God and the Old Brooklyn Dodgers

Susan Jacoby
August 24, 2011
The Washington Post

The Spirited Atheist award for the stupidest comment of the month made outside the state of Texas goes to Alan Dershowitz, the civil liberties lawyer, Harvard law professor and, in recent years, self-appointed expert on all things Jewish, for his statement that the famous and infamous Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, unlike Sandy Koufax, did not pitch “JEWISHLY.”

For those of you who do not know baseball history, Branca threw the home run pitch to the New York Giants Bobby Thomson on the last day of the regular season in 1951 to win the National League pennant for the Giants and break millions of hearts in Brooklyn. But Dershowitz was referring to a story, recently broken in THE NEW YORK TIMES, that Branca — who was raised a Roman Catholic — has just learned that his mother was Jewish. After immigrating to the United States from Hungary in 1901, his mother married an Italian American Catholic, converted to Catholicism and NEVER TOLD HER SON SHE WAS A JEW BY BIRTH.

“Ralph Branca is not a Jew,” Dershowitz told the Times. “Whatever the definition, it doesn’t include someone who willingly accepted a different religion. He didn’t stay home on Yom Kippur like Koufax.” SANDY KOUFAX, the Hall of Famer who pitched for the Dodgers in the 1960s, famously refused to pitch in the World Series on October 6, 1965, because Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, fell on that date. HANK GREENBERG, the first Jewish baseball superstar and Hall of Fame member, also refused to play on Yom Kippur in 1943 for the Detroit Tigers, although, in his personal compromise between religion and baseball, he did play on Rosh Hashanah.

Of course, Koufax and Greenberg were raised as Jews by Jewish parents. If, like Branca, they had been baptized, made their First Communions, served as an altar boys and been raised by two practicing Catholics, they probably wouldn’t have known what Yom Kippur was. It should be noted that traditional Jewish law is not on Dershowitz’s side. According to that body of law, any child of a Jewish mother is a Jew-regardless of whether that child lights candles in Catholic cathedrals or, like Dershowitz and millions of other secular Jews, considers himself an atheist. This is, of course, another example of the primitive origins of so many religious “laws,” in this case based on the fact that for most of human history, only maternity could be established with certainty.

Then Dershowitz went on to make his remark about Branca not pitching “Jewishly.” What does that mean to a presumably well-educated, presumably rational law professor? “Koufax altered strength and guile and knew that you pitch for six days and you rest on the seventh. Branca was ‘straight-on;’ you could see there was nothing Jewish about Ralph Branca.”

Was Dershowitz joking tastelessly, evoking stereotypes about Jews who presumably possess more craftiness than gentiles, or does he actually believe this dreck? Jews play baseball with guile, while the goyim throw home run balls that don’t break sharply enough over the plate? I guess Greenberg hit his home runs “Jewishly” too, while Babe Ruth hit those straightforward gentile home runs.

I’d have to say that Dershowitz’s logic doesn’t sound very Jewish — certainly not by the standards of talmudic scholars — to me. Maybe that’s because he says he became an atheist when Branca threw that home run ball back in 1951. If you were once naïve enough to believe that God takes an interest in the outcome of sporting events, perhaps you really do believe there is a way of pitching “Jewishly.” I’m wondering what would be the “atheistic” way to pitch. Perhaps if Dershowitz were a pitcher, his pitches — like his talk — would be unguided missiles showing no evidence of intelligent design.

It seems thaT BRANCA’S MOTHER, KATI, WHOSE MAIDEN NAME WAS BERGER and was the daughter of two Jewish parents, immigrated to the United States from a small town in Hungary (now in the Slovak republic) at the turn of the century. This fact was included in THE ECHOING GREEN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BOBBY THOMSON, (2006) by Joshua Prager. But Prager didn’t track down the Jewish history of Branca’s family until now.

Branca’s maternal grandparents, who had eight children, were married by a rabbi. Many of his aunts and uncles, and their families, died in Nazi concentration camps. Branca’s mother had a sister who also immigrated to America and lived openly as a Jew. Questions were raised in Prager’s article about why Branca didn’t know–or whether he simply didn’t want to know–about his mother’s Jewish background.

