Saturday, April 3, 2010



This morning, for the Shabbat in Pesach, we read from Song of Songs. That reading made me think a great deal about my father, who loved the spring and everything associated with this season--especially baseball. The following piece is not short, but I hope you enjoy it; it is my tribute to Dad.

Opening Day

Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game. . .

Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly: keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.

-Roger Angel, “The Interior Stadium”


I got engaged two weeks before Opening Day. Outside, a cold wintry rain fell upon the monuments, museums, and playing fields of Washington, DC. But in the chapel of the synagogue where my father served as rabbi for thirty-three seasons before his retirement, Janet and I celebrated our vows with songs of spring. Our children held braided havdalah candles, banishing the darkness with their bright flames. Our siblings offered blessings over the sweet wine and fragrant spices. And Dad sealed our engagement with King Solomon’s verdant words: “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away! For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has come.”

Winter will end. Spring will come. This quiet but unshakeable faith in the future is shared by Jews, middle-aged lovers and serious baseball fans. The national anthem of the Jewish state is HaTikvah, “The Hope”. The mid-life bride and groom live Samuel Johnson’s definition of second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. And baseball fans? We are the captives of what Roger Angell called “the wild vernal hopes that leap every year, jonquil-like, in the hearts of followers.”

The Talmud teaches that one of the first questions we will be asked in the world-to-come is: Tzipita y’shuadid you live with hope? On that chilly Saturday evening outside the nation’s capitol, our little gathering held a great deal of hope. I was preparing to marry again. My fiancée, Janet, was eight months pregnant. Pesach, the season of our deliverance, was just a month away. And in little over a fortnight, major league baseball would return to Washington for the first time in thirty-four years.

**********

I have never met a more unshakeable optimist than my father. He was born in the thick of the Great Depression and grew up under the shadow of World War II and the Cold War. Over the course of his long career, he witnessed countless events—both personal and political—that would have led any less sanguine observer to despair. But Dad never lost hope. He professed a near-messianic faith in progress, despite all evidence to the contrary. He simply refused to believe that reason and beneficence could ultimately fail to prevail.

When Dad delivered his message of hope at my engagement ceremony, the rest of us leaned in close to hear his words. Two months of intense chemotherapy and radiation had reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper, punctuated by frequent bouts of coughing. For nearly a year, he had fought bronchoalveolar carcinoma, a rare form of lung cancer that disproportionately affects non-smokers. By the time of our t’naim, he was in the midst of a particularly difficult regimen at Georgetown University Hospital. The combination of the treatments and the tumor left him nauseous, fatigued, and barely able to swallow. Even as he suffered though this struggle to get well, Dad knew the odds. The chances that any of the torturous “cures” might actually conquer the cancer were almost nil. But like Yogi Berra, Dad believed “it’s never over till it’s over.” When Dad whispered of his faith in spring’s arrival that bracing March evening, we believed, too.

**********

Dad attributed his optimism to his own father, a child of Lithuanian immigrants who became a classical Reform rabbi. Joseph Fink was widely known in Buffalo, New York for his erudite scholarship, his interfaith work, and his weekly radio show, The Humanitarian Hour, in which he preached universalism and hope to his listeners. Several years ago, Dad wrote an essay for the anthology, When I Think About My Father: Sons and Daughters Remember. He noted: “My father’s conviction that human beings are intrinsically decent, that rational thought can solve all problems, infused my being.” But these are Dad’s mature, philosophical musings. How and when did Dad really absorb his father’s buoyant spirit? Dad didn’t go into this in much detail, but he ends his essay with a significant vignette, a poignant memory from his childhood: In the summer, when the days were long and Buffalo was warm, I would say, “How about throwing the ball?”’ He was never the one to say, “Enough! Let’s quit.” The arc of the baseball from father to son formed the invisible cord that binds us still.

**********

I did not inherit Dad’s optimism. Perhaps my failure to perpetuate the hopefulness of my paternal line is due, in part, to my hometown Washington Senators. They were infamous for their haplessness, inspiring the maxim: Washington—first in war, first in peace, last in the American League. My family arrived in the DC area in the summer of 1969, midway through Ted Williams’s rookie season as the team’s manger. Astoundingly, after decades in the cellar, the Senators finished above .500 that year. Thus, even long-suffering fans approached the 1970 season with guarded hope. Somehow, Dad got two seats along the third-base line for Opening Day. It would be my first major league game.

