Monday, April 16, 2007

Sports Spiel

Spiel (sometimes spelled shpiel) is a Yiddish word that means speak or talk, but also means play in its double meaning of putting on a performance and in playing a game. This makes it an especially appropriate title for this post.

Last December, I was appointed to the Board of Trustees of my little Reform temple, Congregation Adas Emuno. And as a Trustee, I volunteered to take charge of the Adult Education program, which had been non-existent for the past couple of years. Having organized some major conferences and symposiums, and having (I believe) a pretty good knack for event planning, it didn't seem like too much trouble to get some speakers to come give a talk, and of course it doesn't hurt to have some friends who are willing to do me the favor.

I then had the idea to make it a Havdallah-Talk series. In Judaism, the Sabbath begins Friday evening, and continues until Saturday evening, and the main worship services are on Friday and Saturday morning. But traditionally, there is also a short service, often performed in the home, which is held at the end of the Sabbath, to mark the transition from the sacred back to the profane. That's the Havdallah service. It's a very beautiful ceremony that involves all of the senses, and consists of a series of prayers sung in Hebrew. There's a blessing over the wine, and drinking the wine appeals to the sense of taste. There's a blessing over fragrant spices, which are passed around and appeal to the sense of smell. There's a blessing over a candle with many wicks, the light appealing to the sense of sight. And in addition to the singing of the prayers, the ceremony ends with the candle being extinguished in the glass of wine, yielding a hissing sound as well as symbolizing the end of Shabbat.

So, I had the idea to hold the series on Saturday evenings (about once a month), and to begin with a Havdallah service, both for its beauty and to provide a religious connection to the activity--what makes it especially appealing is the singing of our spiritual leader, Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro. We would begin with the ceremony, then have the speaker. And afterwards, there would still be time to go out for a late dinner or catch a movie, or whatever. But it's late enough that you can have your dinner first, and maybe call it a night afterwards. Anyway, that's my idea, and we'll see how it works out. So far, so good.

So, this past Saturday we held our first Havdallah-Talk. It featured my colleague at Fordham University (where he's an Artist-in-Residence), Meir Ribalow. And the topic of his talk was "Jews in Sports." Here's the write-up as it appeared in our temple newsletter:

Renowned Author to Speak on “Jews in Sports”

Author and scholar Meir Z. Ribalow will give a talk on “Jews in Sports” at Adas Emuno on Saturday, April 14 at 7 PM., in the first “Havdallah-Talk”, presented by the Adult Education Committee.

Mr. Ribalow is co-author (with the late Harold U. Ribalow) of The Jew in American Sports, Jewish Baseball Stars, and The Great Jewish Chess Champions. He is Director of, a prize-winning web site, and has written about Jewish athletes in the book Take Me Out to the Ballgame, as well as for various periodicals, including Princeton Alumni Weekly. The award-winning author also has extensive writing credits in fiction, poetry, musical lyrics, children’s literature, film and travel. Perhaps best known as a playwright, Mr. Ribalow has had 22 plays receive some 160 productions worldwide, and has extensive directing credits to his name.
Currently, Mr. Ribalow is Artistic Director of New River Dramatists in North Carolina and full-time Artist-in-Residence at Fordham University, where he has taught screenwriting, film and writing courses for the last decade.

“Havdallah-Talk”, a new program for adult members of the Congregation, will be held at Adas Emuno on selected Saturday evenings at 7 PM. (Mr. Ribalow’s talk on April 14 is also appropriate and open to pre-teens and teens interested in sports). A short Havdallah service will be followed by guest speakers on a variety of topics.

The program is open to non-members as well. Admission is free and light refreshments will be served.

