Monday, October 31, 2016

The Theology of the Cubs

The Neshama of Baseball, Part II
Irwin
I have known Irwin Keller since 4th or 5th grade. He was a year ahead of me in religious school at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview, IL. He was always the smartest kid I knew, but I never told him that until now. He was not a know-it-all. He was a great guy who took knowledge - especially Jewish knowledge seriously. While we were all trying to learn how to decipher the modern Hebrew dialogues in B'yad Halashon, Irwin was mastering the language. He led the service for his Bar Mitzvah completely in Hebrew - or at least that is how we all remembered it. He has become a lawyer, founded a drag a cappella quartet, the Kinsey Sicks, and for many years has been the spiritual leader Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, CA. He is studying with the Aleph Alliance and will be formally ordained a rabbi relatively soon. He also blogs at Itzik's Well. You should read it. I learn something every time he speaks or writes, and I am proud to call him a friend.

Like me, he is also a Chicago Cubs fan. We watched Game 4 of the series together Saturday night. I was in the bleachers and he was in a bar in West Hollywood (don't know why he was in LA, I didn't ask.) But with Facebook in front of us, we were watching together. He wrote the piece below last week and gave me permission to re-post it. Enjoy this second installment of the Neshama of Baseball. The original article is here.

A souvenir ball from Irwin's childhood

The Theology of the Cubs

by Irwin Keller

I grew up with a rabbi who regularly used baseball references in his sermons. I adored him (still do), and his outfield metaphors were usually just right. That said, he was a native South Sider, and a White Sox fan. Even as a kid I knew to look at his baseball enthusiasm with some skepticism. Sox fans were not like Cubs fans. My family – generations of North Side Jews – were the latter. Being a Cubs fan was as essential to who we were as being Ashkenazim, Chicagoans, Earthlings. We shared something special and formative with other Cubs fans. It was different from just being a baseball fan. Cubs fans had their own kind of faith, their own special theology.

I was raised into this religion from birth. My grandfather and his brothers-in-law were all formidable Cubs fans. Every summer Sunday of my childhood, like clockwork, like Shabbos, Grandpa Joe and Grandma Sade would pull up in their Oldsmobile and we would watch the ball game together. We'd turn on WGN at 1PM, in time to settle in with the announcers' pre-game chatter. My mother would pour her father a scotch on the rocks. I'd sprawl on the floor in front of the TV. And the game would start. My grandfather, like so many Chicago grandfathers, would yell at the umpires, would yell at Jack Brickhouse, would yell at Leo Durocher. Sometimes there were double-headers and all 6 of us would have to eat dinner in front of the TV so as not to miss any plays.

We were faithful fans, my family, although not fanatics. But fanatics did exist in my bloodline. My great grandmother's brother, Morris Levin, was a beloved figure at Wrigley Field. He earned a mention in the 1930 edition of Ripley's Believe It or Not for attending every game of the season and knowing every statistic in the National League, this while being completely blind. The players would say, "Hello, Mr. Levin" to him on their way onto the field, and he could tell from the sound of bat meeting ball exactly where a hit was headed.

Cubs games were daytime diversions in the days of my childhood; Wrigley Field had no lights. Too many extra innings and a game could be called on account of darkness. And who needed night games anyway? For Cubs fans, part of the joy was skipping school or work to go sit in the bleachers. And to a Cubs fan's eye, there was something vulgar about night games. Under electric flood lights, the White Sox looked like a Vegas stage show. Real baseball took place under the blue sky and bright sun.

I guess I'm saying these things to shore up my baseball cred, to try to convince you that I'm not just jumping on a Cubs bandwagon, although clearly here I am bouncing along on it. Baseball was, I think, something I sacrificed growing up and coming out. In perfecting my new, rebellious, gay identity, I embraced an outspoken and derisive ignorance of sports. And it was mostly true – I know nothing about basketball, football, hockey. I only care about soccer teams when they make beefcake calendars.

But baseball? Baseball I'm not ignorant about. I know the rules. I once knew the players. I know the pace and the feel and the culture. When I moved to California, that spirit chilled in me. I attended a few Giants games and a couple As games. And the company of my buddy Emily was wonderful. But I walked into Candlestick Park and it wasn't Wrigley Field. It was the wrong team in the wrong place. And rooting for a team that could actually win felt oddly meaningless.

Because being a Cubs fan has something to do with faith. Not faith in a specific outcome, but faith for its own sake. Faith as practice.

The Cubs last won a World Series when my Grandpa Joe was 5 years old. By the time I was watching ball with him 60 years later, the organizing principle of fandom could not have been any realistic expectation of winning. Instead faith was a posture, a relationship with the world, or at least the world of baseball. Rooting for a team that had a good chance was easy and it was beneath us. That kind of fandom was for people from other cities, where strength of character was not strictly required.

Whereas the theology of the Cubs fan had (and has) something to do with an embrace of the "is" rather than the "might be." It is belief without proof. Endurance without promise of reward. Patience just because.
If only we could live our lives this way! With such constancy. With exquisite endurance, faith that doesn't flag, joy even in the waiting. Holding the world – and each other – with love and loyalty, despite imperfection, despite unfinishedness. We don't need a perfected world; we don't need a perfect partner; perfect children, perfect self.  If we could just hang on to life, with all its ups and downs, with the fierce love with which Cubs fans hang on to baseball. What a world this would be!

And if every century or so there's a World Series title, no one would complain.

I sat last Saturday and watched the last National League playoff game, Cubs vs. Dodgers. Without a TV, without cable service, I had to connive my way onto the live stream. I sat, prodigal that I was, with my Israeli brother-in-law who had never seen a baseball game, and I elaborately explained it all. The rules. Why innings don't have a timer. How a normal game lasts as long as a movie but a memorable game with extra innings is like an opera. Why all the spitting (I had to make this one up) and crotch adjustments (ditto). What makes baseball fans better people. Pointing out how casual and respectful opponents were with each other. I felt all my love for the Cubs – not for these particular players, who were new to me and were all born long after my last visit to Wrigley Field, but my love for this religion that is the Cubs, that pours through and from me.

I relaxed in a deep way, a way that encompassed my entire life and not just that moment on the sofa. I forgot my work. I forgot the fatigue of the ongoing High Holy Days. I forgot the awful election. It was the 6th day of Sukkot, when we call in the biblical Joseph to be our guest in the Sukkah. Instead, it was my Grandpa Joe who was clearly at my side, his scotch in hand, in answer to my glass of local Sonoma wine.

And now tonight I settle in for the World Series. Sure, I'd like us to win. But it doesn't really matter. We want it but don't need it. We deserve it and so do the people of Cleveland who have been waiting a lifetime as well. We'll be fine either way. Because that's who Cubs fans are. That is our theology. We love, we believe, and we do so without proof or promise of reward.

Now play ball.

Joe and Sade arriving for Sunday baseball.

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