My favorite contemporary Simchat Torah story was told to me by a close friend who grew up in Pittsburgh. I offer it here in honor of Simchat Torah, which is celebrated this year on Thursday evening and Friday, and as the baseball season closes out this weekend. Nowadays, with the expanded Major Leagues, divisional playoffs and Wild Card teams, the World Series, long known as the October Classic, could very well linger until November. But when I was growing up, the World Series invariably fell out on the High Holy Days. (I used to imagine Ford Frick, the commissioner at the time, consulting a luach, or Jewish calendar, each year to pick the Series dates just to frustrate observant fans.) But it was just such a convergence of the baseball schedule and the Jewish holidays that led to the unique encounter described here …
This is a story about the faith and joy that can bring us together (all too rarely), about the ephemeral nature of man’s yearnings and the eternity of God’s words. Mostly, though, it’s just a story that always makes me smile.
The year was 1960, when Simchat Torah — that joyous day when we complete, and begin again, the reading of the Torah — was about to start, just as the long Major League Baseball season was about to end.
My friend, about 12 at the time, was the product of Holocaust survivors who were very observant and completely oblivious to America’s national pastime. They were not caught up in Pittsburgh’s excitement over the fact that this day the city was hosting the seventh and final game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rather, my friend’s family was deeply involved in the rhythm of the High Holy Days season, culminating with the transition from the solemnity of Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly after Sukkot, to the joyous celebration of Simchat Torah.
On that day, my friend joined the other members of his Orthodox congregation to mark the eternal cycle of the Torah. It was a clear, crisp fall day, and hundreds of congregants had moved outside of the synagogue in the late afternoon to usher in Simchat Torah by singing and dancing in the streets with the Torah scrolls.
As they celebrated an age-old tradition, they had no idea that across town a young second baseman for their hometown team had just achieved baseball immortality by hitting a home run over the left field wall of Forbes Field in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Pirates a 10-9 victory and a world championship. It was the first walk-off home run to end a World Series, and already thousands of Pirate fans were streaming towards the ballpark to celebrate the team’s dramatic victory.
One large group of eager-to-party fans, noisemakers and beer bottles in hand, soon came upon a joyous scene — hundreds of men and boys already singing and dancing in the streets with great fervor, passing out shots of whiskey, even to the youngsters. The newcomers quickly joined in.
Savor for a moment this unique tableau: Blue-collar baseball fans and Orthodox Jews embracing each other, laughing and dancing, arm in arm.
Could it be that Bill Mazeroski was the messiah in disguise?
The fans looked at the throng of pious, bearded men and thought, no doubt, “Son of a gun, everybody loves those Pirates.” The congregants, in turn, looked at the newcomers and thoughts, “Ah, the power of the Torah — even those far from observance feel the spirit of this holiday.”
In truth, the baseball fans knew as little about Simchat Torah and hakafot (the circles celebrants make dancing with the holy scrolls) as the congregants knew about Roberto Clemente and the Pirates.
For a few magical moments, though, a sweet incomprehension prevailed and there was a lifting of voices that transcended all differences. Everyone was so happy, blinded by the light of what each group perceived to be a miracle of sorts.
“Thank God, we beat the Yankees.”
“Thank God, we are reaching the unaffiliated.”
And so they rejoiced together, sharing the kind of celebration that is certain to be commonplace at the end of the days.
But, inevitably, after a few moments, reality descended on the scene and the two groups began to look at each other more carefully.
Those black head coverings on the original group weren’t Pirate caps, after all, but the hats of Orthodox Jews.
Those shouts of praise to God from the second group were for offering up the Yankees, it turned out, not the words of Torah.
The two groups realized there had been a misunderstanding, and after a few awkward moments the dancing slowed. As abruptly, if not as dramatically, as the splitting of the Red Sea in the days of old, the fans and the faithful parted ways.
The baseball revellers headed off in search of another celebration; the congregants turned once again to each other, and to the heavens, chanting in Hebrew their homage to the Torah: “It is a tree of life to those who cling to it, and all who uphold it are happy.”
And it was morning, and it was evening, the Seventh Game.
A slightly different version of this column was published Sept. 23, 1994.