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The Boys of Summer Hit Israel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fields are rocky and uneven, the hot dogs are strictly kosher, and the ballplayers sometimes struggle to keep their prayer shawls in place as they pitch.

Improbable as it seems, baseball, the all-American pastime already popular in Japan, Latin America and parts of Europe, is making inroads in Israel. The sport helps Jewish American immigrants maintain links to their heritage and eases the transition for homesick American kids, but it’s also attracting a small--and growing--number of native-born Israelis.

It all began in the mid-1980s, when a handful of American immigrant fathers began taking their children to parks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to play catch on Friday afternoons. Now, youth baseball leagues boast nearly 100 teams of boys--and a few girls. They play in every part of the country except the sparsely populated Negev, Israel’s great southern desert. And 300 adults, virtually all American immigrants or expatriates, play in an Israeli softball league.

“We’re coming of age,” said Sam Pelter, who arrived from Los Angeles in 1970 and is now secretary-general of the 10-year-old Israel Assn. of Baseball. “It’s still an emerging sport, but we’ve come a long way.”

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The prospect of baseball being played here once seemed so unlikely that in his 1987 novel, “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth has a character act out a fantasy of making a great--and no doubt sacrilegious--catch against Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.

“Not until there is baseball in Israel will Messiah come!” the character, Jimmy Ben-Joseph, declares to the book’s protagonist. “Nathan, I want to play center field for the Jerusalem Giants!”

There may not be any Giants in Jerusalem yet, but among its 17 baseball teams are the YMCA Squirts, Deborah’s Painters and, weighing in with a name that could probably be found only in this ancient city, the Archeological Seminars.

The youth teams help bridge Israel’s religious, political and cultural divides, bringing together the children of observant and secular Jews, evangelical Christians, U.N. workers, Messianic Jews and even a few Palestinians and Russians. Pistol-packing Jewish settlers from the West Bank coach their kids alongside U.S. Marines, diplomats, pastors and peace organization leaders teaching the game to theirs.

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“It brings a little taste of the ‘old country’ and cuts across some of the divisions we have here,” said coach Shep Dickman, a Jerusalem neurologist and rabbinical student who came to Israel from Pittsburgh 12 years ago. “It’s a healthy thing.”

Still, it’s not always an easy thing, a fact to which he and other coaches can attest. Many would-be players, even those sporting the Yankee and Met caps that are everywhere here, have never played catch or seen a baseball game--even on television.

“The first question is usually: ‘How do I put my glove on?’ ” said Charles Harris, who was assistant director of publicity for the L.A. Dodgers before moving to Israel in 1993 and volunteering as a coach. “Then you know you’re starting from scratch.”

Sometimes, coaches forget to start with the basics. Halfway through last season, Dickman noticed that one of his outfielders was dashing up to each fly ball that came his way, then carefully backing off and letting the ball bounce before he caught it. “He didn’t know you have to catch it on the fly,” Dickman said.

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Officials Cite Growth

With 1,200 youths involved, baseball is still dwarfed in Israel by basketball, which has 12,000 young participants, and soccer, which in organized leagues alone is played by more than 24,000 youngsters. But officials say that baseball is making strides despite a severe shortage of playing fields, a scarcity of volunteer coaches and a public that remains largely unfamiliar with the game.

The officials cite some promising developments. Next month, for the first time, an Israeli ballplayer, 21-year-old Dan Rothem, will attend college in the U.S. on a baseball scholarship. Around the same time, the first municipal baseball field in Israel is expected to be completed in an industrial area of the city of Raananna, north of Tel Aviv, at a cost of 110,000 Israeli shekels, or about $30,000. And there are preliminary plans for another field, this one on a farming community in the Galilee, in Israel’s verdant north.

Leon Klarfeld, Rothem’s first coach and the president of the baseball association, said he hopes that Rothem’s success and the new fields will help raise the sport’s profile in Israel.

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Unlike the majority of those who play baseball here, Rothem, a pitcher from Tel Aviv, has no U.S. or Canadian links at all. His parents, who are of East European origin, grew up on Israeli kibbutzim, as collective farms are known. And Rothem says he had never seen a baseball until Klarfeld’s son dragged him along to a practice 12 years ago.

Soon, he was bewildering his parents with enthusiasm for the strange foreign game. And after finishing high school and serving his mandatory three-year stint in the Israeli army, he is heading to Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, near Savannah. Rothem met the university’s baseball coach at a training clinic in Israel five years ago and stayed in touch throughout his schooling and army service.

Now, with a scholarship that pays half his way, the Israeli pitcher is realizing his dream of playing college ball in the States and hoping for a shot at professional ball.

For 13-year-old David Freedman, the journey was reversed. Before moving to Israel from Chicago with his parents last year, the lanky teenager had one major concern: Would there be baseball in Israel?

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David was delighted to find that there is, and that many of the players speak English. “Baseball helped me meet some kids and fit in better,” he said during a recent hard-fought game between his team, known as MediaWorks, and the Jerusalem YMCA.

Adjusting the black skullcap under his baseball cap, David summed it up: “If my parents had to drag me to Israel, at least there was baseball.”

