Wrestling With Sandy Koufax

by Josh Barkin

In my childhood home, baseball was a religion. Sandy Koufax was the chief deity.

My dad is a huge Dodgers fan. My sister is a huge Dodgers fan. My mom and my Bubbe are huge Dodgers fans. My brother and I know our way around Dodger Stadium better than we ever knew the way to school, and since I was three or four years old I attended almost every Opening Day there. (When I spent a year studying in Jerusalem, my dad emailed me a picture of his Opening Day tickets, just to mess with me. I didn’t talk to him until he apologized.) When I was growing up, my dad told me, “Josh, your mom and I would be very upset if you marry a non-Jewish girl. But we’d find a way to get over it. We’ll love you anyway. But if you marry a Giants fan, I’ll say kaddish.”

An autographed picture of Sandy Koufax adorned the dining room in my parents’ house. My Bubbe calls him “Sandyleh.” When I’m having a bad day, I listen to Vin Scully’s call of Sandy’s perfect game in 1965. I own a Dodgers jersey adorned with number 32.

Suffice it to say that I’m a Sandy Koufax fan.

Soon, Torah Aura will publish a Instant Lesson about Sandy Koufax as part of our “Jewish People” series. Rabbi Ron Isaacs wrote the lesson, and I edited it.

I have to admit that it kind of bothers me. While Sandy Koufax is certainly a Dodger hero, I’m not so sure if he’s a Jewish hero.

We don’t know much about Koufax’s life as a Jew. We do know that October 6, 1965 was the first game of the World Series, in which the Dodgers would play the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. It was also the first night of Yom Kippur. Sandy Koufax—scheduled to pitch—decided not to play.

It should be noted that this was not a major sacrifice, since Koufax was a pitcher. Starting pitchers don’t play every game; they’re scheduled to pitch in every fourth or fifth game. Koufax’s absence simply required that the Dodgers re-jigger their pitching schedule.

We also know that Koufax pitched on Passover four times in his career, eight times on Shavuot, and two World Series games on Sukkot.

We’re not even sure if Koufax went to shul that day. One account says that he attended services at a St. Paul synagogue. Another claims that a Lubavitcher rabbi visited his hotel room and gave him a set of right-handed tefillin (Koufax is a southpaw) as a gift.

We also know that Koufax has always been an intensely private guy. He seems to be uncomfortable with his image as a Jewish role model (or as a public figure at all). He’s never been the type to speak to Jewish groups, to publicly visit Israel or make appeals on behalf of the Jewish Federation. He doesn’t seem to like answering questions about his Judaism, and by all accounts, he is a non-observant, disengaged, and unaffiliated Jew. Like lots of American Jews, I suppose.

Is this the guy we want to hold up as a Jewish hero? On one night in 1965 he asserted his Jewishness. He didn’t save any lives, or heal the world, or teach Torah. He was an extraordinary guy (the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, in my humble opinion) who made a totally ordinary decision by not going to work on Yom Kippur.

[Interestingly, I’ve also missed work on Yom Kippur. My curveball isn’t that great, though.]

Yet, for some reason, we hold Koufax up to be some sort of Jewish saint. He’s the poster child for Jewish sportsmen, and it seems like any curriculum about important Jewish people would be incomplete without him.

The fact that we decided to publish a lesson on Koufax is an admission of something few Jewish educators like to talk about: Koufax isn’t a great Jewish role model, but including him in the curriculum is a way to get uninterested little leaguers to sit up in Hebrew school class.

In editing the Torah Aura instant lesson, I tried to be sensitive to this fact, while still maintaining a sense of accuracy about the man. Ron Isaacs’ writing helped. He says,

Although no one can be truly certain of his rationale for choosing not to pitch on Yom Kippur, his decision might well have come out of a basic conviction that conscientious Jews do not work or play sports, even a team sport, on this sacred day for Jews around the world. His act of refraining from playing on Yom Kippur made Koufax an object lesson to bar mitzvah boys, a standard to which Jewish parents held their children and a measuring stick of their assimilation into American culture. Jews laid claim to him and ascribed to him a religiosity he never really acknowledged nor displayed.

It’s an interesting paradox. Koufax — an almost-entirely assimilated Jew by all accounts — serves as an object lesson in anti-assimilation. As I continue to wrestle with it, it may be a paradox I’m prepared to live with.

In his article “Why Study Jewish History?” (Torah at the Center, Fall 2003), Professor Jonathan Sarna suggests that Jewish history education must be as “multi-faceted and self-critical as [secular schools’] curriculum in American history.” He advocates for history curricula that allow students to wrestle with the sophisticated relationship between communal memory and actual history.

Communal narrative idolizes Koufax. History sees a less-than-heroic guy with a great curveball who doesn’t like the public eye. Good history curriculum — and I’d like to think our forthcoming Koufax instant lesson is an example — allows students to grapple with both.