For the Love of Torah, For the Love of the Game

For the Love of Torah, For the Love of the Game

Introduction

There was a time when I used to follow almost every pitch of every game of the baseball season. Even when my favorite team (the Mets) were not on the tube, I would watch any other baseball game that may be playing, even if it was college or the H.S. World series.  Attending a game was even better. Being there, watching the action on the field live and following the ball as it makes its way from the pitcher to home plate, then maybe there will be contact with the lumber, and the ball will be take off like a rocket deep into the bleachers.  There is nothing like the sound of the thunder of the crowd when the local team hits the homer.  There is nothing like the smell of a ball park, and there is nothing like the taste of the stadium classics like peanuts, cracker jacks, and hot dogs; hot dogs with mustard (from those little packets that get it all over the place), and the semi-warm sour kraut.  To some it is a religious experience. This religious experience also occurs during the same time as a number of religious holidays on the Jewish calendar. The first one-game playoff of the post season (if needed) would begin on October 5th with the seventh game of the World Series (if needed) would be on November 4th.  The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah begins on October 2nd and Simchat Torah ends on October 25th (with a host of other important holidays in-between).

There are two things I will discuss in this article that brings this holiday season and baseball together, first the food and secondly the players.  In last month’s article, I had already highlighted the hot dog, and all-American classic fare at the ball park, so this month I am going to place the culinary spotlight on its topping – sauerkraut, and more importantly to this discussion, its main ingredient, cabbage.

Wrapped in the Torah

Simchat Torah (שִׂמְחַת תורָה) is a Jewish Holiday that occurs on the day after the conclusion of Sukkot.  Although some believe it to be a part/continuation of Sukkot, it is its own separate and unique holiday.  The name of the holiday translates into “Rejoicing with/of the Torah.” The holiday celebrates the concluding of reading the torah for the year.  The last section of the fifth book of the torah is read (D’Varim, in Deuteronomy), followed by the first section of Genesis (B’reshit).  This was not always the way.  The ancient Jews had followed a three year cycle for reading the entirety of the Torah.  It was not until the 8th century that Jewish congregations moved away from the triennial cycle and began to adopt an annual rotation.

The holiday is observed by taking all of the torahs and circling around the synagogue seven times (these seven circuits are called hakafot). Those not carrying the torahs will sing, dance, and wave (brightly colored) flags. The waving of different colored flags may have its roots in ancient Israel, to represent the different banners for each of the twelve tribes. In Israel, many synagogues will also have a second celebration in which the torah are brought out, but with more fanfare, including musicians playing electric instruments, since the restrictions of the holiday (no use of electricity) are no longer in effect.

A traditional food served to celebrate the holiday is with cabbage, and usually stuffed cabbage (sometimes called hollishkes).  There are a number of reasons that this dish has become associated with the celebration of Simchat Torah.  A few of them are as follows:

  • During Sukkot, certain prayers (hashanot) are said every day. These prayers include the words kol mevasser. In Gernan, the words kohl and vasser translate into water and cabbage. At some point it became a custom to eat kohl mit vasser (cabbage with water/boiled cabbage) during Sukkot, and the subsequent holiday of Simchat Torah.
  • The Hebrew word for cabbage and food both contain the same letters –  כרוב (cabbage) and ברוך (blessed).
  • The word for cabbage and cherub (angel) – כרוב /keruv – is a homonym in Hebrew (they are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings). Cherubs are described to have adorned the decorations for the ark of the covenant.
  • When two stuffed rolled cabbage leafs are placed side to side, they resemble the Torah – which is at the center of the celebration for this holiday
  •  The cabbage is stuffed with some type of food (which differs between communities and even from one family to the next).  But the cabbage is always stuffed with something good inside to signify that there is a lot of good stuff inside the Torah scrolls.

Pass the Wontons and Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is a dish also made from cabbage. Sauerkraut (not “sour kraut”) is shredded cabbage which is fermented. While most of us (especially in the United States) associate sauerkraut with having Germanic roots, its origins actually derive from Asia where it was consumed over 2000 years ago where rice wine was used to ferment the dish and discovered to have been readily eaten by workers who constructed the Great Wall. [Fast fact: Cabbage has been cultivated for over 4000 years and domesticated for over 2500 years.] It was not until the 12th or 13th century that the dish made its way to Europe (and possible due to Genghis Kahn and his armies, when they made their way westward after plundering China). The Europeans, especially the poor, found the dish very useful because of its longevity without refrigeration (due to the fermentation process).

Sauerkraut also possesses a number of health qualities, which made the dish a staple on many sea-faring vessels to prevent scurvy. Besides the prevention of this disease, this dish has been associated with healing stomach ulcers, canker sores, supporting ocular health, it was used during the Civil War to reduce the death rate from disease by wounded soldiers, and is being studied for its possible ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. On the negative side, eating too much could lead to bloating and flatulence.