Cultural Comfort Zone

For many parents too, baseball has been a cultural comfort zone, an instant way to reconnect with their American roots.

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“It’s like home base for us,” Hanna Ben-Haim, who arrived 14 years ago from Montana, said as she watched her Israeli-born son, Elisha, take a turn at bat. “It’s cultural. We’re at the ballgame. And for Elisha, who has dual citizenship, this is the American part of him. He’s very proud of it.”

Ben-Haim said Elisha’s baseball games also allow relatives in the U.S. to feel a connection to what they’re doing in Israel. “It’s one of the few things they can relate to about our lives here,” she said.

Like the Ben-Haims, most of those involved with youth baseball or the adult softball league--there is no organized adult baseball in Israel--have North American roots. Many--parents, coaches, officials and players--are among the 154,000 American- and Canadian-born immigrants and expatriates now living in Israel, according to the Jerusalem-based Assn. of Americans and Canadians in Israel.

But by no means all. Klarfeld said a growing number of baseball-playing youngsters, like Rothem, are Israeli-born, without U.S. or Canadian connections. And coach Dickman happily counts a new Russian immigrant among his players this season.

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But baseball in Israel has its challenges, among them the fact that the game is still a rare enough sight here that picnickers, children and dog-walkers are sometimes perilously unaware of the damage a hardball can do, even one hit by a 9-year-old.

During a recent game in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, play came to a sudden stop when two young mothers and five toddlers ambled into the game and past second base. Beyond them, under a stand of trees in the middle of center field, a man snoozed peacefully.

The diamonds are usually converted soccer fields that are pitted, puddled, rock-strewn and weedy, and they are a source of constant worry to the parents and coaches of the young players.

Ariel Berkowitz, a teacher and writer whose son has played baseball here for five years, remembers several times when he and other parents formed a “rock squad” before games, cutting down knee-high weeds and clearing away stones that might trip the players or cause the ball to take a dangerous hop. In the late spring and early summer, as the rains stop, the diamonds are transformed from weed-choked fields into rocky dirt lots, causing coaches and parents to wince at each hard grounder.

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The fields are especially bad in Jerusalem, where land--which is often the source of political disputes here--is at a premium. “They’re dangerous,” Berkowitz said.

Getting the right equipment can be another headache. Until an Israeli supplier was located recently, parents had to import everything from balls to gloves to catchers’ gear, bringing the items back in their luggage from trips to the U.S. or relying on long-suffering grandparents arriving for holidays or bar mitzvahs.

Not everything, however, can be carried in. Take backstops.

This spring, a Palestinian metalworker in a West Bank refugee camp received an unusual order. Dave Swenson, who runs Baptist recreation programs in the West Bank, asked the man to examine a diagram in a baseball catalog and see if he could build a backstop, the screen behind the catcher.

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The welder, who had never seen a game, let alone a backstop, said he could, and proceeded to do so on the roof of his cinder-block home in the Arub refugee camp, the only place where he had enough room.

After a few false starts--the first fencing was too thin, like chicken wire, and the second had holes so big that balls zipped right through--the backstop was finished. “But it was so heavy that it took all his neighbors to get it off his roof,” Swenson said. The welder cut it down in size, but it is still too heavy to be portable.

Even so, installed at the Jerusalem YMCA, it instantly became the best backstop in the city.

Baseball here has other singularly Israeli features and challenges. No games are played on Saturday because that is the Jewish Sabbath, and, when Israeli national teams travel to tournaments in Europe, they take along extra kids to be sure they have enough nonobservant players in case they cannot avoid a Saturday game.

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Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, is also a no-play day, as Dodger great Sandy Koufax once taught every fledgling Jewish ballplayer. Koufax gave up pitching in a World Series game because it fell on the holiday, the most solemn day of the religious calendar.

All these factors can be accommodated or overcome, officials say, but the real issue preventing baseball in Israel from growing faster is a shortage of volunteer coaches--people who know and love the game and are willing to show their own kids and others how to play it.

Volunteerism, at least in the baseball context, is a somewhat foreign concept in Israel, Pelter and Klarfeld said. Parents here are accustomed to paying for sports programs, then dropping their children off.

“In many areas of the country, we’re having trouble finding people who want to get involved, even among new immigrants from the States,” Pelter said. “We’re afraid to encourage an expansion that we can’t support, either with the coaches or the fields. We have to hold back or risk getting egg on our faces.”

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Political Overtones

In a nation as politically fraught as Israel, it is also perhaps inevitable that politics occasionally intervenes, even in baseball.

When Israel was first admitted to the International Baseball Assn.--an international alternative to Little League--it was placed in the Asian division, Pelter said. But because several Muslim countries were then boycotting the Jewish state, Israel was never invited to tournaments. It is now a member of the European League--a happier arrangement, as the teams have been able to play without political boycotts, he said.

For the children who play here, however, much like those who play elsewhere, baseball has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the crack of a bat, the thrill of rounding the bases at a sprint, the camaraderie of a team.

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“It’s fun to play,” said Raya Epstein, 12, who lived several years in the U.S. before moving back to Israel in 1995. “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s American or Israeli. I just really like it.”


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