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Apr 23 2013

In Israel, Baseball is Too Babyish to Play

By at 2:05 pm

baseball mitt and baseballMy kids need little organized effort to enjoy our company. In our house, especially in spring, that often means tossing balls with Abba. My two youngest will ask Dov if he has time to play catch with them, and if his schedule isn’t on overload, he will say yes. Nothing could please them more.

There will be a rush to gather mitts, ball, and caps. You can hear the buzz in their voices, and the rushed breathing of boys as they put on their sneakers. I glance outside the window from my workstation, and watch them wait at the curb for their Abba to pick them up, looking down at the ground, shuffling their feet, kicking stones with their toes, with only an occasional hopeful glance upward, just being boys.

For Dov, baseball represents the thwack of a ball in suburban Chicago in the last remaining light after school. Baseball was a guy’s game, played with pals at the first sign of the trees budding out and then on through the long hot summer.

In Israel for 36 years now, baseball still ties Dov to Apple Pie and Mom. He still treasures the land of his birth and wants our kids to have what he had, there in America, as a child. And he’s willing to sacrifice toward that end. He will cut work short to toss a ball around and will scrape together the money to pay Little League fees, cheering the boys on at every game, every year.

With baseball Dov gives our Israeli children the keys to America. The boys may have dual citizenship and two passports apiece. But only the game can naturalize them.

Perhaps unaware of the noble purpose of this plan, the boys happily cooperated until this year, the year that Yitzchak started high school. And it was a rocky start. The kids didn’t like him. He was trying too hard.

At a parent teacher meeting, Dov and I discussed what we might do to ease Yitzchak’s plight. We talked to Yitzchak’s advisor and teachers. We came home sad and sick at heart.

Parents can’t fix these things. These are not boo-boos to be kissed out of existence. It hurts to watch Yitzchak trying to carve out a space within an alien subculture he doesn’t and we don’t understand.

We watched Yitzchak suffer week by week, stoic, pale, and silent. Then, the issue being too painful, we shelved it, and lapsed into a state of suspended reality. We saw and didn’t see that Yitzchak no longer hung with friends after school, as he had all through elementary school. We stopped encouraging him to get out of the house. We watched him shrink and assume the computer and his iPod as the small walls of his prison.

Fall passed, then winter. With spring coming up, Dov gathered the relevant information on baseball try-outs. But Yitzchak said he would not be trying out.

Dov said, “Don’t you want to play baseball?”

“I do. But my friends think it’s babyish.”

Only now had his peers at last begun to accept him. And none of them were trying out for baseball. They had, as a group, shunned baseball and all things American.

Yitzchak was really stuck. He was not afraid to say it to us: He loved baseball. But he couldn’t risk doing what his peers had written off, had scorned. Baseball was a taboo of this rigid school subculture and he needed to fit in.

I got it. I really did. And I hurt for him.

Dov, on the other hand, did and didn’t get it. He kept trying to reason with Yitzchak.

This is what I saw: Dov hurt more than Yitzchak. And Yitzchak felt guilty.

Oy.

I waited until Dov was out of the house and then I spoke to Yitzchak. “You know,” I said, “Abba feels worse than you about you not trying out for baseball.”

He said, “I know.”

That covered the entire situation. “Maybe there’s some other class you can take, something physical that would give you exercise, but your friends wouldn’t think was wussy?” I asked him.

“Breakdance,” he said, with no hesitation.

I nodded. “I’ll talk to Abba.”

I talked to Dov. He listened and I watched him wrestle with the facts, accept them, and move on.

Once resolved, Dov got past the pain and looked forward. He even accompanied Yitzchak to that first breakdance class.

I could hear Dov giving Yitzchak an enthusiastic mini-lecture on the evolution of American dance on their return, as they walked through the door. The two moved to the computer, then watched YouTube clips of boogie-woogie, the jitterbug, and the twist, Dov offering a running commentary.

Not too many days later, Yitzchak’s younger brother Asher came home from a game saying, “We won.”

Yitzchak asked, “Got any pizza left?” but Asher had polished off his slice. Yitzchak would need to internalize the fact that he was no longer a part of that equation, in which there were winners and winners got pizza.

The next day Dov brought new mitts for the boys and they left to toss some balls–apparently there was no shame in this as long as there were no uniforms, coaches, or organization. I watched the three of them from my workstation as they left, a live tableau or Norman Rockwell: one boy still in childhood, another on the awkward cusp of leaving it behind, and the third at heart, an American boy forever.

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