BOSTON — Thousands of Jewish Red Sox fans packed America’s oldest ballpark Thursday night for the legendary franchise’s first Jewish Heritage Night.
From the area’s one dozen Jewish day schools to numerous synagogue delegations, fans came from all over New England to enjoy pre-game klezmer music, eat kosher munchies, and don kippot engraved with the 2013 World Series champion team’s logo. As college students from local Hillels unfurled Israeli flags and university banners, Jewish communal leaders participated in a pre-game ceremony.
US Jewry’s affinity for America’s favorite pastime has been documented for generations. At least 15 Jewish players currently fill spots on Major League teams, with more than 20 Jews serving as owners, presidents or general managers.
As the youngest general manager in baseball history, Theo Epstein – now the president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs – assembled the 2004 Red Sox, who won the team’s first World Series since 1918.
Before warming up for Thursday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves, Sox relief pitcher Craig Breslow – the team’s only current Jewish player – spoke with the Times of Israel about being a Jew in baseball.
Frequently dubbed “the smartest man in baseball,” the Yale-educated Breslow is the team’s primary set-up man this season, in the middle of a two-year contract worth more than $6 million. Last year, the star pitcher played a key role during regular and post-season play, pitching seven scoreless innings during the play-offs.
“The Red Sox receive a lot of support from the local Jewish community,” Breslow said. “It’s great to be here tonight to recognize this connection.”
When he’s not at Fenway Park or on the road, Breslow – who majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry – is known to analyze his pitching videos for inefficiencies in “the kinematic system” of his delivery.
‘Being Jewish can be some balancing and juggling while in baseball’
To raise funds for his charity – the cancer-focused “Strike 3 Foundation” – the 33-year-old pitcher has spoken at local synagogues and campuses. In 2012, Major League Baseball gave him the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award for his efforts.
During his first stint with the Sox in 2006, Breslow was one of a record four Jewish players on the team, including Kevin Youkilis, Gabe Kapler and Adam Stern.
“Being Jewish can be some balancing and juggling while in baseball, but I try to do what I can in terms of paying attention to holidays,” said Breslow, who has pitched on Yom Kippur while fasting.
During the 1965 World Series, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax entered the annals of Jewish baseball history by refusing to play in the first game, which coincided with Yom Kippur. Though few Jewish players have made the call to sit out games since then, the mythical Koufax gave Jews a lasting dose of pride in their dual identity.
For some Jewish baseball lovers, connecting with the game has as much to do with its intricacies as any involvement by Jewish players and managers.
“More than any other sport, baseball games and their players are analyzed with a plethora of statistics,” said Ari Alexenberg, a life-long Sox fan and former pitcher with the short-lived Israel Baseball League.
‘My childhood days in shul were divided between sitting with my father in the pews and debating baseball statistics with my friends in the hallways’
Comparing baseball statistics with the so-called “70 faces of the Torah,” Alexenberg called the incessant post-game debate and processing of numbers “a Jewish sweet spot.”
“My childhood days in shul were divided between sitting with my father in the pews and debating baseball statistics with my friends in the hallways,” said Alexenberg, who has advocated for Israel professionally since his 2007 season with the Israel Baseball League.
“The concept of questioning and seeing multiple valid interpretations is deeply ingrained in the Jewish view of the world, and this dovetails perfectly with the game of baseball, which begs questions on almost every pitch,” said Alexenberg.
Since the Red Sox ended their eight-decade championship drought a decade ago, many Jewish fans have noted similarities between the team’s bouncy history and that of the Jewish people.
“For 86 years Boston waited and believed,” wrote Rabbi Tzvi Gluckin, director of a Boston-based Jewish education firm called Vechulai, which means “etcetera” in Hebrew.
“Years of heartbreak, disaster, close-calls, missed opportunities, cosmic blunders, and still the people of Boston did the impossible,” wrote Gluckin about Red Sox Nation’s epic 2004 World Series win. “Just like the fans in Boston slugging it out through another long winter, Jews never lose hope,” he added.
As for Thursday night’s game, Fenway Park’s Jewish Heritage Night coincided with the Sox defeating the Braves, extending their season-best winning streak to four games. In keeping with the evening’s theme, the team donated a portion of ticket sales to “Family Table,” New England’s largest kosher food pantry.