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September 12, 2013

Where Was Sandy? The Koufax Midrash

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/where_was_sandy_the_koufax_midrash/

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Midrash is text behind the biblical text. It helps bring biblical stories to life so Jews can better engage with their religion. But Midrash, in many cases, can feel like reality. Rabbis often teach these stories as if they are a part of Jewish history. While Judaism is made up of laws, rituals, and customs its heart has always been in Midrash.

In 1965 a story formulated that for many Jews is on par with biblical magic. The story states that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar (to most Jews anyway), the greatest baseball pitcher of all-time, Sandy Koufax, put religion before baseball and sat out the first game of the World Series. Most Jews, baseball fans or people with access to the internet have heard this story. Jewish religious school teachers always teach this story in their classrooms this time of year. But this article is not about whether Koufax pitched or did not pitch, we have an answer to that; the question is if Koufax was not on the mound on October 6th 1965, then where was he?

Who am I to tell this story? A little over a year ago I became the Assistant Rabbi at Temple of Aaron in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron is a Conservative synagogue that has served the Twin Cities for over 100 years. Included in its many claims to fame is being featured in scenes from the 2009 film A Serious Man and being the congregation of former member Beatty Zimmermann (Bob Dylan’s mother). What it might be most famous for is that Koufax himself attended its Yom Kippur service instead of pitching; or did he? It was one of the first things I heard when I came to Saint Paul, which to a Jewish sports blogger was very enticing, but along the way I learned a thing or two about Koufax’s absence from the field and his presence in synagogue.

Jane Leavy, the author of Sandy Koufax’s biography Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, wrote about Koufax’s whereabouts that day; “Koufax did not attend services there that day or anywhere else. A friend may well have made arrangements for Koufax to attend as [Rabbi Bernard] Raskas was led to believe. But friends say he chose to stay alone in his hotel room.” While Leavy claims he was not in synagogue many within the Saint Paul community believe Koufax left his Saint Paul Hotel room. 

There is still some confusion amongst members at Temple of Aaron. The uncertainty stems from the old tradition of having two High Holiday services; the early service at 9AM and a second service in the afternoon. It is possible that some saw Koufax and some did not because no one stayed for both services. Congregant Bonnie Goldstein told Leavy, “Everyone agrees he was at the early service.” Therefore, if he was at the early service, those at the second service would never have seen him, and much of the buzz would ave been hearsay. Leavy continues “The rabbi, Bernard Raskas, waited until afternoon services to address the issue, affirming to the congregation that Koufax had been there, seated in the back, near an exit. In Raskas’s recollection, they nodded to each other…He did not want to infringe on the pitcher’s privacy.” It is possible that everyone is right; he was both in attendance and not in attendance referring to two different services.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Raskas has passed and this year the former ritual director of Temple of Aaron, Harry Gottesman passed as well. Gottesman’s family walked into my office his son stared at the Jewish sports memorabilia in my office. He said, “Rabbi, my father took Sandy Koufax to his seat on Yom Kippur.” I want to believe this story. I want to in my heart. So I did some more searching. It seems like many stories passed down to generations that this story, also, has subtext to the original text; Midrash within the Midrash. Apparently, Koufax had a driver to and from the St. Paul Hotel. So I reached out to the “driver” that everyone told me about. His response, “As much as I would have liked to have chauffeured Sandy Kofax (even on yontiv), I didn’t do it.” While everyone claims this man drove him, the ritual director escorted him to his seat, and the rabbi made eye contact with him no one else claims to have interacted with him. Although in all fairness to the synagogue, Koufax is and has always been a very private person and would not have made a big deal about, at the time, a simple appearance in the pews.

Still to this day Sandy Koufax has never made a statement about his whereabouts on Yom Kippur in 1965. Until Koufax does, I am not sure this synagogue will ever have a firm answer. Until then I believe this story becomes a part of a category labeled “Modern Midrash.” It’s a story within the story. It is a story that has been told to generations of children who have gone through the Temple of Aaron Religious School and Hebrew schools throughout the country. A story passed down from generation to generation, so much so that it has become fact within Temple of Aaron’s history. Koufax’s silence about his whereabouts has enabled a Midrash that my congregation and I are living within. While I had set out to find an answer to this question I believe there is something extremely exciting about living inside one of the great Jewish stories of the last 100 years. Although, if Koufax ever wants to call me and talk about this modern Midrash; I would be more than happy to listen.

- Rabbi Jeremy Fine

@RabbiJeremyFine @TheGreatRabbino

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