Religion & Beliefs

Thank God for Tenth Grade

Sophomore year in high school, everything began to shift for me. It was the last hey-day of any illusions I had of being a basketball player, let’s just get that out there. I was the starting point guard on a … Read More

By / May 27, 2007

Sophomore year in high school, everything began to shift for me. It was the last hey-day of any illusions I had of being a basketball player, let’s just get that out there. I was the starting point guard on a pretty good high school JV team that won its division on defense, good passing, and the skill of a relentless shooting guard who came from some hard knocks in the City of Milwaukee–”a transfer student”, which was the district’s special term for someone who was black. He endured a family murder that season and kept on playing through it; I would double up in stomach pain in the locker room before games and fret about the players from the far west side of town German schools that chanted anti-Jewish slogans at us when we played them. I think my bourgeois angst amused him. After games we went to McDonalds, laughed at each other’s bullshit, and tried bravado on for size with an Earth, Wind and Fire soundtrack. Could it be more Seventies? Most certainly not. The shift in my own life took place on the court in slow motion and in the bus after games and in the classroom in real time. I saw life begin to pass before my eyes. Dreams of success gave way to life’s realities, to people’s lives, and while both resisting the change toward a deeper reality and regretting its inevitable swing back in my face like the older, wiser branch of a maple tree, I understood that I wouldn’t be a ballplayer. I always tell students, “I didn’t start reading books in earnest til I was 16.” This revelation allows me to share my own journey as well as the word “earnest.” So be it. I’m from Wisconsin. Get used to it. There were first the Existentialists, then the Romantics. The Russians. And then, as the Eighties emerged (God, I hated the Eighties), there was Every book about Every thing that was Wrong with the World. And in the third year of the Eighties, like the rhythmic punch line of a joke: Nineteen (one) Eighty (two) Three!!! (three) my dad’s heart gave out (BAM!) and everything changed. My dream to succeed in Sports gave way to my dream to succeed in Politics which yielded to my life in Religion. I had to say Kaddish for a dead father. And so my fate was sealed. He wasn’t killed like the Shooter’s. He just gave out, a failure of will and the tragic fragility of God’s genetic randomness. Kaddish somehow recognized it all; and that’s how I kept the flame alive. Nisan–the Hebrew month we are preparing to enter–is when it all went down back then; and so, just a few days away again, I feel that yahrzeit breathing down my neck like a full-court press and the score is tied and we need a basket and the crowd is screaming and the ball is in my hands and I’m looking for the Shooter, looking for the Shooter, looking for the Shooter. And in real life, his father’s been killed. But he’s smiling, losing his man, getting open, putting up the shot, winning the game. I gotta have more fun, despite it all. Stop taking things so seriously. And so I learn from another kid who’s in 10th grade but living wisdom beyond his years. Maybe it’s the March Madness, the pleasure of my two hometown teams in the NCAA’s. Pride–O Vanity of Vanities! But I think of my Shooter tonight as I talk Torah with my current 10th grade class, on the Wednesday before a double Bar Mitzvah with twins who play basketball. And while talking about Torah on Sinai (and the flames and the thunder on the moutain) and the flames (on the swords of the Cherubs) protecting the Garden of Eden and the students are arguing about the Fire of Torah and Free Will and Law and what it all means and they’re not talking about ANYTHING ELSE BUT TORAH and they’re so focused and they’re so proud of themselves and they’re so INTO IT and as their rabbi I’m so proud. I start daydreaming: I’m in the gym in the basement of our Shul. And I’m alone. And I’m shooting free throws. And they’re going in, one shot at a time. And I know that sound. I’ll always know that sound. You could beat me, blindfold me, throw me down a flight of stairs and I’d know that sound, a rhythm as steady as the Shema Yisrael. One, two, three, shoot, follow through, in. The Jewish word for spiritual intention is Kavanah. Direction. As in toes on the line. As in bend your knees. As in follow-through. One, two, three. God, Torah, Israel. One, two, three. Thank God for Tenth Grade.