Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part III: "Team colours"

For the past couple of months, hundreds of thousands of South Africans have worn Bafana Bafana shirts to work ea ch Friday to show support for the national side.  In Sandton City on Sunday, we passed waves of green-shirted Mexican fans eyeballing blue-and-white clad Argentinian supporters ahead of their respective countries' clash later that evening. We've seen proud Brazilians in yellow and green, Dutch fans in orange, Portuguese with red-green-yellow wigs and Spaniards in yellow and red face-paint. Wherever you go in Johannesburg, you can tell where in the world the tourists are from.

Even after their teams have crashed out of the game, fans wear their colours proudly.

As Jews, we should wear our team colours- the dress-code that shows everyone who we are- with pride. Get your yarmi and tzitzit on, so that the world will know who you support.

Lessons from the World Cup part II: "Rules of the Game"

When FIFA comes to town, they sorta take over. Locals here joke that we're living in the "Republic of FIFA" during this month of the soccer World Cup. The football federation insists on strict control over ticket sales, marketing, merchandising and more around the tournament. They take a zero-tolerance attitude and have established special "World Cup" courts that sentence offenders with lightning speed (something we're not used to in SA). 

This fixation with rules and compliance got me thinking. Imagine what would happen if a group of concerned individuals approached FIFA with the following:

"A professional soccer player will header the ball regularly during his career. Preliminary studies show that the force of the ball hitting a player repeatedly on his head may cause brain damage. We propose changing the rules of the game to allow players to use their hands to deflect the ball, rather than butting the ball with their heads. We are confident that the game will remain as exciting as always, and the players won't harm their health."

It's unlikely that FIFA deign to respond to such a suggestion. If they did reply, they'd probably say something like this:

"Thank you for your concern. Soccer is a game where the players traditionally use their feet, chest and heads to control the ball. A player may not use his hands during the game (with the exception of the goalie, of course). If you wish to play a sport where you control the ball with your hands, we recommend that you join a Volleyball league. Or, should you wish to invent a new game where players may use their hands instead of their heads to control the ball, go ahead. Just ensure that you don't call such a game soccer, because it is not soccer."

FIFA would have no qualms about telling us that soccer follows age-old, non-negotiable traditions. 

Judaism's traditions are older (and more meaningful) than soccer's. Well-meaning people sometimes try to change the rules of Judaism to suit modern needs. To them we say, "If you want to invent a new religious protocol, be our guests. Just don't call it Judaism, because Judaism played by a new set of rules is simply not Judaism."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lessons from the World Cup part I- "It's never gonna happen"

South Africa is one big party these days. I had to complain to the electricity company the other day, and the operator was unusually effervescent and couldn't help chatting about the soccer while he was processing my complaint. Wherever you go- the malls, on the street, the airport- people smile, joke and toot their vuvuzelas. Even the notoriously aggressive taxi drivers are jubilant. People use expressions like "rebirth of our country" and "crossing the racial divide". It is nothing short of miraculous.

Upon reflection, few people were optimistic about SA's readiness to host the World Cup. Cynics sneered that we'd never have the stadiums, roads or hotels ready in time (striking builders almost proved them right). Doomsayers predicted that our disorganised airports, lack of public transport and crime-epidemic would surely scare off potential tourists. Table talk was peppered with dire predictions against a chorus of "it's never gonna happen". Everyone "knew" about FIFA's backup plan to move the tournament to Oz when Africa would fluff its first shot at hosting this spectacular sporting fest.

South Africa defied the skeptics. 

As H-hour approached, the stadiums took shape, roadworks wrapped up, hotels installed furniture as they laid paving and even the Guatrain came online. We tentatively allowed ourselves to hope- maybe we could pull this thing off after all. Still, the doubts persisted, clouding our optimism. We've been let down as a nation so many times that we battle to be positive. We've missed a good number of opportunities in the past, how could we be sure we wouldn't wreck this one too?

All that changed in an instant. Doubt evaporated in an explosion of sound and colour at 12p.m. on Wednesday, 9th June. Hundreds of thousands of black and white South Africans united in Sandton, Soweto and Cape Town to show support for their B-rated national soccer side. People danced in the streets, vuvuzela'd and toyi-toyed, grinned and embraced. Our impossible moment had arrived, sparking an unstoppable celebration that still continues.

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It's been over 2000 years that we Jews have been waiting for our "Impossible moment", for the better world that our prophets and sages promised. But, we're skeptical. It's been so long and we've been let down so many times. We "know" that life will plod along, blighted with antisemitism and a growing Jewish apathy. Moshiach would never actually come. 

