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Making Contact

Baseball, my father, God, and madness

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
November 29, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I love baseball. I have always loved it. But was that reason enough to fly to Chicago at 6 in the morning on a quixotic quest: to try out for a fast-pitch softball team?

I had never been good at the game. But now, in my 50s, I wanted to see if I might be finally able to hit the ball.

The shrill, defeatist voice in my head—which for me has always had a Yiddish inflection—had plenty of ammunition. Vos far a kinder shpiel iz dos? Dos ganzer leben bistu nit matzlaich geven. Yetz beim sof zummer vestu provn? What is this child’s play—and first now at summer’s end!

Well, it was late summer, but what of it? I needed a late August break.

Host du nit genug khapen bushas? Haven’t you accumulated enough humiliations and embarrassments?

But that was just the point. One more would not hurt. I had already plenty of humiliation when I was young and tried out for teams then. This could definitely not be worse.

Du bist shoyn an alter Yid, a niderikeh mentsch, a lo yitlachal, Zay nisht kayn naar un blayb a haym. You’re already old and you are a poor athlete, a shlimazel, don’t be a fool, stay home.

Too old, athletically incompetent? I would have to let my body answer that one: I needed to be up by 4 a.m. to catch my 6 a.m. flight. I would not set the alarm. If my body wakes up on its own, I thought, then I go; if not, I stay. Sounds crazy to wager an expensive trip on the body’s own snooze button, but why not? Trust the body—that is what my trainer, the inestimable Maccabiah champion wrestler, the Adonis from Englewood, Moshe Klyman tells me as we lug around 100 lb. sacks on our shoulders while doing dips and pushups.

My bags were packed with my tallis and tefillin, my gemara sukkah. And my body woke up. Just like that, a man-child with a baseball mitt from sleepy Sunday morning Passaic was on his way to the Midwest.

Flying over Pennsylvania and Ohio, memories came to me of playing “high pops” in second and third grades in Rufus King Park in Jamaica, near the old Yeshiva of Central Queens. Some kid would throw a Spalding rubber ball as high as a little boy could throw. We would jostle each other, all eyes on the round rubber orb descending to earth. Eventually one boy would catch the ball on the fly and then he would go to the front and throw the ball, another high pop. The game was simple: Throw the ball to high heaven and catch it. Except I could never catch it. Whether I had small hands or bad reflexes I don’t know. But once, a miracle happened. Standing on the periphery, because I had long ago despaired of catching the ball, I caught the ball completely by accident. I still remember how happy I was. The ball just plopped into my hands!

That was “high pops.” Baseball was another unrequited love. I loved her—I got my father to buy me a baseball mitt with Carl Yastrzemski’s signature on it and a wooden bat with Roy White’s John Hancock—but alas, baseball, she didn’t love me. I would stand at the plate, bat in hand, seeking out the ball, but no contact. Playing the field was only slightly better: Sometimes the ball would get to me, often I caught it, but the ball wouldn’t stay in my glove. It was a rejection of the body—the only kind we remember forever.

In life, though, hard rejection sometimes carries velvet consolation. There were some cool teachers who used to supervise our recesses and lunch breaks. In the late spring and early September sun, they wore gauchos or culottes and smoked Tareytons or Salem Lights. While I was rejected by the game when the other kids played baseball—never getting picked for a team—I was accepted by these teachers as I wormed my way into their cigarette-and-coffee klatch.

What’s more, the stinging rejection of not being picked for a team led me to search for God. I found Him in all kinds of ways that a child finds God, mining bits of Him from the elders around me, trying Him or their versions of Him on for size. I eagerly awaited the times when the adults called for Him in anger, in earnest, or in despair. What did they think of Him, did they take Him and His commandments in? How seriously did they take Him? As seriously as my father did?