For over half a century, the Senators had opened American League play. This tradition began on April 14, 1910, when President William Howard Taft threw the ceremonial first pitch. Weighing in at well over three hundred pounds, he hurled a strike to Walter “Big Train” Johnson, who went on to shut out the rival Philadelphia Athletics. Ten presidents followed in Taft’s large footsteps, each launching another season of America’s game in the nation’s capital.

Richard Nixon did not show up in 1970. Perhaps he was holed up with his advisors plotting the invasion of Cambodia that he would announce just two weeks later. He sent his son-in-law, David Eisenhower, who missed the strike zone. I didn’t care. I was oblivious to the politics that divided the nation in that tumultuous season. From the moment we entered RFK stadium, I was enthralled. I savored the aroma of beer and peanuts, marveled at the perfectly manicured field, gazed in awe at the vast crowd of my fellow fans. Immersed in this sea of baseball-crazed humanity, I felt infinitesimal and expansive at the same time. I sat perched on the edge of my seat through the entire game, my first baseman’s mitt on my right hand and a crimson Senators cap, with its stylized white “W”, cocked jauntily on my nine-year-old head. Every time I glanced over at Dad, he was beaming. Baseball offered hope and magic, and he relished seeing these gifts reflected in the eyes of his first-born son.

The game itself provided Washington fans little to cheer about. The Senators quickly lapsed back into their losing ways, falling 5-0 to the Detroit Tigers. But I was hooked. I spent many a spring and summer evening that season with my AM transistor radio stashed beneath my pillow, its bulbous monophonic earphone bringing me the play-by-play hours past my appointed bedtime. Most nights, Dad would come home late from meetings at the synagogue and stop by my room to kiss me goodnight. I’d feign sleep as a west coast game wound into its closing innings. Dad would play along with the ruse. The scent of his aftershave lingered by my bedside as I heard him, across the hall, dutifully reporting to Mom that I was slumbering soundly. But sometimes, as he caressed my cheek, I know he noticed the tinny announcer’s voice escaping from the earpiece, and even in the thick darkness, I could sense his broad and boyish

smile.

**********

Alas, for the Senators, things went from bad to worse. They returned to their customary place in the cellar with a record of 70-92. Then, in the off-season, they made a disastrous trade, sending several of their most promising young players to Detroit for Denny McClain, a once-great pitcher whose career crashed and burned in a series of gambling suspensions and injuries. In 1971, they finished at 63-96. As that dismal season wound down, owner Robert Short announced that he was moving the team to Arlington, Texas. On September 30, seven decades of baseball in the nation’s capital came to an ignominious end. The Senators led the reviled Yankees, 7-5, with two outs in the ninth and no men on base. Then hundreds of disgruntled fans poured out of the stands and ransacked the field. The ballplayers scurried to the dugout for refuge and, fearing a riot, the umpire declared the Yankees winners by forfeit. As the beloved Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich proclaimed the next morning, “The Senators were finished, even if the ball game wasn’t.”

Soon thereafter the team actually departed for Texas, in the middle of a bitter autumn night. This was my boyhood initiation into the world of loss and heartbreak. My first response was disbelief. For weeks, I obstinately refused to remove my Senators cap. Later, as fall slid into winter, my denial turned to despair.

Dad empathized with my brooding. He grieved with me, patiently waiting me out. But, like Kohelet, he also understood that there is a time to mourn and a time to move on. As spring training for the 1972 season approached, Dad reminded me that he had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1948, just weeks after Israel became a nation. He suggested that if the Jewish people could wait two thousand years for a state, we could hang in there until Washington got another major league franchise. He believed, with perfect faith, that this would happen. He assured me that we would go to the ballpark together again. He implored me to hold fast to hope. His unshakeable conviction eventually overcame my cynicism and lifted my spirits.

