My Team Israel Problem, And Ours

A team of Jewish American baseball players had a great run at the WBC. It was fun while it lasted, but not as simple as it sounds.
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Oh, Team Israel, what a wily hummingbird you were, what a fickle and finally disappointing lover. The promises you made, and betrayed. The hopes you fulfilled, and the other hopes you dashed under a barrage of mishegas and rigmarole and schtick. You were a mess. You were a good time.

“He is everywhere and nowhere all at once,” said Cody Decker, waxing poetic on behalf of the team’s inanimate mascot, Mensch on a Bench. Decker, a newly-minted mensch himself for his very public excoriation of xenophobic bloodhound Stephen Miller—the two were classmates at Santa Monica High School—was at that moment channeling the metaphysics of the Talmudists by way of the I-Ching. “His actual location is irrelevant,” Decker said of his team’s jumbo Mensch-Totem, “because he exists in higher metaphysical planes. But he’s always near.”

Decker was playing a character, if admittedly fairly well. It’s a character that has come down through layers and layers of culture, arriving as some admixture of Fiddler on the Roof piety and the secret mystic wisdom of the Kabbalists. It’s not offensive or anything, whether you are religiously speaking a Team Israel teammate or not. It’s just familiar as a certain type of Jewish character. It’s the Jew as detached, wily, skeptical, prone to address uncertainty with more uncertainty. It’s the Jew who sees your Skip Bayless-brand forthrightness and responds with the indeterminacy of Hillel and Shammai.

Synthesis is Jewish, assimilation is Jewish, baseball is also Jewish. Spirituality is, of course, Jewish. Ask your rabbi about mascots, though, and particularly this mascot. A guy with a white beard, omnipresent, even omniscient? Isn’t there a rule against that? I’ll leave allegations of idol worship to the rabbinate, but what I do know is this: Team Israel’s weird and startling and not-as-abbreviated-as-predicted run through the WBC, though all kinds of fun, tended precariously towards the carnivalesque. Enough so that I found myself racked by questions throughout, like any good Jew. I found myself asking one question in particular: Nu? Why are we doing this again?

Most are aware that an Israeli playing baseball is roughly as incongruous as an American Jew going hog hunting. It’s setup for a mediocre punchline. Of course, Israelis should play baseball, or go hog hunting, or shoot darts, or eat tacos that arrive in fried chicken shells; they, like everyone else, should generally do whatever the fuck they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. But that doesn’t mean that any of it will look pretty, and it doesn’t mean that it must be done at the highest level. There’s a reason the only Israeli on the team, Shlomo Lipetz, is a sidewinder; Shlomo, as it happened, was benched for the elimination round.

Israel doesn’t need to be rescued from global sport obscurity, like an international expansion team. Israel is good at some of this stuff already, albeit mostly at sports like windsurfing and judo. But there is also hoops; Maccabi Tel Aviv’s won six Euroleague championships since the 1970’s. There’s also soccer, as Israeli Premier League teams qualify for the UEFA Champions League most years; the Israeli soccer team was ranked 15th in the world as recently as 2008. These are all sports that Israelis play, sometimes well and sometimes less well. Baseball could be one of those, but at present it is not. It’s a sport that American Jews played, in uniforms with the word “Israel” across the front, a good deal better than anyone expected.

“It’s heritage,” said Peter Kurz, President of the Israel Association of Baseball. “It’s not really religion.”

“Heritage” kept coming up throughout the tournament, from players, administrators, game announcers, and journalists alike. “It’s representing your past, your heritage, your history—what’s in your blood,” said Ike Davis. “Heritage” is evocative; it speaks to shared inheritance, the residue of a long history. It carries an abstract and lofty tenor. If referring specifically to a shared history, the stuff of collective memory, it rings true. But how Team Israel came to be, and what it was, was not necessarily that.

The murkiness began with the recruiting process, which had the feel of a Little League parent dabbling in gerrymandering. Scouts and IAB administrators browsed Facebook and other social media sites for indications of American baseball players’ Jewishness. “His mother was from New York, I believe. So I checked one box,” said Alex Jacobs, an MLB scout, of Team Israel shortstop Scott Burcham. “Then, I looked at a picture of her and thought she looked kind of Jewish.”

Jacobs could have been invoking Lenny Bruce, who said that “even if you’re Catholic, if you live in New York, you’re Jewish.” But he was also engaging in some good old-fashioned stereotyping that, while relatively benign along the broader spectrum of racial profiling, nevertheless had a faintly creepy ring to it. But because the way in which that story gets told is so squarely within the realm of schtick, it surfaces in public as something like a joke. Jacobs probably thought it made him look rather resourceful. But that’s not the whole of it.

The religion aspect of Team Israel’s roster construction seemed to be the third rail of the operation, and also the most slippery; it was the most at odds with the whitewashed corporatism that the MLB exudes and seeks to export, but it’s also the one that most readily collapses into a familiar sort of joke. It’s serious where checking boxes is concerned, but Team Israel was asked to, and did, play games on Saturdays. The two are in opposition, but were somehow also not necessarily in conflict.

Without the religion part, we have a funny nationalism that already negates itself; Ike Davis is no more Israeli than, say, Adam Jones. If Ike Davis had to find his way from Netanya to Tel Aviv in a taxi without getting bamboozled by a brusque Likudnik with hairy shoulders, it would be Likudnik 1, Ike 0. No offense to Ike, and of course no comment on his Jewishness as a grandson of Holocaust survivors or otherwise. But the dude is as American as can be, and being Jewish enough to qualify for Israeli citizenship is not nearly the same thing as being Israeli. Any conflicted, or even just detail-oriented, American Jew could tell you as much.

Would the slugger Hank Greenberg have jumped at the opportunity to play for Team Israel? I’m not sure. After all, the man served 47 months during World War II, the longest of any major leaguer. He went back for a second tour, all for his native Team USA.

This is probably overthinking something that honestly doesn’t demand much thought. Team Israel, and their strange and shocking success, should be accepted as a fun underdog story, a bunch of overlooked guys playing “above their tools” and having fun doing it. But it’s hard to ignore the parts of it that most need ignoring to accept it as that simple and satisfying story. It felt like a joke told without sufficient consideration for its punchline. A team of American Jews rolled out as “Team Israel” is not quite right for a bunch of reasons. But the one that stuck in my literal brain is that, beyond the strange conflation central to it, it just wasn’t quite true. It’s a workaround, and that cut the bottom out of what was otherwise a great story.

I’ll be the first to don a Shlomo Lipetz jersey #18 in 2021 and watch Israel do battle with Australia, or Spain, or whomever. But let’s see some sabras from Herzliya out there, not a bunch of religiously retconned bros from the SEC. If we’re going to cheer for Team Israel, and deal with what that really would be like and what it might mean, then let’s get that team, deal with that weirdness, and take those lumps or not. Things could get ugly, but we’ve faced long odds before.

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