In any case, I was much more into Him (it seemed to me) than other kids my age—God seemed very real to me. In shul, in prayer, I said the words, sang the songs, especially when the Torah was brought out from the ark. Here He was—in the words, in the story, in the Law. I even identified with Him a little. There was no corporeality to the Creator and I had to doubt whether there was any to me either; I was such a poor athlete. But that was just a passing thought because I never forgot my body and its calls to play, to run, to jump, to be beautiful, to be chosen by someone—preferably a girl. And it never forgot me: We were going to help each other, schlep each other along. And neither of us ever forgot baseball, either.

I made it from the airport to the field in suburban Highland Park. I got out of my rental car and presented myself to a gaggle of semi-official-looking old salts. They wore big red Maccabiah caps and seemed to be running the show. One of them shook my hand and pointed to the box with Maccabiah T-shirts and caps. “Choose your colors, kid.” (I chose blue.)

Someone asked me if I was “loose.” “No,” I answered. “It was a long plane ride from Newark.” We went to the side of the field to play catch. Nice and easy. After a few minutes the fellow said, “You’re warm now. Take the field.”

The stinging rejection of not being picked for a team led me to search for God.

The field was crowded but we were all there to shag fly balls. The high pops were going out like firework flares and the fielders snagged most of them. They weren’t gods, but they were good.

None of the fly balls came over to me. If it was close, I let the other guy take it. From my vantage point in short right field I had a chance to observe the infield, which was particularly adroit with bullets being thrown across the diamond with snap accuracy. The shortstop dove expertly to catch a line drive. That would have passed for noteworthy even in the majors.

But then it came to batting practice. I hit a few pitches into the outfield. Not bad, but that was just practice. After that, the organizers had set up a two-inning minigame to test us under fire. The pitcher was a gorgeous man, leather-necked and weather-beaten—Clint Eastwood at 75.

There were men on base and I didn’t want to strike out. I had to hang in there. After one helpless, impotent swing, I started to concentrate. After that I fouled off a pitch. (I had made contact!) The catcher encouraged me: “Relax, trust your body,” he said to me, or something like that. But Clint Eastwood was throwing high heat. Again, the catcher told me, “Don’t back down, stay with it.” I fouled off another few. The small crowd teased the pitcher: “This guy’s got your number. He’s wearing you down!” After fouling off yet another pitch, I finally shouted to the pitcher: “Give me everything you got, don’t hold anything back.” Then a pitch came at warp speed but right at me! I twisted my body but there was no way to avoid it. Pow! I didn’t make contact with it, but it made contact with me. It hurt like nothing else. My upper arm swelled like a cantaloupe.

I began to meditate. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been pummeled like this either by ball or by fist. I had rarely been hit in life. I generally stayed out of fights and scrapes.

It was only my father who had ever hit me.

Before you jump to conclusions, this was the early 1970s and it was still somewhat acceptable to hit. Matter of fact, the siblings who came after me were never hit. (It will surprise you to hear this, but I definitely got the better of the deal.)

One time when I was 10 my father hit me so hard that I flew across the room into a stack of chairs like it was a barroom brawl. If you doubt me, there are witnesses alive who will corroborate this.

This is a very difficult story to recount—among the most painful of my life. It’s been 45 years, but I remember it as if it happened earlier today.

There was a boys’ minyan in school where my father was the principal. Older boys, seventh and eighth graders together with middle-school-age kids. Many of the older boys were bar mitzvah and wore tefillin. At the end of davening in the morning, the younger boys like me would “wind up” the tefillin of the older boys and we would schmooze about topics like which parsha was our bar mitzvah parsha. Services were not quite over, yet they were coming to a close, and it was technically permissible to talk at that point.

My father saw me schmoozing with a seventh grade boy—I remember his last name, it was Turock—and the next thing I knew I was flying through the air across the wide room into a table that was stacked with folding chairs on top. It was so violent and so sudden, it happened at the speed of sound as though I had been hit by a cannon ball or artillery shell.

It was so violent and so sudden, it happened at the speed of sound as though I had been hit by a cannon ball or artillery shell.

