by Zachary Benjamin
Jewish Federation of New Mexico
For me, like many New Mexicans, the Land of Enchantment is an adopted home. Born in Chicago, I moved with my family to Los Angeles when I was barely two years old, then to Tampa, Florida, just prior to my bar mitzvah. I found myself back in Chicago for college, New York for graduate school, and again in Chicago for the decade preceding my wife’s and my eventual move to Albuquerque.
Like many of us raised on the coasts and in the Midwest, sports and the teams I’ve come to embrace are woven indelibly into the fabric of who I am. The world of sport is a parallel universe in which we can live and die with each win and loss, and yet lose very little when the outcome falls the opposition’s way.
The interaction between fan and team is a relationship. It lives and breathes as does a marriage, evolving over the course of a lifetime into a narrative arc that often reflects one’s own personal journey. As a fan, some years are more memorable than others. Some are forgettable. During the
heady times, we cling to every pitch, shot, or pass, wishing we could bottle the elation of sweet victory and sip from it as one might savor a wine from a personally auspicious year. During hard times, one might temporarily detach for the sake of the long-term relationship, creating some distance between one’s self and the team’s unmet expectations.
There is something quintessentially Jewish about the fan experience. We agonize as our team and its players hang suspended in the ether between victory and defeat. We develop neuroses and superstitions, wondering if the clothes we wore on game day or our choice of chicken wing sauce somehow contributed to the outcome of the contest. We seek the approval of others. We develop philosophical explanations for bizarre occurrences, sometimes resigning ourselves to the notion that, perhaps, only the will of Hashem is responsible for a home run ball blown just foul or a one-timer missing just wide of the net. When our team wins a championship, it raises the cache of the entire fan base, just as one daughter’s or son’s professional success is the source of pride for an entire family.
Perhaps no fan experience embodies this narrative as poignantly and, at times, as painfully as that shared by those of us whose loyalties lie with baseball’s Chicago Cubs. Generations of Cubs fans were born, made and lost fortunes, raised families, and passed away without ever experiencing triumph. When the Cubs lost the final game of the National League Championship Series in 2003, I was among the despondent exiting a deflated Wrigley Field. Mourning hung heavy in the air. Some parents attempted to weave it into a teaching moment for their young children. Elderly men and women wept openly as they absorbed the realization that their last chance to experience that which had eluded every Cubs fan of the past 95 years may have slipped away.
It would be another 13 years and what seemed like a lifetime of missed opportunities before the Cubs finally won a World Series. At that moment, the position of the Cubs’ faithful in the pantheon of fandom was forever changed, elevated by the success of those nine men dancing on the pitcher’s mound, none of whom most fans would likely ever meet. 90-year-old Dorothy Farrell danced atop the Cubs’ dugout. Tears of joy flowed around the world, including here in Albuquerque, in my wife’s and my living room, as the weight of a century of futility—not our own, of course, but that of an entity onto which we had projected so many of our own hopes and fears—melted away.
A year later, our New Mexico Jewish community experienced a similar moment of elation and collective elevation when the Houston Astros, led by Jewish hometown hero Alex Bregman, captured the World Series title. It was a celebration that came at the ideal moment for our community. While Jewish New Mexico is, in many ways, stronger than ever, we nonetheless found ourselves bruised by a year of political turmoil, bomb threats at the JCC, and perhaps the subtle creep of pessimism about the future of the Jewish people in a deeply polarized national discursive climate. Alex Bregman’s triumph refocused our attention on the good, the possible—on that which fills us with pride and motivates us to create the very best version of ourselves as Jews and as human beings.
While the outcome of a game or a season may not be deeply consequential, sports fandom is not, despite the claims of some, a frivolous exercise. The fan experience is a source of escape in traumatic times and comfort in the notion that patience and endurance do lead to perseverance. Love of sport, like Judaism, passes from parent to child, fostering familial bonds between generations. Like Judaism, sport begets hope, teaches patience, and helps build the strength of character necessary to successfully navigate real-world relationships and scenarios of every stripe.
To be a sports fan is, in many ways, to be a Jew: to seek peace and enlightenment through a collective experience steeped in ritual, shrouded at times in mystery, occasionally fraught with peril, and at its best a source of fulfillment and joy.