Sandy Koufax taught pride to generation of young Jews

I remember it as if it were yesterday.

It was Oct. 6 — the opening day of the 1965 World Series. The Dodgers, behind the great pitching of Sandy Koufax, had won the National League pennant and advanced to the Series. But Koufax, who was slated to start the first game, was not on the mound. He was not even in the stadium.

He was not there because it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

The mid-'60s were a time of great turmoil and transformation in the United States. It was a particularly painful year in the history of Los Angeles with the Watts riots and the social tensions that had led to them. But baseball was still untouched by the many changes that would affect it in later years. It did not suffer from strikes or labor disputes. Most players stayed with one team for their entire career. Baseball was rich in heroes and Sandy Koufax was one of the greatest of his time — especially in the eyes and heart of a Jewish boy in southeast Los Angeles.

As a Jewish boy and an ardent baseball fan, I had a great need for Jewish heroes — especially on the playing field. Koufax's refusal to play on Yom Kippur filled me with pride. I realized that day that no one should ever be embarrassed when practicing one's religion or identifying with one's ancestral culture. Ethnic and religious identity should engender fulfillment and hope.

It was a courageous act for Koufax to abstain from playing in an era that preferred to sanitize difference. His decision not to pitch that Yom Kippur served as an important reminder that America shelters many different faiths and religious practices. Koufax taught me that I could hope to take an active part in American life without compromising my religious convictions. This lesson has remained, and has solidified my commitment to make it accessible to all people.

As I recollect, Koufax to this day has never really talked about his observance of Yom Kippur during the World Series of 1965. Newspapers reported that he attended services at a synagogue in St. Paul, Minn., where the Dodgers were playing the Twins. His decision must have come out of a basic conviction that conscientious Jews don't work or play sports — even a team's most important game — on this most sacred of days for the Jewish people.

Koufax was not known as either a religious or civil rights leader; his personal decisions were not calculated to have an impact on others. He was a great baseball player and a Jew, but who could have imagined that his not playing would inspire a generation of youth to embrace their distinctive identity?

Of course not everyone was or is inspired. Today there are undoubtedly Jews who fail to understand the symbolic value of Koufax's act and have not found meaning in Yom Kippur. As in 1965, so this year, too, there are Jews afraid to absent themselves from work in order to observe the Jewish High Holy Days, Jews fearful of losing compensation or of being scorned for asserting a religious difference. How sad it is that the fear of being seen as different still influences so many people of all ancestries and religions in our country.

Koufax's act gave me and a great many in my generation a renewed determination to assert our Jewish identity. The core message of the Jewish High Holy Days is to examine our own consciences as individuals and as a community, to take responsibility for our own actions, and to work for a world where freedom, justice and peace are a living reality for all people.

I learned that October in 1965 the power of personal acts. Deep down Koufax probably knew that all the crowds and all the adoration would someday disappear. What would remain? His own conscience, his own identity, his own integrity.

That October day, I met a challenge of my own. I wanted to listen to the game on my transistor radio. Yet if Sandy had the courage not to play, I could find in myself the discipline not to turn on the radio. Sandy, I thank you for the inspiration and the example you provided. Today, 31 years later, your decision shines brighter than ever.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of the upcoming “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope in Their Own Words.”