I have long observed that my brother is a Cubs fan the way I’m a Jew, and that I’m a Cubs fan the way he’s a Jew.
In terms of his devotion to the team—well, I’m a rabbi, let’s put it that way. And as for my own? Just like he is with Yiddishkeit, I don’t always know the heavy details of what’s going on day-to-day, and I only honestly start to pay close attention when important things start happening, but it’s a key part of my identity, and I would never, ever convert. And now that the Cubs are in their first World Series since 1945, seeking to win their first title in 108 years, I’ve frummed out as a fan, I suppose you could say.
Wrigley Field was my first real house of worship. That’s where my mom would take me to learn about faith and devotion, about eternal hope for better days, about how it’s OK to be the underdog if you work hard and have heart. About being part of a community that’s bigger than you. Some of my most vivid memories of my mother include her at a game or in front of the TV, screaming her head off, in unison with the rest of the city. (The North Side, anyway.)
When the Cubs clinched the playoffs last weekend, I immediately texted my mother’s best friend, Janet who, at 71,has been waiting for this a lot longer than I have. “My mom and Paul”—her husband, who also died of cancer—”are dancing and laughing in Heaven right now.” It wasn’t a particularly new or original thought; we had both made the comment a few times over this last season. But it was the thing that needed to be said in that moment, the correct expression of mixed joy and grief, pride and longing. And she replied with the true call-and-response of liturgy, “You bet. Along with Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Harry Caray.”
This moment is emotional for so many of us who loved someone who would have, well, died to witness this. All around Chicagoland, graves of Cubs fans are being decorated with memorabilia and little stuffed Cubby bears by those who want to bring this moment a little closer to them. Janet sent me a little item in the paper describing almost the exact Field of Dreams sequence she and I had been texting about—a stadium full of applauding ghosts, thrilled to watch their team get the chance to walk away as heroes for once, just this once, maybe, finally. So often our bittersweet moments are deeply personal—thinking of the person or people missing this wedding, that bris. But now I’m cheering on our team while sharing the same soft ache in my heart as so many folks here. The same wishing, and missing, the same feeling of drawing close through tenderness and memory. The same satisfaction and anxiety, excitement and nervousness as the games unfold.
Real sports fans can probably articulate thoughtfully why it matters that their team wins over someone else’s team. I’m sure the folks with decades of ERA data and coaching theories can prove their fan legitimacy far better than I can. My reasons for loving the Cubs, for rooting for them, for teaching my kids all the words to “Go Cubs Go” and trying to infuse their childhoods with the same kind of experience at Wrigley that I had, are ultimately pretty incoherent. This team is for some reason part of who I am—the traditions of my ancestors in perhaps a less profound way than the Torah and Talmud may be, but not one bit less further from home.
I imagine that pretty much sums up a lot of folks’ relationship to Judaism, actually. I can’t think of this team without a great love pouring through me: the love of my mother, a tomboy-turned-artist-turned-mother, art historian, and devoted Cubs fan; the love for my brother, my baseball rebbe; the feeling of communion and joy that happens when an entire stadium sings, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It’s not prayer, per se, but that doesn’t mean it’s not holy.
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