins, and reflecting. I’m just not sure if having the game on, even with the sound off, is really in the spirit. I’m not sure.”
For Jewish fans of the Nationals, the Orioles and the Angels — the teams that have so far clinched spots — the elation of learning this week that their baseball team was in the playoffs quickly collided with religious reality. Negotiations are underway with parents and spouses. Rabbis are being consulted. Amid the pressure, some jokes are making the rounds, including this one:
Man asks rabbi what to do about postseason baseball on Yom Kippur. Rabbi: “DVR it.” Man: “You can DVR Yom Kippur?”
It’s not yet clear how tough the choice will be for Jewish fans. The holiday technically runs from sundown Oct. 3 through sundown the next day. Major League Baseball and the networks aren’t expected to announce the times of games until next week, which means it’s possible there will be day games Friday and night games Saturday.
But even that best-case scenario would complicate matters for Jews on a day in which they are supposed to wear white to focus their minds on seeking purity.
Some fans have spoken out against what they see as an unfair and insensitive choice — particularly when so many team owners, and the baseball commissioner, are Jews themselves — and on Thursday the Lerner family, which owns the Nationals, said they would not attend any games held during Yom Kippur.
Because Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, called the High Holidays of Judaism, fall on various dates in September and October, Jewish baseball fans around the country who live for fall playoff games are often left holding their breath. But in cities such as Washington and Baltimore, where playoff berths are so rare, the overlap can feel especially cruel.
Jordan Field, the president of the Detroit Tigers’ charitable arm, said he has been agonizing over what he’ll do next week. Rosh Hashanah starts Wednesday night and runs through Friday night, and in that period, the Tigers will play a game that could lead to them securing a spot in the playoffs. Normally there is no question he would be in synagogue, especially since his grandfather just passed away and he wants to be with his grandmother.
“I’m working out with my wife, parents and grandmother, will I go? And if I do will I leave early [to make the holiday services and meal that are Wednesday night]? And what if we are so fortunate that we clinch one of those days? Wouldn’t it be a blessing if I am able to enjoy something so special?” he said Thursday. Field, who attended Jewish day schools, is part fan, part employee — but shouldn’t he be in the seat beside his grandmother, recently left empty? “She misses Papa, but she also understands this is pretty special for a Tigers fan, and for the little boy who went to Hillel Day School to be in the front office. She’ll be proud of me either way. I’m trying to figure it out internally.”
These questions aren’t new. Tiger Hank Greenberg made Jewish American history 80 years ago Friday when the young slugger refused to play in the playoffs on Yom Kippur. In a period of intense anti-Semitism, Greenberg got a standing ovation when he walked into his synagogue that day.
“When I grew up, I heard about Hank every time we went to Kol Nidre (the somber night service that begins Yom Kippur). I thought he was part of the Kol Nidre service,” said Aviva Kempner, a D.C. filmmaker who did a documentary called “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.”
Experts say Greenberg — and later Dodger Sandy Koufax, who wouldn’t pitch in the World Series in 1965 because of Yom Kippur — and other contemporary Jewish players have taken such stands more for symbolism than because they were devout. Baseball players Brad Ausmus, Shawn Green, Ryan Braun and Kevin Youkilis have all “chosen not to play on only one Yom Kippur in their entire career so they can point to that as a sign of pride,” Rabbi Jason Miller, who writes about sports and religion, blogged this week.
This week, fans were focused on logistics.
Tova Perlow left Washington a few years ago for New York City, but still comes back for every weekend home game of the Nationals. This week, she is studying flight patterns so that, depending on who the Nats play and where, she is ready to travel. But she has to consider Yom Kippur, as she won’t fly or watch baseball Friday night or until about noon Saturday. That’s her limit.
“There’s a group of us trying to figure out what we’re going to do. Our general consensus is, Kol Nidre is out. We can’t do a night game [Friday]. Even if it was a mid-afternoon game [Friday], that’s cutting it too close for me to prepare to fast. It will have to be late morning,” said the 30-year-old lobbyist.
Technology has complicated the idea of simply taping the game and watching it later. Most Jews are likely to at least check their phones for messages and thus could inadvertently learn the outcome.
Lyle Fishman, rabbi of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Md. — the Lerners’ synagogue — said he worries about not just the letter but also the spirit of the law when it comes to protecting sacred time.
Fishman said he’s a “huge” sports fan, but when his now-adult children were growing up, they were not even allowed to tape games they would watch later.
“In my mind you have to make choices about what’s important,” he said. “A lot of what Jewish life is like is training yourself to make Jewish choices and Jewish priorities.”