When Prager tells Branca about the members of his family who died in the camps, Branca replies, “Maybe that’s why God’s mad at me–that I didn’t practice my mother’s religion. He made me throw that home run pitch. He made me get injured the next year. Remember, Jesus was a Jew.” Not long after Branca threw the home run pitch, a Jesuit priest had suggested that he had been divinely chosen to give up the pennant-losing run because God knew that his (Catholic) faith was deep enough to see him through the public opprobrium.

Scott Barancik, editor of the JEWISH BASEBALL NEWS, a Web site devoted to the achievements of the relatively small number of Jewish major league players, said, “We’re experts at assuming guilt. So I’ll take responsibility for that home run.”

Poor, poor Ralph Branca. At 85 – just in time for publication of his forthcoming autobiography, A MOMENT IN TIME – he has to deal with this nonsense about Jewish guilt versus Christian guilt. Once having thrown a pitch he has never been allowed to forget, he is now being called to account for something for which he bears no responsibility-the fact that his mother, like many Jewish immigrants to America, chose to disappear into the vastness of a society that has always accommodated an extraordinary number of people who want to change their religion or their ethnic identities.

As David Zaslow, a rabbi in Ashland, Ore., who grew up as a devoted Dodgers fan said, “This is a very Jewish story-even the story of not knowing you’re Jewish. Thousands of people every year discover they have Jewish roots.”

It is indeed both a Jewish and an American story. My own father, whose story I tell in my memoir HALF-JEW: A DAUGHTER’S SEARCH FOR HER FAMILY’S BURIED PAST , pretended he was a gentile until I was old enough, even though I was raised in an environment with almost no Jews, to realize that Jacoby was certainly a Jewish name. I don’t know why Branca’s mother did what she did. I do know that what my father did was related both to his own family’s ambivalence about its Jewishness and to the anti-Semitic taunts and beatings he endured in the 1920s as a public school student in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Few Americans today (including many Jews) understand how powerful anti-Semitism still was in the United States before World War II. Many Americans have no idea that the anti-Semitic “quota system” in elite colleges lasted until the early 1960s. When I asked my father, in the late 1960s, why he had lied about his past, he said, “I never wanted you and your brother to think if you didn’t get anything you wanted in life, it was because you were Jewish.” This is a statement that ought to evoke pity, not censure.

I can well imagine that there is a story of pain and self-loathing behind the decision of every American Jew who tried to conceal his Jewish identity. I remember my father’s astonishment and delight when, on a visit to New York in 1978, he saw a copy of Alfred Kazin’s autobiography, NEW YORK JEW, in a bookstore window. Of course. Before then, my dad had only heard “New York Jew” as a slur. He would have been a much happier man had he not assumed the burden of deception for so long. In many (though not all) respects, these Jewish stories — and the family turmoil they engendered — resemble the experiences of light-skinned African Americans who “passed” for white.

So I SALUTE THAT RABBI IN OREGON, who also said, “Everybody in Brooklyn loved Ralph Branca. All of us identified with him for his sorrow, for the heartbreak itself, when he made that pitch.” This comment displays the true spirit of compassion embodied in the best of Jewish law and tradition, and I have nothing but contempt for those who presume to pass judgments on the actions of frightened people who tried to escape their Jewish origins, for different reasons and in very different times, 50 or 100 years ago.

The little debate about whether Jewish guilt might join Catholic guilt in the endless replays of Branca’s pitch to Bobby Thomson is also an excellent argument for atheism. Although the GUILT PORTION OF THE TIMES STORY was written in tongue-in-cheek fashion, it is based on the underlying truth that most religious superstition can be traced to the belief that there must be a “reason” for everything.

This is a big part of the persistent hold of religion and also explains why fundamentalist religion, of the brand purveyed by Preachers Perry and Bachmann, is profoundly and intrinsically hostile to science. If a tornado passes over your house but destroys your neighbor’s house, it can’t have anything to do with impersonal weather patterns. The reason must be that your neighbor’s prayers were not as powerful as yours. HURRICANE KATRINA REPRESENTS GOD’S JUDGMENT ON AMERICA FOR TOLERATION OF HOMOSEXUALITY. And Branca’s home run pitch must have been designed by some deity and must be expiated before some god, whether Jewish or Christian.

The fact is that we wouldn’t even remember that home run had it not decided a pennant race. Every pitcher, even the greatest, gives up some home runs in the course of a season (yes, even the guile-filled, Jewishly inclined Koufax). The universe is not intelligently designed — not even within a game as beautifully proportioned as baseball.