**********

Meanwhile, we needed a new team. We were certainly not going to root for the Texas Rangers. The natural choice would have been the neighboring Baltimore Orioles, but they had been the Senators’ American League rivals, and we could not shrug off that history. After some consideration, Dad proposed the Cincinnati Reds.

Dad attended his only World Series game a few months before my first birthday. In October of 1961, he was a senior rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, juggling dissertation work and diaper duty. Time and money were both tight. Still, when the Reds arrived home for the third game of the Series after splitting the first two in Yankee Stadium, Dad was determined to be there. He waited in line for hours for the big payoff: a standing-room only ticket in the right field bleachers.

The Reds were clearly outmatched from the start. The Bronx Bombers sported a powerhouse lineup, featuring ace pitcher Whitey Ford and two of the best sluggers in baseball, the perennial all-star Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris (whose sixty-one home runs that season broke Babe Ruth’s legendary 1927 record). Cincinnati, by contrast, relied heavily on their young sensation, Frank Robinson, and a cast of overachieving supporting players.

Nonetheless, the hometown underdogs battled the Yankees to the end, coming to within four outs of the Series lead. Unfortunately, a Roger Maris homer in the top of the ninth put the Yanks ahead 3-2. A late Cincinnati rally fell short, ending both the inning and the game.

Like the rest of the frustrated crowd, Dad drove home discouraged. He listened to the next two games on the radio. They were worse. The Yankees clobbered the Reds 7-0 in game four and 13-5 in game five, to easily capture the Series. But Dad never forgot the excitement of game three. Years later—especially when visiting rabbinical classmates would join our family’s Shabbat dinners—Dad would recollect that autumn classic with unalloyed delight. Long after the disappointment faded, all that remained for him was the sheer joy of being there, and the promise that the fledgling home team carried through their last at-bat.

**********

After the Senators abandoned us, I, too, began to root for the Reds. By the mid-1970s, I followed their progress from Camp Harlam, a Jewish summer camp in the Poconos. Most of my bunkmates came from the greater New York and Philadelphia areas. I was, therefore, surrounded by loud and rabid Yankees, Mets, and Phillies fans. But I wore my colors proudly. Throughout those years, the Cincinnati Reds were very good, indeed.

During the summer of 1975, I gloated incessantly to my baseball-crazy camp friends. That was the season of the Big Red Machine, one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Cincinnati’s lineup was unstoppable from start to finish. It featured the likes of Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey, Joe Morgan, and local hero Pete Rose. Through the camp session, Dad sent me clippings recounting the Reds’ string of victories. I would post these pieces prominently around the boys-10 cabin, to the chagrin of all those cocky New Yorkers and Philadelphians. The season ended triumphantly, with a World Series that would go down in baseball history. Dad and I sat glued to the television screen all night and into the early morning for the legendary sixth game, in which the American League champion Boston Red Sox defeated our Reds in a twelve-inning barn-buster. Then we celebrated together after the Reds heroically rebounded to win game seven and, with it, the Series. I cheered until I was hoarse. We wished each other “Mazel Tov!” Dad added: “Next year in Washington.”

**********

By the time I followed in my father’s footsteps and enrolled in the rabbinical program in Cincinnati, the Reds’ glory days were gone. The superstars of the previous decade were all either traded or retired, with the sole exception of an aging Pete Rose, who returned home after a stint with the Philadelphia Phillies to take over as Cincinnati’s player-manager. During Rose’s tenure, the team wallowed in mediocrity while he made front-page news—first for breaking Ty Cobb’s record for career hits, and then by earning a lifetime suspension from baseball for gambling.

Yet through ineptitude and scandal, the Reds continued to enjoy the same honor long-granted to my late, lamented Washington Senators: Opening Day. For the Senators, the privilege of hosting the first game of the American League season came as a perk of geography. They represented the nation’s capital, the home of the president. Cincinnati, by contrast, earned the reward of the National League opener through what Jewish tradition calls z’chut avot—the merit of the fathers. The Reds were the oldest major league franchise.

