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Sunday, 27 January 2008

Reform Reflections: Sportsmanship and cooperation - Rabbi Marmur

Reform Reflections: Sportsmanship and cooperation

Posted by Rabbi Michael Marmur
I love sports, but they are not so crazy about me. Highlights of my
sporting career would have to include the indescribable sensation of the
stud of a rugby boot being swiveled deliberately and attentively in my
ear as I lay at the bottom of a scrummage (readers puzzled by these
words were probably not born in a place ruled by the British after the
1770s), and the resonant crunch of my left ankle as it buckled under my
considerable heft during an unwise foray into the world of middle-age
soccer. But my love for sports remains undimmed by my obvious shortcomings.
This last week may seem like an inappropriate time in Israel's life to
dwell on athletic prowess. Our brothers and sisters in Sderot and its
surroundings have been paralyzed by a ceaseless rain of missiles; Gaza
has been in flames; the relatives of hostages and fallen soldiers from
the Second Lebanon War have been subjected to the most tortuous and
perverse treatment at the hands of the great humanitarians at the head
of Hizbullah. The integrity of the legal system is under threat; the
roads continue to take their toll; the higher education system hangs by
the flimsiest of threads. With all this going on, why talk about sports?
I was part of two sporting events last Friday, both of which deserve
note even against the grim backdrop I have sketched here. In the first,
I was active (although only in a very liberal interpretation of the
word), and in the second only a spectator. Both events give me hope (and
one has also given me a small dose of sciatica).
The High School at which our youngest child studies holds an annual
event in memory of a former pupil, Moshe Moses, who fell decades ago in
battle. Families of students are encouraged to enter teams in a
volleyball competition, since this was one of his favorite pastimes.
Every year families come up with pairs and trios of volleyball players,
or in some cases folks who don't know one end of a volleyball from the
other. (As for me, I was outraged that they put the net much too high
for my liking.) The point is to bring together two things we do better
than sporting excellence: family and memory.
Now both family and memory are under threat in contemporary Israel, as
they are in many other places around the globe. But the sight of parents
and children, brothers and sisters, dozens of unlikely and uneven
combinations, coming together to spend a morning of perspiration and
commemoration - it warmed my soul (and pulled my hamstring). It was a
simple and poignant expression that being together is something we can
do well, even when there is so much apathy and enmity threatening to
pull us apart.
Team Marmur was so swept away by the general bonhomie that we decided to
give every team we played against an exhilarating feeling still foreign
to me - the joy of victory in a game of volleyball. But the sheer
delight of coming together to relocate our bearings while working hard
not to dislocate our shoulders made it all worthwhile. I can now confirm
that cholent is not listed as a performance-enhancing drug in the
upcoming Beijing Olympics.
From the Moses Family Volleyball Tournament I made my way to the Teddy
Stadium, a sporting venue I tend to avoid like the plague. The reason
for staying away is large and black and yellow: it's called Betar
Jerusalem, a team currently topping the Premier League both for soccer
and for intolerance. In the mists of time there was a political
dimension to the sports teams in Jerusalem and around Israel, but these
days the ethos of the Betar team has almost nothing to do with the
liberal revisionism of the followers of Jabotinsly. Instead, it has
become home to some of the worst expressions of bigotry and racial
intolerance. After attending a game a couple of years ago I vowed not to
do it again, because just by being there it seemed to me that I was
complicit in the stupid ranting of the anti-Arab mob. I happen to know a
number of Betar supporters who aren't like this at all, but something
ugly happens when the hard core crazy supporters of that team get
together, and I can't escape the sense of distaste by association.
The soccer game I was attending did not involve Betar, and it was four
divisions down the soccer hierarchy. The team playing is known these
days as Hapoel Katamon, and it was started recently by a group of
supporters for whom Betar was unthinkable and the regular Hapoel
Jerusalem team undesirable. So they got together, put some money on the
table, made an alliance with teams from Mevasseret and Abu Ghosh, and
they set the ball rolling.
In theory Hapoel is a socialist team: so were the Hapoel teams around
Israel in the 1930s, and there are still quaint references to the
Internationale in one or two of the team's chants. But it's not economic
theory which characterizes the spirit of Hapoel Katamon games. Rather,
it is a happy, tolerant and family-friendly atmosphere which gives one
hope for a rational, calm and humorous Jerusalem population.
One or two of the chants are rude, but none of them is brutal. One even
contains the remarkable suggestion that there are actually two peoples
who live here in Israel, and that we have to find a way of getting on
with each other. Apart from that, it was a Friday afternoon spent with
Israelis of all stripes, brought together by a sense of fun and
competition, and determined to foster a spirit of friendship and
acceptance. I am cynical enough to suspect that these warm fuzzy
feelings may evaporate if the team actually succeeds to earn promotion
to higher divisions. But in the meantime, it's terrific.
I lowered myself into my chair at Kol Haneshama synagogue a little
gingerly on Friday night; my muscles were rebelling against unusual
exertion, and my stomach against a bar of chocolate guzzled during the
tension of the soccer game (which by the way we won). All my muscles
were worn out, after a day of memory and hilarity, soccer and
solidarity. Only one muscle was significantly stronger as I thanked my
Maker for another Shabbat in Jerusalem; my heart.

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