Reality check: Tennis observes Yom Kippur

There are few things that still unite Jewish Israelis and one of those rituals is the public observance of Yom Kippur

dudi sela370 (photo credit: Reuters)
dudi sela370
(photo credit: Reuters)
There are some things one just doesn’t do, regardless of actual religious belief, and the Israel Tennis Association made the right call when it refused to play an upcoming Davis Cup match against Belgium in Antwerp scheduled for Yom Kippur.
The Belgians, by contrast, played a false shot in refusing the Israeli request to postpone the game by a day and it was left to the umpire of the tennis world, the International Tennis Federation, to intervene and order the postponement of the match for a day, with the ITA compensating the Belgian hosts for the extra cost.
As ITA chairman Asi Touchmair said: “As an institution that represents the State of Israel and its values, we in the Israeli Tennis Association stand proud, before all those who refuse to recognize the importance of the Jewish tradition, on behalf of Israel and Jews world over.”
In fact, Yom Kippur has a distinguished place in Jewish sporting history: in 1934 Hank Greenberg, also known as “the Hebrew Hammer,” went to synagogue rather than play a game for the Detroit Tigers against the Yankees during a pennant race. In 1965, the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax declined to pitch game one of the World Series because of the Day of Atonement.
More recently, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shawn Green sat out a critical game in 2001 to observe Yom Kippur.
Greenberg and Koufax were legends in the game and heroes to millions of American Jews before they decided to put their religion before baseball, but their decision to prefer the synagogue over the stadium took their hero level to almost mythical status.
By contrast, Avi Cohen, who became the first Israeli player to play professional soccer in England, took a huge hit to his reputation when he elected to play for Liverpool against Southampton in 1980 despite the match falling on Yom Kippur. Furthermore, a weak pass of Cohen’s led to a Southampton goal, which many saw as Divine retribution for his transgression.
Greenberg, Koufax and Cohen’s decisions to play/not to play on Yom Kippur were all personal decisions and reflected only on the individuals involved.
When the decision concerns a national team the issue takes on another dimension, which is why the ITA was correct to demand the game’s rescheduling.
THERE ARE few things that still unite Jewish Israelis and one of those rituals is the public observance of Yom Kippur. Even for the non-believer, Yom Kippur is still a sacred day here in Israel; there are no cars on the road (except for those transporting medical staff or the ill to hospital, which unfortunately risk stoning by the less tolerant among who don’t see the irony in asking for God’s forgiveness for their sins while they seek to cause physical harm to others) and no one eats on the street or barbecues on their balconies.
There is an understanding that Yom Kippur is a special day, and each family observes it in their own way, some by fasting, others by video marathon, but all understand that in public, Yom Kippur is the one day in Israel when everything comes to complete standstill.
For many, the silence on the streets of Yom Kippur, save for the whirring of bicycle wheels as children take over the roads, is part of what makes Israel different.
And the beauty of public Yom Kippur observance is the fact that there are no laws forbidding people from driving during the 25 hours of the fast or preventing people from eating in public if they so choose. One just doesn’t, out of a societal built-in respect for the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.
As Shas leader Aryeh Deri once noted in the context of circumcision: the vast majority of secular Jews circumcise their sons without any prompting, but were the haredi parties to seek legislation mandating circumcision, people would suddenly start abandoning the tradition in protest. The same is true of Yom Kippur: were the Knesset to pass legislation prohibiting the use of cars during Yom Kippur, motorcades would start appearing up and down the country.
In matters of religious identity, Israelis don’t need the state telling them what they need to do or how they should feel. They know what being Jewish means for them and are secure and happy in this identity.It is only the insecure who need external recognition of their status, something Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu needs to reflect upon given his stubborn insistence on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
As the ITA showed in their principled decision not to play tennis on Yom Kippur, we know we’re a Jewish state with thousands of years of tradition behind us, and we’re secure in our identity as Jews and know what this means for us. A piece of paper signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not going to make us more Jewish.
The writer is a former editor of The Jerusalem Post.