Opening Day was, therefore, a long-established holiday of sorts for the entire city of Cincinnati. Each season during my student years there, I participated enthusiastically in the festivities. Along with a few classmates, I would skip school to join the crowd at Riverfront Stadium. The Reds lost practically every time. It didn’t matter. After months of sitting in dank, dimly-lit classrooms parsing Aramaic grammar, it felt wonderful just to be out in the crisp spring air surrounded by baseball fans. My pulse still quickened as the teams took the field and I added my voice to the crowd’s roar. When I joined the fans and players in singing the Star-Spangled Banner, I was immediately transported back to my childhood in RFK Stadium. After the game, I always called Dad. He never failed to respond with his characteristic delight. “How was it?” he would eagerly ask. “Amazing,” I’d reply. We would banter about the upcoming season, then he would conclude: “So. . . it’s spring. Baseball is here and Pesach is coming. What are you doing for seder?”

**********

After my ordination, Dad and I occasionally went to a ballgame together. When I came east to visit, we might head down to Four Mile Run to watch the minor league Alexandria Dukes. Sometimes we attended rabbinical conferences in big league cities. If it was baseball season and the local team was playing at home, we would sneak out of plenary sessions to go to the ballpark. Dad’s summer stopovers in my adopted city of Boise meant trips to Hawks Stadium to check out our short-season class A team. No matter how dull the game or hapless the team, we enjoyed ourselves. Dad’s boyish smile still lit up the bleachers. I still savored the sweet scent of his aftershave while sitting by his side. And he never failed to remind me that someday soon we would once again watch major league ball in Washington.

**********

In June of 2004, Dad was diagnosed—out of the blue—with lung cancer. I flew back to see him, with my daughters, Tanya and Rosa. I warned them that “Pops” was seriously ill, but when he greeted us at the airport there was no sign of his sickness, aside from a slight dry cough. He was his usual, irrepressible self. On the ride home, he shared his plans for our visit, and announced that he had purchased tickets to see the Orioles play at Camden Yards.

I found the trip to Baltimore especially poignant. I strongly suspected that my girls’ first major league game would be my father’s last. I had done some research on bronchoalveolar carcinoma. Fewer than five percent of those with this cancer in a stage as advanced as my father’s managed to survive for over a year. Of course Dad had done the same research. But he, as usual, conceded nothing. He refused to surrender to despair. As we settled into our seats along the first-base line, Dad informed me that several Washington-based potential buyers were on the short list to purchase—and move—the sagging Montreal Expos. He was following the story closely in the Washington Post. Needless to say, he was excited and optimistic about the prospect. He assured me that this Orioles game was just a warm-up. Next spring, we would all welcome baseball back to the nation’s capital.

**********

Dad’s health held through the fall. He resisted the standard treatment of radiation and chemotherapy; over the years, he had seen too many friends and congregants suffer more from these medicines than the cancer they were supposed to cure. He opted, instead, to participate in a Georgetown University clinical trial of an experimental drug. Dad expressed great confidence in this cutting-edge medical technology. The initial research was promising, the side-effects were minimal, and Dad found joy in the knowledge that even if it proved ineffective for his disease, others would benefit from his experience. And for a month or two, the combination of Dad’s indefatigable hope and the pharmaceuticals actually seemed to work. The tumor stopped growing. Dad was in decent physical condition and terrific spirits over Thanksgiving weekend, when he came to Boise to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of my daughter Tanya, his first-born grandchild. In his charge to her, he expressed his faith in the future of the Jewish people, under the leadership of her generation.

But as fall slipped into winter, Dad began to fail. His coughing spells became more frequent and intense. Fatigue set in. His appetite diminished. The tumor started to spread again, at an alarming rate. His doctors urged him to start a course of radiation and chemotherapy. Dad considered his options, then reluctantly agreed. Just as he had feared, these treatments induced nausea, cramping, and jaundice. The radiation scorched his larynx. After I returned home from a mid-February visit with Dad, I consulted Janet. We put our future planning on a fast track and hastily arranged to gather our families in Washington to celebrate our engagement. On March 20, 2005, we huddled together in the chapel of Beth El Hebrew Congregation on a rainy spring evening. We lit our havdalah candles, sang blessings, recited poetry—and listened as Dad raspily recited words of love and hope.