I was in shock, but I pulled myself together. Instinctively, I smoothed down my sides and shuddered, as if I were a cat that had been thrown off a fire escape. My father was in the front saying tehillim for my grandfather, who was ill. “Zeide vert krank, grandfather is sick and all you can do is plopple and ploiter.”

Plopple and ploiter were two words I will never forget. My father used Yiddish all the time, but this was Yiddish on a whole different order of magnitude. It was deep, deep Yiddish, coming from a subterranean angry place in his soul. And this was reserved special for me, his ainziger (of course he had other children, my siblings, but each of us felt “only” to him). Plopple and ploiter was Yiddish slang for chatter and prattle. Vos far a ploppl, vos far a ploiter. Du Plopplst du ploiterst azoy vi a baba yaga, a babechke, a yiddene, a yenta. It was also an assault on my gender. I wasn’t a man. I was a woman, an old woman, a baba yaga, a yenta.

I ambled over to father and woodenly said the Psalms with him together with one of the other teachers. It struck me as strange that he’d felt so deeply about saying tehillim, because he did not have a natural feeling for my grandfather, his father-in-law. They were often at odds. But I meekly joined the entreaty to the Almighty, the God of Hosts: Save us O Lord on the day of our suffering, fortify us O Lord of Jacob.

The verses were said responsively, with my father leading and us responding. “Some rely on war chariots and some put their faith in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. God will save us, the king will save us on the day we call for Him.”

Finally, when we reached the last verse, I could hold back no more. I broke down into convulsing sobs. As much I felt bad for myself, it must have been a horrible sight for everyone to see. It was the madness of my father and me in full view of my friends in front of the whole school, a horror show.

Even as I was bawling, I didn’t know anything else but to go on as normal. Strangely, as my hysterical tears flowed, I went over to the breakfast table; I wasn’t going to let a mere saloon brawl get in the way of my Cocoa Pebbles and milk. My nose ran into my breakfast cereal, and when we went up to class I was still crying for at least another hour, finally comforted by my teacher who held me and said, “It will be alright.” All I wanted was to be close to my father again—he was my oxygen, without whom I could not breathe.

I ran into him in the hall later in the day and he gave me a big hug.

When my father hugged me, it was not merely a deflection or a dodge. It was genuine. I can still feel the warmth of that hug 45 years later. I do not know what he was experiencing. I imagine that he was as dissociated as I was about what he had done, but I suspect that in time, the incident was completely forgotten by him.

In any case, we never spoke about what had happened.

Of course I did not stop thinking about it. Even if I had wanted to, the body does not forget. It remembers every blow and my body recorded exactly two feelings: sensations really—the sensation of being hit and the sensation of being hugged. I labored hard for his love and tried to avoid his punch.

While that was a good strategy, I was alone with something that was shocking—and it was impossible to digest. I began to consider: What was his experience of throwing me across the room? He had to have known that this was insane. What had he been thinking before and after? He was an unusually good man. He definitely could not have been pleased with himself. He might even have been horrified, but there was a primitive, tiny percentage of him that might have felt “justified.” After all, with my transgression, I “made” him lose control.

There was another layer: My father—throughout his life but especially in his earlier years—was filled with red-hot religious fervor. It was his imperative and prerogative to teach, to instruct. He was a rabbi, an agent of God of some sort, called upon to teach, to instruct, to put—quite literally—the fear of God into into me (and others).

The shame was not in what was done. The shame was in my forgiveness.

Did I forgive my father then? Strangely, I only craved forgiveness from him. It didn’t occur to me, at least consciously, that I had the power to forgive or not forgive. I loved him. I loved him and I feared him, but I loved him and love meant merger with him and merger with him meant love.

More than 45 years later, what do I feel, what do I remember? It was all put away somewhere. It was put away out of shame. But the shame was not in what was done. The shame was in my forgiveness. I had been embarrassed by my forgiveness, as though it had been too reflexive, too easy, an accommodation, an adaptation, rather than coming from the center of me to the center of him.