Of course, every culture and region of the world has its own version of the dish.  In Korea it is called kimchi and is usually fermented in jars underground.  The dish of curtido is served in El Salvador, but the dish also includes other vegetables, such as onions, carrots, and lime and served alongside popusa (corn tortilla). In Norway, they have a sauerkraut-like dish called surkål, which is slow cooked with a number of different spices, but it is not fermented. There is also tsukemono/konomono from Japan, which is fermented cabbage and/or other vegetables that is usually served as an accompaniment to meals. Choucroute, which is sauerkraut with hot dogs and vegetables is a dish served in Alsace (France), which is a traditionally served by Jews in that region during Chanukah. In America, sauerkraut is usually found on top of hot dogs at back yard barbeques and ball parks.

When Sandy Koufax Did Not Play

Being a Jewish Boy born in Brooklyn, I automatically came into this world as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers – even though I was born after they had already packed their bags, moved into their new home, and won a few World Series on the left coast.  Sandy Koufax was born in a Jewish home in Brooklyn. He instantly became a favorite of his fellow Brooklynites when he joined the team in 1955, even though he did not make a splash in the sport until 1961, striking out 269 batters, while winning 18 games and the first of six All-Star honors.  Although Koufax was already a fan favorite of Jews around the world when the Dodgers, now in Los Angeles (some from Brooklyn are still in denial) won the pennant, he became idol of not only these fans, but of all Jews by not playing in a ballgame.  In 1965 Koufax was on his way to win his second (of three) Cy Young Awards.  He won 26 games with an ERA of 2.04, and a record 382 strikeouts.  On October 6, 1965, the best pitcher in baseball stepped into the annals of Jewish law and myth by refusing to pitch on the opening night of the World Series.  The reason (like you need me to tell you) is that he would not pitch on Yom Kippur. It was one of the first times that a very public Jewish figure, while on one of the biggest stages in the world did something to show an expression of their faith. Interestingly, it was a decision that was respected and supported by his non-Jewish teammates. Having 23-game winner Don Drysdale around to fill the spot also helped with the management and owners giving the okay. Unfortunately, Drysdale got shelled and left after the first inning with a 7-1 loss, handing the Dodgers their first loss of the series. Koufax lost the second game, but came back to pitch two more times and win both the fifth and the seventh (and final) game.  He pitched 24 innings during the series with a miniscule 0.38 ERA (the scoreboard showed nothing but donuts for Minnesota for the second two games Koufax pitched against them), which earned him the World Series MVP.

Jews in Baseball

Koufax was not the first Jew to play professional baseball, nor was he even the first star baseball player, even from a New York team.  Catcher Harry “The Horse” Danning was a four-time all-star that played for the New York Giants during the 1930s and 1940s. Hyman “Hank” Greenberg (also a native New Yorker) was baseballs’ first really big star, earning two MVPs, hitting 331 homers and 1274 RBIs in only 13 years.  His numbers could have been even higher, but he left the game for four years by risking his life in service to our country during World War II, and played with a great amount of anti-Semitism from fans and players alike.

JewBaseballNews.com shows that almost 190 Jews have played in the MLB. There are a combined 181 retired and deceased ball players that have played in the MLB since it began in, with 8 additional on current MLB rosters.  The first Jewish professional baseball player way Lipman “Lip” Pike (another Brooklynite), when he joined the Philadelphia Athletics in 1866 for the sum of $20 a week (he was one of only three players being paid – it was mostly an amateur sport until 1869 when the Cincinnati Redstockings started paying all of their players). He was baseball’s first Jewish manager (Hartford Dark Blues – and hit .355 as the player/manager in 1874). Pike was one of the early stars of the fledgling sport.  [Fast Fact: Brad Ausmus, the current manager of the Detroit Tigers is the sixth Jew to become a manager.] Jews also played an important part in the creation, organization, and management of early baseball.  Louis Kramer helped to form the American Association in 1882 and was the AL President in 1891.  Barney Dryfus, owner of the Pittsburg Pirates from 1900 to 1932 was behind the creation of the World Series in 1903.  One of the organizers of the American League in 1900 was Judge Goldman (they merged with the NL in 1903).

There are four Jewish members of the Baseball Hall of fame: Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Rod Carew (this convert to Judaism has over 3000 hits and a .328 batting average), and Lou Boudreau (his mother was Jewish, but he was not raised (nor admitted to being) Jewish. Although not players, the names of both Bud Selig (the first Jewish Commissioner of the MLB) and Marvin Miller (a very influential former Director of the MLB Player’s Association) are mentioned as future members of the Hall of Fame. Other great Jewish baseball players of yesteryear and modern times includes the 1953 MVP Al Rosen, as well other stars such as Ken Holtzman, Shawn Green, Sid Gordon, Steve Stone, Mike Lieberthal, Ron Bloomberg, Moe Berg, Benny Kauff, Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, Dave Roberts, and Ian Kinsler.

I leave you with a few words, which are said at the conclusion of the reading for each book of the Torah:

חְַזַק חְַזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik.

“Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen each other,”

The Recipe

This month’s recipe is for spiced cabbage.

Ingredients

1 head cabbage

4 tbs margarine

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp red pepper flakes

2 cups chicken broth

Directions

  1. Cut cabbage into quarters, remove stem, cut leaves into 1” wide strips
  2. Pour chicken broth into pot and boil
  3. Add remainder of ingredients
  4. Lower heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally (or until cabbage is tender)

Sources

 

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