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What Little League Baseball Taught Me About Being a Jewish Parent

Bending my rules—but not breaking them—let my son play ball without forgetting that family and synagogue still come first

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Baseball, in my New Jersey suburb, is very apple-pie Americana. It couldn’t be sweeter: Kids in the local recreational league meet in the park, and parents coach, usually without acrimony.

But when my second son said he wanted to play, I said no.

The league’s games take place throughout the week, including Saturdays. And on “game day” the assumption is that each player’s immediate—and perhaps extended—family will show up to watch.

“We’re Jewish,” I told him. “On Saturday mornings, we should be in synagogue, not on a baseball field.”

That, after all, was how I had been raised. I grew up Conservative in Short Hills, N.J., the suburb made famous by Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus long before “The Mall” became the town’s main cultural referent. Our family wasn’t shomer Shabbat, but we were more observant than most of our Jewish friends’ families; we sang the full birkat hamazon on Friday nights and kept a kosher home. My three siblings and I went to Hebrew school on Tuesday and Thursday nights and to Junior Congregation services on Saturday mornings.

I learned from our way of life that Judaism wasn’t just who you were—it was where you were and why you knew you had to be there. On given days and at given times, you were supposed to be in a given place. It didn’t matter if there was “regular” school on Shavuot; we skipped it to go to synagogue. If friends had a party on Friday night when I was in high school, I’d go—but only after Shabbat with my family. None of us played sports with a Friday night or Saturday morning component—partly because we were a family of nerds, but also because our religious obligations came first.

That’s how I was raised, and that’s how I, as a parent, was trying to raise my kids. That’s why I said no when my son asked about playing baseball. But he pleaded for me to let him try it out for one season. An experimental season—that sounded fair, at least in the context of my bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived state. As mother to five children, three of whom were under 3, I didn’t have the energy, frankly, for a fight. I felt that omnipresent parental guilt over the babies’ pull on my time and energy and thought that acquiescence could provide slight relief from that crushing load. So, against my better judgment and with certain conditions, I finally said yes.

***

I was struck, initially, by the similarities between the Little League life and my life as an every-Shabbat-synagogue-goer. There was a similar undercurrent of devotion and a sense of visceral security that this was the only place to be.

Just like synagogue, Little League had a host of “supposed-to’s” with which I, as a parent, was expected to comply. I seemed to be the only one to drop my kid off at the game and then go on my merry way; apparently we were supposed to stay for the duration of the game, hang out with the other parents, and watch our children play. This expectation, to me, seemed to be at odds with the idea that I had four other children. But again, if you were a Little League parent, then you were supposed to be parent to one or perhaps two other children who, obviously, would also love sports—not one kid for whom “sports” was tantamount to “root canal,” and certainly not babies and toddlers who wouldn’t last five minutes at a two-hour game. You were also supposed to learn the names of all the other kids on the team (“Go, Billy! You can do it!”). I barely know my own children’s names.

For all of my own disorientation, my son took to Little League like Nemo to the sea. He immediately felt comfortable and at home on the field and at practices. And that was even weirder for me.

I’d envisioned each one of my children growing up into secular versions of the Talmud chachem, stereotypical Jewish nerds who would have to be told, “You know you’re only allowed to take 10 paperbacks books with you for our weekend trip, so you’re going to have to decide which ones you’ll leave behind.” Little nerdlings who would pump their fists in the air when they got the final winning question at the taping of their high-school Quiz Bowl on Suburban Cablevision.

And now I found myself mom to a 9-year-old jock. I mean, the kid’s smart, too. But no parents had ever sought me out to tell me how smart my kid was, while many approached me on the field to tell me that my kid had a “great arm.”

“Oh, you’re his mom?” people would ask me. “He’s really good.”

Coming from a family of nerds, I found this kind of compliment perplexing. After all, I’d spent virtually my entire existence validating myself by saying things like “Athletics don’t matter—brains do.” Athletics and other feats of physical prowess, in the words of my late grandfather, were “for the goyim.” (This was a particularly nonsensical sentiment coming from him, considering that he played football all through high school and college, but never mind.)

But as a parent, I believe it’s important to encourage your child’s interests and run with them, even if—and maybe especially if—they don’t line up with your own inclinations. So, I got sitters and went to games, I worked my snack-bar rotation, and I watched my son. I watched him play and watched him as he learned not only about baseball, but also about the other families in our community. He skipped practice for the second Seder, and during chol hamoed Passover he played in games but didn’t get a snack from the snack bar afterward—and was surprised when other Jewish kids showed a lack of regard for laws held sacrosanct in our house. “I thought Mark was Jewish,” he said to me. “Why was he eating bread? It’s Passover.”

Different families, I told him, observe holidays differently, and it was possible that Mark’s family chose not to observe at all. I saw his eyes widen—who knew that was an option?—and I felt a sinking fear. I wondered if this proximity to another way of life would lead my son, and by extension our family, away from what I’d always believed was important. I wanted to be true to my son, but at the same time, was conflicted: What if being true to his interests meant sacrificing something far more important?

