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My Cubs Journey: How a bar mitzvah student taught me to appreciate a seemingly detestable team

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05/05/2010

My Cubs Journey photo

Ever since moving to Chicago, I have tried to understand this city’s inconceivable fascination with the Chicago Cubs.  Here’s my story:

Opening Day:

Moving to Wrigleyville from NYC in mid-June, I failed to realize it’s called Wrigleyville because it is near WRIGLEY FIELD.  With such a location comes parking nightmares, horrible traffic jams, and obnoxious fans who in their drunken stupor, scream out their frustrations as they pass my apartment building late at night.

My first Cubs game:

Going to my first game, Cubs vs. Mets, I was shocked to see the loyal Cubs fans’ reaction to witnessing their team give up 11 runs in one inning.  THEY THREW GARBAGE ON THE FIELD.  Garbage!!!?  Thrown onto what was supposed to be “sacred ground?!” What kind of fans do this!?  Is this, I wondered, the meaning of “The Friendly Confines?”

Taron strikes out big time:

I am not proud of this one:  After weeks of trying to find new friends here, I was invited to join a great bunch of people for dinner at Navy Pier.  As we ate, I noticed one of the guys constantly checking his phone.  “What are you doing?” I asked.  “Checking on the Cubs game,” he said. The Cubs game, really?  “Are they in some kind of playoff?”  I asked.  “Not yet,” he said.  It was then that I inadvertently blurted out blasphemous words that I now realize should have remained private.  I said:  “Why is everyone so damn obsessed with the Cubs?  They haven’t won in like what—a hundred years…they never win now…and they are never ever going to win the World Series…You are all wasting your lives.”  And if that wasn’t enough, I most stupidly continued:  “Why don’t you root for another team in the area…like the Cardinals…at least they can win!”  While I had said these words with love and concern to my new potential friends, trying to save them from inevitable heartbreak, they interpreted my gesture as a beanball being thrown at them.  I never heard from them again.

Blocking the plate:

As a Chicago rabbi, I often hear the following sentiments spoken about a deceased father:  “One thing we can say about Dad was that he loved the Cubs.  That’s all he ever talked to us about. If the Cubs won, he was so happy—he’d buy us all ice cream, and we’d celebrate.  But when they lost, (and they lost a lot) everyone in the family knew to stay far away from Dad—wow, did he get mean!  (Rabbi, don’t write that last part in the eulogy, ok?)  So sad that Dad never got to see them Cubbies win a World Series.  It would have been the highlight of his life.”  When I hear such sentiments, sometimes I can’t help but think to myself:  “Too bad Dad didn’t root for the Yankees, what a much happier home-life everyone would have had!”

The home field advantage: 

I have heard members of Temple Sholom warmly refer to Wrigley Field as “The Other House of Worship” and it was from members of the congregation, in particular a certain bar mitzvah student named Ben, that I was finally able to understand and appreciate why so many people are so devoted to this team.

The Rookie steps up to the plate:

Ben is a smart, kind, easygoing, determined kid with a great sense of humor.  What I first noticed about him was that he always came to Temple with his head covered—not with a kippah or yarmulke—but with a blue worn-out baseball cap with a big red “C” stitched on the front.  As he told me, Ben has been a Cubs fan from as far back as he can remember. Even when he was three years old, he rooted for the Cubs.

First pitch:  He swings and connects!

Over the course of a year I got to know Ben while studying and helping him to prepare for his bar mitzvah.  Between D’var Torah writing and Torah chanting we’d take breaks and talk about the Cubs and Judaism.  As the year progressed, the more Ben spoke about his love for this team, the more I began to understand the appeal of the Cubs and how being a devoted Cubs fan is like being a devoted Jew.

The ball goes flying upward…

For Ben, being a Cubs fan taught him how to believe in something even in spite of terrible odds.  (Ben once joked that “what the Cubs have in common with Judaism is that, just as there’s a minority of Jews, the Cubs have a minority of wins.”)  Being a Cubs fan also taught Ben about having hope and faith. And being a Cubs fan taught Ben about patience and determination and persistence and that sometimes one has to chop onions and cry a bit.  (Chopping onions was Ben’s chosen job while volunteering at the Temple’s soup kitchen, the Monday Meal) And one more thing—being a Cubs fan taught Ben to be himself regardless of what anyone from St. Louis, NY, or anywhere else, might say.

The baseball is going, going…going…

I can respect these sentiments.  And for the two of us studying together it was easy to compare being a Cubs fan to being a Jew.  Like being a Cubs fan, being a Jew requires a great deal of hope, faith and belief.  Plus, I read a good article that says that both Jews and Cubs fans have wandered in the desert, believing with steadfast faith that one day they will reach the Promised Land.  And being a Jew means sometimes chopping onions and crying about our troubled times or chopping onions with joy to make latkes.  It also means being proud of who you are and being unafraid to stand up for what is right no matter what others say.

The ball is over centerfield…

Of course, just as it is inconceivable to expect to enjoy and succeed in playing baseball without knowing how to play the game, it is equally difficult to expect the same from Judaism.  To succeed in Judaism, to enjoy it and to learn how Judaism can help us lead better lives and become better people, one needs education, dedication and practice.

The ball flies out of the park!!!!  Home Run!!

Today, though Ben no longer wears his Cubs hat daily, he remains a devoted fan.  At the same time, his deep dedication to Judaism is exemplified through his participation in Temple Sholom’s Crown Family Hebrew High School program and youth group, through attending Shabbat services with his family and through his continued efforts as a Monday Meal volunteer helping to feed the hungry.

I wish there were more people like Ben.  I can’t tell you how many people in their 20s and 30s tell me that they haven’t been back to synagogue since their bar or bat mitzvah.  Once, a long time ago, they stepped up to the plate and hit a glorious single, but ever since that day, for them, the Jewish game is over and done.  No point in playing.

And here, I can’t help but think of the former New York Giants’ player Fred Merkle who in 1908 in a notorious game against the Chicago Cubs, left the field before the game ended thereby losing the game for himself and his entire team.  What a shame!  And, at the same time, I can’t help but reflect upon my own errors and strike outs over the years—like how I let my initial frustrations with the Cubs blind me from the reality of how great it is to be a fan of this great team, whether they win or lose.

Luckily the season always begins anew and there’s no better time than now.  Let’s get out there and play!  Let’s love the game!  Sure, sometimes we will strike out or be frustrated.  But other times we will swing and connect in such a way that our lives will be transformed for the better.  We WILL hit homers, maybe even Grand Slams!  Because after all, what we are talking about is indeed a way of life.  Who knows?  Maybe this year, will be our year: This year in Jerusalem, this year as World Series Champions!

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