For additional information, please contact Lance Strate, Adult Ed. Committee Chair, at
Virginia Gitter, a past president of the congregation and all around dynamo, not to mention the person who puts out the newsletter, wrote this up based on information I provided, and helped to publicize the event, for which I am very grateful. And as the first event of its kind, being a complete unknown, and ours being a small congregation, I had figured that it would be a success if a dozen people showed up. We had twenty in attendance, so it exceeded expectations. Meir normally gets paid a great deal to these kinds of gigs elsewhere, so I am very grateful to him for donating his time and energy. I should add that he could have spoken on a number of different topics, including film, and literature, but we chose to start things off with sports because of the broad appeal of the topic.

As mentioned in the newsletter article, Meir has a chapter in the anthology Take Me Out to the Ballgame (edited by Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker), and so do I. His was on Jewish baseball stars in relation to the Jewish experience in America, mine on baseball as a medium, which provides me with an excuse to interject a little media ecology. Marshall McLuhan included a chapter entitled "Games: The Extensions of Man" in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and in that chapter he comes to the conclusion that "games are extensions, not of our private but of our social selves, and that they are media of communication... If, finally, we ask, 'Are games mass media?' the answer has to be 'Yes.' Games are situations contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern of their own corporate lives" (p. 327 of the critical edition). Sports then are a medium of communication and a medium of community, both for the ethnic, religious, and local community, and a medium for integration into the larger community of the nation.

Anyway, much of Meir's talk and the ensuing Q&A revolved around specific sports stars, one of the most interesting being Mo Berg, who played Major League Baseball for 16 years, but also was an undeniable genius, speaking something on the order of 16 languages, and serving as a spy for the US during WWII, even in Japan. One story has it that he spoke German so well he was sent into Germany to check on how Heisenberg was making out with the Nazi effort to develop the A-bomb. While there were regular spies who could pass as German just as well as Berg, none of them were smart enough to make a good assessment of the state of Nazi nuclear physics. Meir says that a documentary about Mo Berg is due out soon, in which he is one of the scholars interviewed.

But I digress. What I find blogworthy in all this is the point Meir made at the beginning of his talk, that sports served to counter prejudice and antisemitism, especially among those people who were unimpressed with intellectual achievement. Simply put, there is no way to argue with Benny Leonard's boxing championships, with Hank Greenberg's home runs, Sandy Koufax's strikeouts, etc. Sports provide an objective standard of excellence that is unavailable even to an Einstein, it is true. But subjectively, sports and games are more closely connected to orality than literacy, and therefore appeal to the heavy residual orality of the working classes (as opposed to the more elaborated literacy of the middle class, who are less likely to buy into American culture's anti-intellectualism). Sports are a form of performance, a play without a script, a ritual drama, and ritual is closely connected to oral culture. Literate cultures drain the drama from rituals, turning them into precise formulas that are repeated verbatim, e.g., incantations, but in oral culture rituals are like other forms of oral performance and oral tradition, they are by nature variations on a theme, never exactly the same twice, characterized by multiformity, and vitality. Moreover, games are open and therefore like oral composition (such as epic poetry) in contrast to the closed, linear narratives of literate culture that move from beginning to middle to end.

And sports are very much about the body, and following McLuhan, are extensions of our bodies, our physicality, they involve the entire body, and all the senses at once, as opposed to purely intellectual pursuits; oral traditions involve the body in singing, gesture, mimesis, and dance, and McLuhan associates orality with a balanced sensorium. It is true that we intellectualize sports through the written word, in the form of rulebooks and box scores, not to mention literature, both fiction as well as nonfiction. Applying the written and printed word to sports allowed us to organize sports, commercialize sports, and in this way make them entirely profane. But in their origin, and at their core, sports encompass that sacred quality associated with much of oral culture. For example, the ancient Greeks of the Iliad took part in games as an offering to the gods. Various native civilizations in Meso-America took part in the barbaric "ballgame" which ended with human sacrifice to the gods. The point is not to romanticize oral culture, which can be very violent indeed, but just to note the close connection between play and pray. It had not occurred to me at the time when I first planned the event, but this was a very appropriate way to try to establish a kind of ritual of sorts (in a very modest way, of course), a spiel associated with the shift from the sacred to the profane.

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