Thoughts of Cinderella stories on Opening Day.
Why is this Day different from all other Days? Yes, this Opening Day in baseball is different from the previous 108 openers. Major League Baseball begins play this year with the Chicago Cubs as defending champions. The perennial underdogs, the happy hapless, the ultimate outsiders, are now in charge… but let us avoid politics and stick to sports.
We had a Cinderella story in the World Baseball Classic for a while this year, as the ragtag slapdash bunch of Jewish kids masquerading as the Israel team made it into the final eight. Eventually the Classic was captured by the United States. Still, it was a nice story while it lasted, reminding us that Jews are always outnumbered and outmanned but often produce surprising results, a tradition begun by Abraham defeating the armies of four kings with his militia of 318 men.
Indeed the fairy tale known as Cinderella — or at least its climactic scene — is really cribbed from the story of King David in the scriptural Book of Samuel (Samuel I 16:1-13). There are endless scholarly works on the origins of Cinderella, tracing it as far back as a Greek story from two millennia ago. The scholars are only off by 1000 years. Much closer than usual!
In that passage, it describes how Samuel was given a prophecy to go to the house of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah, and anoint one of his sons as a king.
When Samuel arrived, Jesse brought out a whole squad of young men. He had sons in all sizes and shapes, one more impressive than the other. As Samuel walked down the line from one to the next, the prophetic voice issued a veto again and again. When he got to the end of the line without revealing a suitable candidate, he asked Jesse if he had another son. Well, yes, one more, the dreamy, music-playing, poetry-writing outcast, David, who was typically assigned the most menial tasks. He was out in the field tending to some chore or other. “He is the one!”
The message is to respect difference and stick together as a team. Do not try to pick out the stars too early. Work as a unit and the stars will shine naturally when their moment arrives. That is what the Cubs and the Israel team have reminded us again this year.
All of which provides an excellent motivation for you to run to a theater near you and see On The Map, the new documentary about the Israeli team which won the European basketball championship in 1977, and put the State of Israel at age 29… On The Map!
The history is fascinating. Just five years after the Munich Massacre, just four years after the Yom Kippur War, the State of Israel was deemed to be in a vulnerable state. The noble experiment of allowing the Jews to reclaim their land after two millennia appeared to be on its last legs. The country was becoming dispirited. The Labor Party had ruled Israel for all those 29 years and although they had produced an economy and a legal system, all that progress no longer looked sustainable.
Then the Maccabee Tel Aviv basketball team began winning games. The documentary follows the players as they emerge from their diverse backgrounds and locales, then converge in forming this team. Tal Brody was the son of Israeli parents who grew up in New Jersey and turned down a chance to join the NBA. Jim Boatwright was a successful college basketball player from Utah who did not have that extra little something to make the NBA. Aulcie Perry grew up in the slums of Newark, and he might have made the NBA, if he tried for another year or two, but for now he was out of a job. (The league allows a maximum of two players who did not previously hold citizenship.) Miki Berkovich was the only genuine home-bred Israeli star, but he would have to rein in his ego to work with these uppity Americans.
The sports saga intersects with historic events and world politics in surprising ways. The night Maccabee Tel Aviv wins the championship is the night Yitzhak Rabin resigned as Prime Minister; he held off the announcement for a few hours until after the game. And the path to the championship involved a key victory over the Soviet Red Army team from Moscow.
The film traces the evolution of these four players, two Jews and two non-Jews, as they embrace the spirit of Israel and learn they are standing for something beyond basketball and beyond one city. The phrase “On The Map!” takes on a spontaneous life as the new motto of the fledgling state. Aulcie Perry of Newark, a tall black kid from the projects, becomes an Israeli national hero and is inspired to convert to Judaism. See the film: Laugh a little, cry a little, learn a lot!
Yes, this Opening Day is different, and this Passover night is different. But so is our entire era different…
Wall painting by Doron Viner in Tel-Aviv (Creative Commons)