Jewish Journal


March 29, 2007

March Madness means April Angst: Pesach vs. NCAA


The last NCAA championship game held during Passover was in 2004, when Connecticut routed Georgia Tech. UCLA Bruin fans could be disappointed if they make it to the championship game this year. Photo by Harry E. Walker/KRT

The last NCAA championship game held during Passover was in 2004, when Connecticut routed Georgia Tech. UCLA Bruin fans could be disappointed if they make it to the championship game this year. Photo by Harry E. Walker/KRT

This year, and not for the first time, my celebration of a major American holiday will be stymied by my celebration of a major Jewish holiday.

Monday night, April 2, I will be at my parents' table for the first night of Passover. At the same time, I will not be in front of the television watching the NCAA tournament's championship game.

I wish I could say that this was the first time such a confluence of events has occurred; that, like Halley's Comet, the crossing of these two events was a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly.

Regrettably, it's a regular feature of the Jewish landscape, with Passover sneaking up from behind and taking a bite out of the NCAA's. This is perhaps the most thrilling two weeks of the sports year. Missing any part of the tournament is a cause for sorrow, but the enforced skipping of the final game -- the culmination of mounting hysteria, hype and (hopefully) last-second heroics -- feels particularly tragic.

My memories of Passovers past are intertwined with the remembrance of games missed. That incredible 1993 North Carolina-Michigan final, where Chris Webber's time-out call cost the Wolverines a title? Never saw that one. UConn's triumphant spanking of Georgia Tech in 2004? I was busy enjoying a maror sandwich.

Having grown up in an Orthodox household, the experience of dutifully setting up the VCR to record games on Shabbat or holidays, and adroitly avoiding newspapers, blasting car radios and gossips who must tell you the score of last night's game is a deeply familiar one.

Nonetheless, the NCAA tournament -- sporting monument to the element of surprise -- is a dish best served piping hot. Left to cool off, even if only for a day or two, while maintaining complete ignorance of the results, the game loses much of its excitement. And so, this year, the NCAA final will disappear for me into a cultural wormhole, likely never to be seen, undoubtedly never to be experienced as it should.

The confluence of Pesach and the NCAA on the calendar yet again this year got me thinking about the relationship between the two events. In both, we gather together, in groups large and small, to cheer on a scrappy group of upstarts in their desperate attempt to overcome a bigger, stronger opponent dedicated to their eternal torment.

Food and alcohol play a crucial role in the seder as in tournament watching, with an equally likely outcome of binge-induced moaning and groaning. And steadfast fans of individual teams will find themselves muttering a contemporary equivalent of the seder's legendary invocation of divine protection, hoping what once was true for the Jews will be equally valid for the Bruins: "And it is this faithfulness that has stood by our fathers and us. For not one man only has risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation men rise up against us to destroy us; but the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from their hands."

The haggadah is like a tournament Cinderella story blown up to epic proportions: after countless years of frustration and untold torment, a ragtag team takes on a No. 1 seed and emerges triumphant. For the Israelites, it is solid coaching from a master of Xs and Os, better prepared and savvier than his opposing number, that carries the day. But for Moses as for so many of his latter-day equivalents, a touch of divine guidance never hurt.

The Israelites, having successfully reached the religious Sweet 16, find themselves done in by poor recruiting (the erev rav, or mixed multitude, blamed for many of their later inequities) and a series of scandals, doomed to spend 40 years wandering in the desert before finally reaching the Promised Land (see how sports steals all its metaphors from the Bible, when it isn't busy pilfering from the terminology of warfare?).

This year, while visions of rim-rattling slam dunks and long-distance buzzer-beaters dance through my brain, I will celebrate another year's seder. While the outcome is far less hazy (Las Vegas stopped taking bets on the Egyptians some time ago), the specter of the tournament's lost glories may provide a testimonial to the indeterminacy of history.

If history is, as some have said, the study of what did not have to happen, then the confluence of the NCAA tournament with Passover is a necessary reminder that the Israelites' escape from Egypt is, above all, a story of unlikely endings.

Like college basketball fans gathering to recount stories of miracles past (Christian Laettner, anyone? Tate George?), Jews get together on Passover to pay tribute to the fact that things did not have to turn out the way they did. Cause for celebration, no doubt.

But couldn't we have celebrated another night?

Saul Austerlitz is a music critic and author of "Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video From the Beatles to the White Stripes."

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