This weekend, my son Noah, 16, told me he’ll soon be playing in his first football game with his new school, a Connecticut prep school that takes sports seriously. I beamed: Back in my day, there weren’t too many Jews running around on the gridiron, and I was thrilled to see my boy taking after me and picking up the pigskin.
And then, almost casually, Noah shared another bit of information: The game will be held on Yom Kippur.
I cringed. Having been brought up on that famous story about Sandy Koufax refusing to play on Yom Kippur, I was troubled that my son didn’t even consider to sit out the game in deference to Judaism’s holiest day. I went to bed that night with an uneasy feeling, thinking what my friends would say if they knew that Noah blocked and tackled instead of attending shul, and wondering whether I had failed him as a parent. Apparently, years of Jewish day school education did little to instill the religion’s core values. I fell asleep with a heavy heart that night, but I woke up with a distinctly different point of view.
Noah, I knew, was passionate about his Judaism. He had visited Israel numerous times, studied the Torah, and rocked his Bar Mitzvah in fluent Hebrew that surprised even myself and his mother. He took pride in being Jewish, but being Jewish meant something very different to him than it did to me just one generation back. To him, being Jewish was obvious: Having grown up in New York and Massachusetts, and having attended Solomon Schechter school, he could hardly imagine a life that did not revolve around the Jewish calendar or his Jewish friends. Being Jewish was less about what he did and more about who he was, and choosing to eat a hearty breakfast and gear up for the game on Yom Kippur wasn’t going to change any of that.
Don’t get me wrong: Part of me still wishes that Noah will skip the game and come to services with me instead, just as I had skipped practice as a teenager when it fell on Yom Kippur. But I’m delighted to see him growing up in an America where the Koufax Conundrum didn’t matter quite as much, where there are plenty of Jews everywhere, including the football field, who are comfortable enough in their identity to play ball on the holiday without having to worry about how they will be perceived by Jews or gentiles or whether or not putting rushes above rituals makes them any less Jewish. This, I thought, was what it was like to be truly comfortable in your skin, a privilege my generation never quite had but that Noah and his friends enjoy to the fullest.
I won’t be there to watch my son play this weekend, but I no longer fault him for making his decision. In the spirit of the holiday, all is forgiven.
Marco Greenberg is the author of Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive that Powers the World’s Most Successful People.