After the ceremony, we continued the celebration over dinner at an Italian restaurant around the corner from Dad’s house in Old Town Alexandria. Dad decided to stop home first. He wanted to nap for a few minutes before joining us for the festive meal. The rest of the family—Janet’s parents and sister; my mother; Dad’s wife, Barbara; my brother and sister; and our children—assembled in the restaurant. We poured a round of good wine, raised our glasses, and toasted our fortune with a heart-felt l’chaim—to life! We proceeded leisurely, with appetizers and conversation, waiting for Dad. An hour passed. Still, when the server came to take our order for the main course, Dad had not arrived. I volunteered to walk home to check on him.

I found him resting on his living room couch. I offered to bring supper back to him, but Dad was determined not to miss the party. He put on one of the brash, technicolor sweaters that he always favored. The two of us ambled, arm in arm, out into the darkness. For most of the four blocks to the restaurant, we made our way through the nippy night in silence. Then Dad took my hand and spoke softly into my ear. He told me how much he loved Janet, how happy he was for me: “Oh son, it’s so cold but, still, it is spring. This is the dream of any parent. . . to see the generations go on and on, in happiness, to know that there will always be a watcher who says that morning is coming.” We both cried. Then, just before we entered the restaurant, he shifted the conversation to baseball. He whispered of his high hopes for the Washington Nationals, the long-awaited new major league baseball team that would begin their season on April 4. Dad knew they didn’t have great talent, but he was optimistic that their veteran manager, Frank Robinson (once the young star of Dad’s 1961 Cincinnati Reds) would coach them to success.

**********

RFK Stadium was not yet ready for baseball in early April, so the Nationals opened the season on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies. They lost.

And after so many years of waiting, I missed the game. Instead, I spent the evening sitting shivah for Dad.

Shortly after my engagement ceremony, I had returned home to Boise to celebrate Purim with my congregation. Four days after I left, Dad caught pneumonia. Barbara rushed him to the hospital but he quickly slipped into a coma. The doctors told us that, at last, all hope was gone. In accordance with Dad’s explicit wishes, we agreed to turn off the respirator. He died peacefully on March 28, 2005, the seventeenth of Adar 5765—eight days after my t’naim and exactly one week before Opening Day.

At almost nine-months pregnant, Janet flew back to Washington, along with the rest of the family who had so recently rejoiced with us. Nearly one thousand colleagues, congregants, and friends joined us at the funeral. Then, each night of shivah, the people flocked to minyan at Dad’s house. We were graced with an extraordinarily diverse crowd of mourners: Virginia blue-bloods and Russian immigrants, youth group teens and nonagenarians, classical Reformers and newly-Orthodox baalei teshuvah and Episcopal priests, brilliant academicians, local politicians, assorted doctors and lawyers, and the synagogue custodians. They lingered long after Kaddish, sharing what bound them and brought them here: stories of how Dad had encouraged and inspired them, lifting them out of despair with his uniquely contagious hope.

And so it went until Tuesday morning, April 5, when I concluded shivah by walking around the block to the local Starbucks. I flew home the next day; that same night the Washington Nationals earned their first victory, 7-3, in Philadelphia.

**********

On April 14, Washington finally hosted its first major league baseball game in thirty-four years. Like Dad’s 1961 World Series game, this one was a standing-room only sell out. 45,964 fans jammed the newly-revamped RFK Stadium. President Bush turned out to throw the ceremonial first pitch. The spring weather was crisp, cool, and clear. And ace pitcher Livan Hernandez carried a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning as the upstart Nationals defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3. Manager Frank Robinson’s hat was immediately hustled off to the Hall of Fame, along with a vial of earth excavated from the pitcher’s mound.

I missed that game, too, but Dad would have understood. I was across the continent in Salt Lake City’s University Hospital, where just after midnight Janet delivered a healthy baby boy, Jonah Samuel Kaufman—Yonah Ari. His Hebrew middle name recalls my father, Rav Avraham, a lion of hope.

That evening, in both the nation’s capital and Utah’s high desert, a long and arduous winter came to an end. Some late hard frosts surely lay ahead, but as my father did, indeed, know best, after Opening Day, there could be no doubting spring’s arrival.

8 comments:

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