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Team Israel, Aliyah Heroes

How the world’s least likely Olympians helped me make sense of my American-Israeli identity

by
Chana Weinberg
August 06, 2021
Kazuhiro Fujihara/AFP via Getty Images
Israel’s Daniel Valencia, at right, celebrates his two-run home run with third-base coach Nate Fish, left, during the eighth inning of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games baseball round 1 game between Israel and the Dominican Republic at Japan’s Yokohama Baseball Stadium, on Aug. 3, 2021Kazuhiro Fujihara/AFP via Getty Images
Kazuhiro Fujihara/AFP via Getty Images
Israel’s Daniel Valencia, at right, celebrates his two-run home run with third-base coach Nate Fish, left, during the eighth inning of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games baseball round 1 game between Israel and the Dominican Republic at Japan’s Yokohama Baseball Stadium, on Aug. 3, 2021Kazuhiro Fujihara/AFP via Getty Images

This wasn’t the first time in Israel’s short history that the Jewish state found itself outgunned. But this time, the men on the battlefield could look at their opponents and say, with confidence, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

That’s because, as Times of Israel reporter Amy Spiro tweeted, this particular conflict featured a team of 100% Americans facing a team of 80% Americans.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the combatants in question are the heroes of Team Israel, the unlikely baseball outfit that found its way into the exclusive six-team club that qualified for the Olympic games in Tokyo. Twenty of 24 players on the team are American born, and the rest of the squad made aliyah, just like me.

Also like me, these men live for baseball, and even though their Olympic dream turned out to fall a few innings short of a medal, the players on Team Israel drove me and many others in America and Israel to rethink our assumptions about who we are and where we belong.

I always knew I belonged on or near the diamond. I played softball in high school and college, and spent every free minute I had following Major League Baseball. Also the not-so-free minutes: After noticing my grades dropping from the fall to spring semester, my high school English teacher offered me my first “job” as sports editor of the high school student newspaper. My fandom lived on through my year studying abroad in Israel—I rarely brought my phone into the beit midrash while learning, but made an exception when Team Israel shocked the world by shining in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. I’ve been writing about baseball ever since, even presenting my independent research at Saberseminar, a baseball analytics conference, in the summer of 2019.

But as my senior year fall semester drew to a close, I realized that my love of baseball would soon have to square off against my other great love: Israel. On the one hand, I was ready to apply all the baseball knowledge I’d accumulated in a front-office analytics position, and imagined myself becoming part of a storied franchise and helping my team make it to the World Series. But I thought about my other lifelong fantasy, of living on a moshav and speaking Hebrew and immersing myself in a life of Jewish learning and practice. It was a tough call, but on the sixth night of Hanukkah last year, I boarded an El Al flight and landed as a newly minted Israeli citizen.

The baseball bug, of course, never went away. Struggling with time differences and technological hurdles, I continued to follow the sport even from far, far away, but it rarely felt the same. It’s one thing to sit in Yankee Stadium and cheer with thousands of other fans; it’s another to read a game summary on your phone while living in a country that hasn’t even a single baseball stadium to behold. I was hardly alone in feeling this dissonance: Often, talking to fellow olim, the conversation would gravitate to favorite teams or the latest trade, with someone eventually saying something like, “man, I really wish we could go to a game soon.”

And then came Team Israel’s incredible Olympic run. For one thing, we olim cheered for these boys because they, too, had to go through the exact same process as us. The athletes who made aliyah to play on the team had to prove they had Jewish grandparents, had to fill out reams of byzantine forms, and had to locate the nearest post office, which isn’t so easy when you’re playing for minor league teams in the middle of nowhere. Even more meaningfully, they had to come to terms with what it meant to adopt Israel as their rightful home country and go from homegrown stars of America’s pastime to oddball outsiders in a Mediterranean country where everyone adored soccer and no one would recognize a Jeter or a Judge even if they bumped into them strolling on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Herein, then, lies the true meaning, and real magic, of Team Israel. For years, olim like myself had to check a big part of their identity at the gate of Ben-Gurion Airport’s arrivals hall, encouraged to leave behind all that Americana and focus instead on quickly and robustly becoming Israeli. The 20-something American Jews who decided to make aliyah and represent Israel on the biggest stage of international sports did so not only for a shot at glory, but also because they believe that the relationship between American and Israeli Jews is a-changin’. Having interviewed many of them for a new podcast about the team’s unlikely journey to stardom, I know that most of them felt comfortable taking the radical step of gaining citizenship for a country across the world and playing for their new nation’s team because they realized there was no reason they couldn’t explore both their passion for Judaism and Israel and their love for their profoundly American sport. Athletes aren’t known for weighing in on complicated questions of peoplehood and religion, but talk to the stars of Team Israel, and it becomes obvious that they understand themselves to be a bridge of sorts, between their native country and their new homeland, between two cultures, between two parts of the same tribe separated by an ocean and myriad habits but not by feeling or faith.

The same goes for the team’s fans. To talk about the games with my fellow newly arrived olim was to feel, if only for a moment, that we can be just as Israeli even if we didn’t conceal our obsession with on-base percentages or ERAs or Shohei Ohtani. We could live near the Old City and still play and cheer like we were in the Bronx. We come from cities with robust little leagues and now we have confidence that this will continue in our new home country. We bring our two communities, the one where we were born and the one where we now live, closer together. And that’s a prize more valuable than any medal.

Chana Weinberg is the host of the upcoming podcast Designated Hitters: The Story of Team Israel, and was a Fall 2020 Tablet journalism fellow.

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