It was madness to go to Chicago. I had little chance of making the team. But I was up for the experience. The body took me there. I was going to be a worthy opponent. When I got in the batter’s box, I knew that I would not strike out. It was exhilarating. They were coming at me at the equivalent of 90 miles per hour. I kept fouling off the pitches one after the other. It was why I had come.

I had spent a lifetime thinking about my father, loving my father, but I had not made contact with him. Woven into the fabric of the relationship was elevation. I was chosen by him, raised up by him. When you are elevated, romanced, the narcissism of it all, makes contact all but impossible.

Of course, contact was exactly what I was trying to do in the batter’s box. And then, pow! The ball made contact with me.

My arm hurt a lot, yet I was elated. Yes, I taunted the pitcher and he deliberately threw the ball at me. The capillaries were smashed and my arm turned blue, but I felt alive. “Get that arm in some ice,” somebody said. The pitcher mumbled a half-hearted apology. (He did it on purpose.) But I ignored all that. I grinned and trotted down the first base line. I was elated even as it really hurt. I had made it to first base, if somewhat ingloriously.

I was in the game. I was real. I would have preferred to hit the ball, rather than have it hit me, but it was real. This is what I had come to Chicago for.

Eventually, I did get a block of ice on my arm. With being hit, memory, metaphor, and the actual had combined. As ridiculous as that may sound, somehow that made me feel ready. I now wanted to make contact with my father even as he has already gone to the next world.

How does one dial up the dead? It’s possible if you are able to contact the deceased person that still lives inside you. I could do it.

“Dad,” I said, “may I rouse you out of the crypt?” His spirit permitted. I went on to remind him of that important day in our lives (in my life, anyway) all those decades ago. He struggled to remember, but he did recall something faintly. He winced in pain. Oy! Zayt mir moichel! He could not have been more sorry. “I could care less about an apology,” I told him. It was completely beside the point. “But I do need to ask you, what was going on for you that day? All these years I’ve been conjecturing, trying to imagine: Was it coming out of religious zeal? Were you trying to put the fear of God into me, or did some devil get a hold of you that day? What was it?”

He hesitated. He was not sure.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes that there is no such thing as immaculate communication. We pick up the madness of our intimates.

The Talmud refers to a young scholar as a tzurva merabanan—someone who is “burned” from the rabbis as if to say that some kinds of wisdom and knowledge are acquired by being burned, burned by the madness of others. There is a madness in religion, in people, puzzling, painful—devastating even, but rich.

“It may sound strange, Dad, but from your blows that day in the auditorium, I received some of your madness, and some of religion’s madness. I believe, in a certain sense, that what you gave me came from God as well. I am your son, and what I took from you is that God is real, the fear of God is also real. The fear of God may be more real, more important than God Himself—and definitely more important than us.”

Suddenly I didn’t need Dad to explain his intent. It made no difference, same as his apology. I had roused him to tell him that what we had together was just worth it. I had received all of his goodness and some of his madness. This was a gift that would allow me the pleasures of my own madness.

My profession, psychoanalysis, was conceived by Freud and his cohorts as a secular Jewish tradition in the sense that it is structured without God. Instead, its effectiveness rests on reflection. but there are limits to reflection. We cannot reflect on what we cannot see. Winnicott once said that we cannot see the part of us that makes us go, the part that drives us. There are things about ourselves that we cannot know. The face of the watch cannot see its mainspring.

One time—and I mean one time in the sense that it was only once—my father took me out to Flushing Meadows Park, bat and ball. My father was no Mickey Mantle, but if he put his mind to it, he could do most things. He started cracking the ball out, grounders, line drives. It was a summer Sunday and there was a madness to it, as though it would never end. One ball, then another and then another. I would retrieve them in the air or on the ground and throw them back in. One of them was a line drive, sharp as a flare. I can still remember the crack of the bat on the ball and it went straight over the diamond. I was in short center field and the ball took a wicked hop and went smack into my glove.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.