The season went on, my son became a starting pitcher, and my balancing act continued. I insisted that he skip games and practices that were held during Hebrew school. “Hebrew school is more important,” I told him, even on days when I felt fairly sure that his class would be doing nothing more intellectually strenuous than a Hebrew word-find. He was unthrilled, but compliant; the coach was understanding.

One day I let my son leave Hebrew school 30 minutes early so he could attend a game. He fairly skipped down the synagogue steps, tossing a “Shalom, suckers,” over his shoulder as he left, then, “Sorry, Mom—thanks for taking me.” He was appreciative. I felt guilty. Who was the sucker?

Through a freak of scheduling, his team never had a Friday night or Saturday morning game that season, for which I was grateful—although I wasn’t sure to whom.

The fact was that, while I didn’t really want to admit it, I found myself liking baseball. Not so much the sport itself, but I was impressed by the sense of community and belonging. Sitting with the other moms and dads and grandparents, supporting each other’s kids with cheers between idle chitchat, was really … nice. Sort of like sitting in shul had once been for me, before I had to leave every 10 minutes to change someone’s diaper or keep someone from screaming.

Let’s face it, I would have been sucked in just by the opportunity to sit outside, in beautiful weather, for two hours with no one whining or needing a diaper change. But the real wonder lay in watching my son, in seeing that he had suddenly grown up and was becoming someone new. What I loved was seeing his talent and joy in something that I barely understood. This was, I realized, a new frontier in parenting—and it was unexpectedly a world of surprise and pride.

***

Soon it was time for the playoffs. And my luck couldn’t hold out any longer: The big game was scheduled for a Saturday. The day of my niece’s bat mitzvah, which was in Greenwich, Ct.

The idea of telling my son that he couldn’t attend the game because of a bat mitzvah sickened me. Who did I think I was, I thought, trying to walk the fine line between our Judaism and his baseball? The line was getting thinner and thinner, and now we would have to step off. There was no question of where my son belonged on that day, and it wasn’t on the baseball field.

“I don’t want to tell him,” I said to my husband in bed, unable to fall asleep as I kept envisioning my son’s reaction to the news that he would have to miss the big game.

“Well, you’re going to have to, and he’s just going to deal with it,” my husband said matter-of-factly. “You can’t be afraid to tell a 9-year-old that he can’t go to a baseball game.”

True. But after weeks of seeing my son thrive on the field and practice his pitches endlessly in the backyard, I dreaded telling him. It was hard to say what I feared most: his disappointment, his teammates’ disappointment, or the idea of him holding a grudge against a “stupid” bat mitzvah when my entire point was that nothing could, in fact, be less stupid.

“When’s the playoff game going to be?” he asked me as he slurped down his breakfast cereal.

“We don’t know yet,” I said, refilling my coffee cup with my back to him. I could feel my husband’s eyes rolling. Well, it was kind of true, I thought as I sipped my coffee—the time assignment hadn’t been doled out yet. And I was secretly hoping for a late-night Saturday game, not even knowing if such things existed and not wanting to ask a more seasoned parent.

Besides, I wasn’t the first parent to delay telling their kid an unpleasant truth. Just look at Abraham and Isaac: “We’re just going up the hill for a hike, son.”

But then we got the time of the game: 8 a.m. And I came up with a compromise: I told him that he could play in the first inning, but that at 8:45 a.m., he would need to be in the minivan with the rest of us, zooming up to Connecticut and somehow covering an hour and a half of distance in time for the 10 a.m. service.

To my surprise, he was nothing if not appreciative. “Thanks for letting me play at all,” he said.

You can try to make the “fun” and “Jewish” line up as much as possible—you can go to Jewish camp and youth group, you can knock yourself out to make engaging Seders—but as long as you try to live a Jewish life and an American life, there will be conflicts. And for those of us who are not strictly observant, sometimes the choices are harder to make.

But in teaching your kids what’s OK and what isn’t, you set precedents by showing that there are things that do take precedence over others. Where you are, as it turns out, still shows who you are. You show your kids what you value by what you do, much more than what you say. And as a parent, at least for 16 to 17 years, you have the opportunity to take them where you want them to be.

At 8:45, we pulled the minivan up to the side of the baseball diamond. My son got into the car, his grubby, mud-covered baseball pants brushing up against my other son’s khakis and suit jacket. As the omnipresent Frozen soundtrack played in the car and my husband gunned the motor to unreasonable speed, we drove toward more godly pursuits.

And I knew I’d be doing this metaphorical back and forth drive for the rest of my parenting life.

***

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What Little League Baseball Taught Me About Being a Jewish Parent

Bending my rules—but not breaking them—let my son play ball without forgetting that family and synagogue still come first