Yogi Berra’s death failed to make the news here, which is understandable, because he wasn’t known to Israelis. Except for the Americans who have moved here, Israelis don’t follow baseball, and care not a whit about Yogi’s playing career or his place in American lore as a preeminent philosopher.
Which is a shame, because they could learn a lot from what Yogi had to say.
Most of the obits today fall into two categories: Those found on the sports pages talk about him as a New York Yankees legend behind the mask, an unpretentious three-time MVP and 15-time All Star. A Hall of Famer. Whether you are a fan or a foreigner, you need know only one thing to put his 18-year occupation as catcher in perspective: Yogi Berra, and Yogi alone, holds the record for a player winning the most pennants and most championships, 14 and 10.
The baseball obits also refer to his beloved cartoon caricature appearance and his affable personality. But don’t let those jug ears and simian posture fool you: Yogi was someone who understood the national pastime intuitively, a baseball savant. Contrary to his own insight – “In baseball, you don’t know nothin’” – Yogi always knew what to do on a ball field, smart enough to win pennants as a manager in both the American and National leagues – one of only seven to do so. Yogi was a winner, and nothing more need be said.
The second manner of obit focuses on his fortune-cookie philosophies, his personal brand of inspirational wisdom. Yogi-isms they’re called, the witty, self-contradictory or redundant malapropisms, proverbs and cryptic aphorisms that tumbled out of his mouth and became famous.
To be sure, this original Yogi Bear did say many funny things, but not intentionally.
As Joe Garagiola, his friend of 80 years, wrote in the forward to The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!: “Fans have labeled Yogi Berra ‘Mr. Malaprop,’ but I don’t think that’s accurate. He doesn’t use the wrong words. He just puts words together in ways nobody else would ever do.”
• “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
• “Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.”
• “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
• “Pair up in threes.”
• “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop ’em?” • “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
• “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
Despite his gnarled syntax sentences of muddled form and function, Yogi’s insightful social philosophy is nevertheless acknowledged, assuring him iconic status in cultural Americana. Yogi should be buried on the front lawn of the Smithsonian.
WHERE HE fails to receive credit, however, is his work as a political theorist and pundit.
Yogi was not just serving up endless and eternal truths as a social philosopher; he was also a neo-conservative scholar with an innate understanding of the geo-political Middle East reality. Yogi knew what was happening. Thus while he may not have actually engaged in assessing foreign policy, his profound aphorisms perfectly apply. So what if he sounded goofy? • “It was hard to have a conversation with anyone; there were so many people talking.”
– Welcome to the peace talks.
• “There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell ’em.” – And there’s no point in arguing with ’em.
That’s the real reason it’s hard to have a conversation with anyone on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
• “I wish I had an answer to that, because I’m tired of answering that question.” – The thought that goes through the mind of every minister, diplomat and functionary at every news conference in Jerusalem. When was the last time any of them admitted an original thought? • “I never said most of the things I said,” and, “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.”
– Deniability is key to engaging in the talks.
• “If you ask me a question I don’t know, I’m not going to answer.” – Obviously, Yogi never listened to Israeli morning radio.
• “You can observe a lot by watching.”
– What Yogi meant to say was: “You can learn a lot from observing.” Or maybe he really meant what he said: Watch. Listen.
Pay attention. Israelis have been watching and observing, and they understand what they see. They observed how leaving Lebanon in 2000 yielded Hezbollah, and war in 2006; they observed how leaving Gaza in 2005 led to war in 2008 and 2014, and they know war is coming again on both fronts.
And on the horizon they watch ISIS, and Iran going nuclear.
• “It gets late early out there.” – Yogi might have been talking about the left-field shadows at Yankee Stadium, but he was also mimicking what everybody pushing the peace process pronounces: this is the best time to make the deal because the status quo is unsustainable, and it’ll only get later and darker faster, from here on out. It is, they like to argue, getting late very quickly.
• “It’s not too far; it just seems like it is.” – That’s another argument they like to use, to keep the talks going.
• “We made too many wrong mistakes.”
– Sitting around the kitchen table, the only debate among Israelis is choosing between the lesser of two evils: do we go for the bad option, or the worse one? And if that’s the choice, then either pick is a mistake. In hindsight, perhaps it was too many bad choices, and not enough worse ones.
• “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Those were the bad choices taken.
• “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.” – That’s what the delusional say about the peace process, and its illusion of progress. But if you’re already making too many wrong mistakes, rushing ahead only means making more of them.
• “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” – Yogi’s explicit warning.
• “The future ain’t what it used to be.” – Duh. Once upon a time the future held out hope. A new summit, a new plan, a new president, a new prime minister – everybody hustling to push the “peace process” forward.
But that’s all it ever was: motion, not movement, and motion without movement means doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Wasn’t that Einstein’s definition of insanity? Or was that stupidity? Yogi, of course, said it simpler: • “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
No kidding. Yogi understood how hard, how impossible, the whole thing is: “In the Middle East, you don’t know nothin’.”
Finally, for the absolutely unversed, his most famous tautology: • “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
This speaks to the frustrations in all of us.
Yogi, the eternal optimist, the endearing and enduring philosopher, calls to us from his grave not to lose hope. For Yogi, it’s over.
For us – it ain’t. The writer is a veteran journalist who has previously worked at The Jerusalem Post and at IBA News.
A similar version of this column originally appeared in the Jewish Week of New York.
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