I was already excited to go see my beloved Tampa Bay Rays in their last regular season series at Yankee Stadium this year. I was even more overjoyed to see that Sam Fuld was playing (and that the Rays won). Fuld had been injured most of the season, and this was his first New York appearance since being off the DL. He is an exciting player to watch, and even more exciting than that…he is Jewish!
Fuld addressed his Jewishness in a New Yorker article last year with a bit of insecurity. “I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed,” he explained. “I feel like I’m almost letting [my Jewish fans] down when I tell them, ‘Well, my mom’s Catholic, and I was kind of raised celebrating both.’ ”
Yet regardless of his own feelings of authenticity in terms of being a Jewish role model, any amount of Jewishness is enough to instill a sense of pride in identifying with Fuld as a fellow Jew. Jewish celebrities can have an extremely powerful impact on Jewish identity, particularly amongst young children. I recall winning over my 4th grade students in my first year of teaching religious school by telling them that I had seen Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox (at the time) at Yom Kippur services. Despite our heated arguments over the quality of the Red Sox, the knowledge that a professional athlete was Jewish made it infinitely cooler to be in religious school.
Fuld and Youkilis—two of just ten Jewish professional baseball players—are often heralded as Jewish icons, yet both of them are born of Catholic mothers. I rarely hear their Judaism qualified by questions of patrilineal or matrilineal descent, and on the few occasions I have, it is ultimately irrelevant. We are proud to claim them among us, as well we should be. Still, it is important to be mindful of this double standard as our local Jewish communities become increasingly diverse.
Israel has recently assembled a team for the World Baseball Classic with eligibility requirements that welcome anyone of Jewish descent, and even players married to someone of Jewish descent. While these broad guidelines are surely influenced by a desire to broaden the spectrum of eligible players (they do want to win, after all), they are no less of a model of the kind of inclusiveness we encourage here at JOI.
To me, Jewish peoplehood is about celebrating diversity while embracing the heritage that unites us. I am proud to be Jewish. I am proud to know that Sam Fuld is Jewish. I am proud to know that there are non-Jewish mothers across the country who are committed to raising Jewish children, and that I can support their decision in my work with the Mothers Circle. All of us together, regardless of our backgrounds, are contributing in our own ways to what I foresee as a vibrant Jewish future.
I have always loved the way professional sports bring people together. Fans may come from different places and be rooting for different teams, but we are still all part of the game. Let’s apply that same spirit to Jewish life and open our “Big Tent” to welcome all who seek to explore and embrace their Jewish identities.