My father’s birthday was this week. He would have been 101 years old if he had been alive, but he died in 1962 at the age of forty-seven. It was three days before my fifteenth birthday. In those first years, so much happened and I used to wonder what he would have thought. He was a believer in John Kennedy’s presidency and the assassination occurred just eleven months after he died. In 1967, as I watched the Six Day War unfold on television in my living room in Rhode Island, I thought about him and how it would seem through his eyes. Jews again davening at the Kotel. He gave me my first tiny Israeli flag when I was a kid and he taught me (in sometimes non-traditional teachings) how to be a Jew. He missed so much by dying so young. My mother told me that he would have hated artificial turf and the designated hitter rule. He loved baseball and took me to Fenway Park where we ate too much junk and then lied to my mother about it. Today, I am telling just a little story about him and his love of Jews and baseball and how he joined those two together. It is just a simple story, although there are many other stories to be told and I guess I will write them some day.
He was born in Providence, Rhode Island to Russian immigrants and into a large family. Although his name was Irving, everyone called him Tex. He davened regularly and was active in our shul, Beth Sholom in Providence, which still exists. Tex is on his gravestone and became a sticking point for the Boston Beit Din when my ex-husband and I were there for our get. The rabbis asked if a parent was known by any other name, and I answered truthfully. Fortunately, one of the rabbis knew my cousin really well and had met my mother several times, so he let it go. But Tex was how he was known and no one every questioned it. Even my kind of strait-laced mother called him Tex. She loved him very much and someday I will write that story also.
On the actual day of my father’s birthday earlier this week, I started going through old photographs and found a newspaper clipping from January of 1949. I found one photo of my father and my mom (she looked gorgeous) and he was grabbing his crotch. My mother hated the photo, but it made me laugh. I have always been sad that he and I never got the chance to hang out as adults together, and drink scotch, and laugh together about the past. The photo is amazing, but it was the clipping that struck me; it was from the Jewish Herald and the column was written by Syd Cohen and it was about Tex and his effort to create a Jewish sports league in Providence. I was just a baby when it was written, but I remember as a little kid going to softball games with him on Sunday mornings held at the field at the Jewish Community Center. He carried me as if I was a football which made my mother nuts….I remember her yelling at him about it. But, until I found this clipping, I really did not know about my dad’s leadership in creating a viable Jewish softball league.
According to the article, he took some flak about scheduling games and league rules, but it sounds as if it is the old saying magnified: fifty Jews, one hundred opinions. Here is what Syd Cohen wrote about my father:
“Now, in the first column of 1949, I want to pay belated tribute to a man I honestly believe to have been the outstanding figure in Jewish sports in Rhode Island in 1948.”
Jewish sports? I had no idea something like this existed in 1948. He went on to write about the trials and tribulations of leadership and how Tex raised money and took care of the business side and also organized a junior division league. Syd Cohen went on to say:
“If I had any criticism of Tex, it would have to be that he spoiled us. If not for Tex, the league would have operated on a shoestring and few of us would have even dreamed of purchasing all that equipment, getting all those sponsors, and the like. ”
This is a little story in one man’s short life and I have other clippings showing him at an event where three hundred people attended in support of the Jewish Softball League. This part of my father’s life, really unbeknownst to me, was indicative of who he was. And it tells a story about the different ways Jews, especially those who were the first generation born in America, created community. Yes, there was the community built around Judaism in the seats of shuls across America, but there were ways that this new generation of Americans incorporated the surrounding culture into their own cultures. Yup, play softball, but on Sunday (not Shabbat) after davening and it’s okay to yell at each other in Yiddish.
As I sit here in Jerusalem and worry about Jewish life in America, I think back to that generation for whom becoming American was so important, but who held onto their Jewish beliefs and culture at the same time. My father did not just start a softball league, he started a Jewish softball league. And he taught me pride in Israel. The little flag, the nickels and dimes for the Jewish National Fund blue boxes, and asking me if we sang HaTikvah at the JCC day camp on Fridays before heading home after a short day.
Would he have understood that his need to create Jewish community, even around something as American as softball, taught me that being among your own people is what matters? And what would he have thought about his now elderly daughter living a dream of Jerusalem and a return to Zion? That I cannot know, but I can say thank you, Tex, for making me the Jew I am.