Monday, January 9, 2012

Fordham Hoops and a Reform Hazzan

Well, I couldn't resist commenting on this news story here, as it relates to my home institution, Fordham University.  As you many know, Fordham has a storied history when it comes to sports (not that it's any slouch on academics).  Ever since I started teaching here, over two decades ago (has it really been that long???), individuals of a certain age, upon hearing I'm a professor at Fordham, immediately say, "the seven blocks of granite."  In case this phrase means nothing to you, this goes back to the famous Fordham college football teams of the late 20s and 30s, and specifically the teams' offensive linemen, which included Vince Lombardi, of coaching (and New Jersey Turnpike rest stop) fame.  If you think I'm making this up, check out the Wikipedia entry on it:   Seven Blocks of Granite.

 Back in 2010, I posted an entry on the amazing Fordham flip, as it came to be known, an entirely unique baseball play, unprecedented not only for college ball, but on any level.  In that same post, I also commented on the news story about Fordham baseball's 150th anniversary, especially notable because the Fordham Rams, that's our mascot, the ram, has the most wins of any team in history (although it's only a matter of time before colleges located in the warm, southern regions catch up).  Anyway, you can read that post here:  Fordham Flips for Baseball

So anyway, this post isn't about football or baseball, but about basketball--I think the "hoops" in the title may have given that away.  And in case you're wondering what hazzan means, it's the Hebrew word for cantor, traditionally the individual who helps to lead the Jewish prayer service.  This requires proficiency in Hebrew, and also musical proficiency, as the Hebrew prayers are traditionally sung or chanted (the root meaning of cantor being chant).  The role has evolved over the years, from amateur to professional, and from lay to clerical.  I'll again refer you to Wikipedia for its articles on the traditional role of the Hazzan, and the contemporary role as a member of the clergy of the Cantor in Reform Judaism.

So, with that prologue in mind, let me turn to a New York Times article dated January 9, 2012, and written by Clyde Haberman. The title is At Jesuit School, a Pregame Assist From a Jewish Singer.  And it begins like this:

If you’re hoping for a talisman to improve your team’s chances of victory, why not make it a man with a talis?

Okay, already this might require some explanation.  A talis is a prayer shawl traditionally used in Jewish worship, in particular to be worn whenever the Torah is taken out. Somewhat ironically, in Reform Judaism, wearing a talis is optional for the congregants, although the clergy usually will wear one.  And yeah, you can check it out on Wikipedia, it's listed under the Sephardic dialect's spelling, Tallit. Now, back to the article:

That thought, at any rate, crossed the minds of officials at Fordham University, the Jesuit redoubt in the Bronx. Their men’s basketball team caught a hot hand during the Christmas break when a cantor named Daniel Pincus began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before home games.

All right, Cantor Pincus!  And here's a picture of him, in case you wanted to see:

And guess what?  He's wearing a talis, man!  And hey, you can check out his official webpage: and even listen to a recording of him singing, well, not the National Anthem, but a Hebrew prayer, a Sephardic rendition of V'Shameru.  Okay, now back to Haberman's news item:

Normally, the national anthem is sung by the school’s choir, but the choir went on an out-of-state tour during the holiday recess. Mr. Pincus, 57, who is a cantor at Congregation Shaarei Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Riverdale, the Bronx, had already expressed an interest in performing the pregame ritual for Fordham.

Riverdale, in case you're wondering, is the section of the Bronx closest to Manhattan, just across the river from the island, and it's a lovely residential section--I had cousins who lived there back in the day. It's also the site of the next Media Ecology Association's annual meeting, hosted by Manhattan College, which strangely enough is not in Manhattan, but in Riverdale.  Anyway, if you're interested in learning more about
Congregation Shaarei Shalom, which as a Reform congregation is a sister shul of my own Congregation Adas Emuno, the link is there for your convenience.  All right, back to the story:

“I said to him then that we generally have the choir sing, so let’s see what occurs down the road,” said Julio Diaz, the university’s associate athletic director. Now, unexpectedly, Mr. Diaz found himself down that road. “So I picked up the phone,” he said, “and told him, ‘Cantor, I need your help.’”

I don't know why the choir wasn't available, but I will just mention that Fordham is outstanding in many ways.  But when in comes to music, well, not so much. So, please continue:

On Dec. 22, before a game against Texas State University, Mr. Pincus made his debut at the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, singing without his yarmulke and definitely without a talis (which is one way to render the Hebrew word for a Jewish prayer shawl). Fordham won.

He sang a second time a week later against Georgia Tech. Fordham won again. A few days after that, in the first game of the new year, the visitor was nationally ranked Harvard. Fordham, whose nickname is the Rams, triumphed yet again.

Suddenly, a team that had a losing record before Mr. Pincus showed up was on a roll. Could it be that the Jewish singer had become a good-luck charm for the Jesuit school?

The cantor, for one, doubted it. As “cute” as that notion might be, he said, and as “wonderful” as the interfaith aspect of the relationship is, he was performing as “a classically trained tenor.”

“What I wanted was to bring a classical approach and a singable approach to the national anthem,” he said. “I render it in a traditional way — not hip-hop, not jazz.” And, he added, “if I sing it well and with spirit then maybe it helps everybody tune up.”

The cantor’s singing style was important to Mr. Diaz. “I just want to make sure that we have someone who sings it in a patriotic, proper way,” he said.

Like Mr. Pincus, the coach of the basketball team, Tom Pecora, has a skeptical view of the talisman idea — up to a point. “As a college coach for over 25 years, I think it has a little more to do with defense and rebounding,” Mr. Pecora said. “But we’ll include the cantor if that’s what it takes to win games.”

His attitude reflects an element of superstition that is inherent to sports, perhaps more than to other phases of life.

There’s the school of thought upheld by a character in the 1988 baseball movie “Bull Durham.” You have to “respect the streak,” he says. If you think you’re winning because you keep following the same pattern — like having a cantor sing the anthem — then you are.

“We are superstitious, players and coaches,” Mr. Pecora agreed.

I won't comment on the relationship between religion and superstition, you may be relieved to know.  Or the relationship between religion and sports. And the relationship between sports and superstition, well, that's well known.

But there is another school, a more cynical one, especially for this age of the genuflecting Tim Tebow and his imitators. This comes from a classic boxing movie from 1956, “The Harder They Fall.” A prizefighter with a powder-puff punch and a glass jaw is on his knees praying before a match. Seeing this, a mobster tells him with a sneer, “That only works if you can fight.”

In basketball, it works only if you outplay the other guys. On Saturday, Fordham fell to earth. Despite having Mr. Pincus sing once more, the team’s home-court winning streak ended when it lost, 67-59, to Xavier University of Cincinnati. So it goes.

But even though the Fordham choir is about to return from its travels, Mr. Pincus expects to be invited back for future games. “It seems now like I’m becoming part of the family, which is great,” he said.

And why not? Among his talents, the cantor teaches the art of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is sounded on the Jewish High Holy Days.
From the ram’s horn to the Rams is not too great a leap.

And let me just note that there is no coincidence to the fact that Fordham chose a biblical animal as its mascot.  And as for Jewish-Catholic relations, well, this is New York City after all, and this is very much a New York story, and for that matter, a Bronx tale.

It's all about community, which is the theme of this Hebrew hymn sung by Cantor Pincus:

Now, Go Rams!

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