March 16, 2023 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director
March Madness is upon us – both the March Madness involving tournament challenges and pools and brackets and the “Jewish March Madness” involving Passover seder planning, chametz removal, and the age-old debate about floaters v. sinkers (for the record, I’m on Team Floater, but I also like cold sinkers, sliced in half and slathered with butter). And since the seder is at its core an exercise in questioning, it seems fitting to begin my monthly missive with a question: what is the link between Jews, basketball, Passover, and the Maine Jewish Museum? Taking my cue from the Haggadah, it’s a bit of a long story, and you’ll have to read to the end for the answer (see what I did here?! ).
There was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, when Jews dominated the hardwood. Basketball – which requires a lot less space than a football or soccer field and is comparatively cheap to play — was an escape for immigrant Jewish families crammed into inner cities, and basketball scholarships were one of the few ways low-income urban Jews could afford college. Tellingly, in the mid-1930s, Paul Gallico, then-editor of the New York Daily News, wrote:
…basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background because the game places a premium on an alert mind, and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-Alec-ness… Jews tend to the short and so have God-given better balance and speed.
Gallico’s troublesome stereotypes and outdated terminology aside, as a “vertically challenged” individual at 5-ft. flat, I am struck how lack of height was once considered an advantage in basketball!
Despite the historic affinity between Jews and hoops, when I was a college freshman at Duke University — back in the Stone Age, according to my college-age sons, but well after Gallico’s time — I was pretty much the only person on campus who neither knew nor cared about basketball. I was a literary geek and a language nerd who preferred the stacks to the arena at a school where camping out multiple nights in a row for Duke v. UNC tickets, slathering yourself with blue face paint, and going hoarse screaming “DEFENSE” were unofficial graduation requirements.
At the time, Duke’s rising basketball star was 6‘11 Christian Laettner, a freshman (like me) who (unlike me) later became the only collegian selected for the 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, dubbed the “Dream Team,’ that won the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics, and then went on to play for 13 seasons in the NBA. In contrast to the vast majority of my classmates, who had memorized Laettner’s every statistic before even glancing at the college course book, I had no idea what this demigod even looked like.
At the end of my whirlwind and basketball-free first week of college, I went to see a movie with my roommate who was, of course, a basketball fanatic. We sat somewhere in the middle of the theater, and I joked how Murphy’s Law dictated that the tallest person in the theater would sit directly in front of me. No sooner had I spoken when, as if I had summoned him, a particularly tall young man plunked himself into – yup! — the seat directly in front of me. Rolling my eyes and gesticulating for maximum drama, I said (loudly), “See! Just my luck. For all I know, that’s Christian Laettner deliberately choosing to block my view!” My roommate, meanwhile, was frantically motioning for me to Shut. My. Mouth. NOW! Because it was, indeed, Christian Laettner blocking my view! Let’s just say, I never lived that one down.
Fast forward to today, and I’m still a literary geek and a language nerd, though along the way I developed a passion for art… and an appreciation, albeit late in the game (pun absolutely intended!) for basketball. As I have come to realize, March Madness is about more than face painting and sideline screaming. In fact, it has a surprising amount in common with the Jewish March Madness. Seder translates to “order,” and if the seder is all about following very particular rituals (the four glasses of wine, the matzoh sandwich, the hiding of the afikomen), rabid basketball fans also have their sacraments (wearing their team jersey, avoiding a stand or seat with the number ’13,’ eating or avoiding a particular food) to ensure good luck and evoke memories of great games. Passover is about the triumph of the underdog – oppressed and marginalized Jewish slaves – and rooting for the underdog in the playoffs is a time-honored basketball tradition. I can’t recall hosting a Passover seder, no matter how wonderful, that has ever met my Pinterest-worthy ambitions, nor do I know anyone who has ever achieved a perfect bracket.
Most importantly, however, Passover is a celebration of transformation: the bitter marror is offset by the sweet charoset, and the matzoh, which begins as the bread of affliction, becomes the afikomen, the bread of freedom. Just as we end the seder with the taste of the afikomen on our lips, so we must savor the feeling that we are making a difference and contributing to tikkun olam, world repair. And the NBA has transformed greatly over the decades from a little league that could barely get attention to laying the framework it stands on today – a place where athletes can be more than entertainers and use their influential platform to contribute to social justice and effect meaningful change.
Which brings me, at long last, to the Maine Jewish Museum. The Maine Jewish Hall of Fame was established in 2018 to bestow recognition on outstanding Jewish leaders throughout the state who have brought distinction and honor to the State of Maine and beyond. This year’s honorees, who will be celebrated at our Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Sunday May 21, 3 – 5:30 PM, all imbibe the value of tikkun olam, changing the world for the better through their outstanding accomplishments, humanitarian work, and philanthropic endeavors. By joining the Hall of Fame Host Committee (co-chaired by Jessica and Tom Lantos and Elizabeth and David Turetsky) with a donation of $200 per couple or $100 per individual, you are helping MJM continue its mission and provide exhibits and programs that shine a light on the contributions and diversity of Maine’s Jewish community and build bridges of appreciation and understanding among people of all backgrounds. A $200 donation includes two tickets to the reception and ceremony; a $100 donation includes one ticket. Additionally, Host Committee Members will be listed on Event Signage as well as (if confirmed by April 15) the Event Program. I also encourage you to avail yourself of our Hall of Fame sponsorship and advertising opportunities, a great way to “do well by doing good.” Now, that’s the kind of team sport we can all get behind!
Wishing a zissen Pesach to those who celebrate. Oh, and GO BLUE DEVILS!
P.S. Take a break from your Passover cleaning and Elite Eight binge-watching and join us for Collage Across Cultures: Photo Collage Workshop and Potluck Lunch on Sunday, March 26, 1 – 3 PM. In the seasonal spirit of transformation, art (and food!) have the transformative power to break down barriers in the face of increasing antisemitism, heightened racial tensions, and growing xenophobia. And in this interactive workshop and potluck vegetarian lunch, local artist and award-winning community builder Paula Gerstenblatt will help you turn your photos and mementos into a beautiful collage! Bring your photos/mementos, a vegetarian dish that speaks to your cultural identity or tells us something about you, and a story or three to share; we’ll show you how to tap into your creative reservoir to connect to your roots and to others with very different roots. Click here to register (registration is FREE, but required).