Over at The Atlantic, Alan Siegel reminds us that it was 45 years ago today (by the Jewish calendar, anyway) that Sandy Koufax decided that he was not going to pitch on Yom Kippur. His decision still resonates, particularly since we continue to fight about who counts as a real American.
This was at a time when being Jewish was decidedly not cool, in the way it sort of is today (the phrase "Judeo-Christian heritage," including Jews in the American canon, hadn't yet been invented). Koufax's quiet stand wasn't even particularly religious -- he didn't go on and on about the meaning of Yom Kippur or anything (he wasn't all that observant). He just said that as a Jew, it wouldn't be right for him to play on this day. And in doing so, he made a powerful statement, one that every Jewish kid learns about with awe.
Koufax's story tells those Jewish kids something important about America: Here, you don't have to hide who you are. Even if you sometimes feel like an outsider, you can still stand up without fear and know that you're being true to the spirit of your country, even if some people might look at you askance for it.
Not long after reading a book about the Dodger great, I had my own opportunity for a Koufax moment, when, thinking about Koufax and the World Series as I raised my hand, I refused to play "The Little Drummer Boy" in the junior high band's holiday program, because it was a song about Jesus, and I thought it was inappropriate for a public school. It wasn't that big a deal -- I didn't get punished or beaten up or anything, and the song went on without the contribution of my trumpet, just as the World Series game went on without Koufax. But for a little while, I felt principled and strong, which is something 12-year-olds don't get to feel very often.
This is why for some of us, Sandy Koufax will always be the most important athlete America ever produced -- not only someone of extraordinary physical gifts and accomplishment, but a man of unrivaled class. Which, I should add, he has demonstrated throughout his life, long after he left the field. And why Bernie Madoff should rot in hell for stealing from him. I mean, Elie Wiesel is one thing, but Sandy Koufax? Come on!
-- Paul Waldman