World Cup 2010 reminded me that everything can go right in a nanosecond. It showed how it's human nature to doubt that change will come, even when the signs are there. Watching my neighbourhood erupt into exuberance was a foretaste of that wonderful moment that will come out of the blue and transform all of us in a flash from uncertainty to unbridled joy. May it come very soon!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life's too easy

They urged, cajoled and warned us not to miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch South Africa play in the Soccer World Cup, but I did. Even having our Mincha minyan at halftime didn’t get me there in time to see our two historic goals. South Africa charged onto the field, fired by a burning urge to score and, within 20 minutes tore through Le Bleu’s defence, throwing our country into delirious euphoria. The next miracle came quickly, seventeen minutes later, as team SA plowed on at full throttle. Unbelievably, it began to look like we would win this game and maybe, just maybe, we would even make it through to the next round. But the wind was out of our sails by the second half, we lost our burning drive and faltered on the field, conceding a goal and our chance to move on to the next round. 

Between the shouting through the screen (I’m sure the players can’t hear your instructions, but you all scream anyway), someone made a profound observation: If not for the half-time break, Bafana would most likely have kept up their winning streak. Something happened inside that dressing room. Our guys had the chance to stop and reflect on the state of the game. They had time to realise that they were doing well. They faced the danger of becoming complacent.

Today, the 12th of Tammuz, commemorates the day that the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was miraculously released from Soviet prison after having being indicted on the capital offence of crimes against Stalin’s Motherland (his “crime” was strengthening Judaism in that country), To live as a Jew under the Communists was dangerous at best, yet thousands of Jews rose to the occasion and kept the flame of Yiddishkeit alive under the most challenging circumstances. If you were Jewish in Stalin’s prison-State, you knew that if you didn’t fight hard to keep your family Jewish, your Jewish line would die with you.

Ironically, when those hard-nosed Russian refuseniks eventually reached the safety of Israel or the United States, many of them became secular. They quickly exchanged the Judaism that they had fought so hard to maintain in the U.S.S.R. for the easy life of the U.S.A.

We’re living through the second half of Judaism’s campaign for survival in the 20th and 21st centuries. During the first half, our zaides and bobbas fought for Jewish values with the urgency of people who knew their lives depended upon it. 

We are their priveleged grandchildren who don’t face the crisis of survival against overwhelming hatred. Our challenge is to keep pushing as hard as they did, even as we feel comfortable with our position. We’d better not do a Bafana in G-d’s grand game of making our world a holy place.a

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We don't do religion

Wayne Rooney was cut off mid-interview yesterday, while discussing his faith. The English striker began explaining why he wears a cross and rosary beads, when Mark Whittle, head of media relations for the English Football Association, stopped him. “We don’t do religion”, the official declared.

Well, Mr. Whittle, I beg to differ. Besides all those players who praise G-d after scoring a goal, soccer is a religion in itself. 

You soccer people live by a strict and demanding code. Itumuleng Khune ( for the soccer-challenged, that’s Bafana’s goalie) can tell you what happens to someone who breaks one of those laws- even if it’s in the heat of the moment. 

Then there’s your dress code. Players (are they the priests in the temple of foot ball?) must wear the right uniforms, and all self-respecting supporters dress pretty much the same as they flaunt their team’s colours at games. 

Professional matches must be played at official stadiums. You could play six-a-side at your local school field, but it won’t have a fraction of the appeal of a pro-match and it certainly won’t attract global attention. 

Kick off at a game can’t be late and play may not stretch on longer than the legally allocated time. Fans know that they need to be there when the whistle blows or they will miss the action.

So, Mr. Whittle, you guys do religion. Big time. 

In fact, our religion could learn a thing or two from the beautiful game. We could learn to wear our Jewish uniforms with pride- even should our team lose a game. We could learn to appreciate that the game of life cannot work without a clear, unbending set of rules. Soccer’s pilgrims should inspire us to get together at our spiritual stadiums, because playing alone at home doesn’t grab  G-d’s attention in the same way the “real game” at shul does. We also need to learn that the team that plays better on the day, wins. Plus, we can learn how to focus on the next shot- not the scoreboard- while on the field. And we can appreciate that every move we make on the field carries a consequence for when the game is over. Lastly, we need to learn to be enthusiastic about the game we’re playing.

When we will live our religion as the soccer stars live theirs. the whole world will win gold.