One of my favorite non-Jewish books on religion is called Baseball as a Road to God. Despite its potentially kitschy title, it’s actually a wonderful work of scholarship written by NYU President John Sexton, who teaches a many times oversubscribed university seminar on the subject. The book covers various aspects of religious identity–from community to faith–while brilliantly using baseball as a tool to try to explain those concepts in an accessible way.
After watching the Super Bowl as a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and watching my now Atlanta raised son cheer for the Falcons, I could not stop thinking back to his chapter on conversion. As a young man, Sexton was born and raised on the Brooklyn Dodgers. He tells stories about how he would spend his nights as a child staying up late listening to games on the radio. Being a Dodgers fan was an important part of his Brooklyn identity. Yet when his son was raised in New York, decades later, it was clearly no longer possible for him to be a Dodgers fan. The team had betrayed the city and moved to Los Angeles. Sexton’s son fell prey to rooting for the evil empire: The New York Yankees.
For a former Brooklynite, Sexton writes that there could be no worse kind of a baseball betrayal. Had he been Jewish, he probably would have said that it “ate away at his kishkes.” In the end, however, Sexton comes to accept his son’s “conversion” to the Yankees because he understands that at the very least, he has passed his love of the game on to his son. It was better that his son should love the game on his own terms, and join another proud legacy, than not to love it or be connected at all.
It may not surprise you to find out that John Sexton’s son, in addition to converting his sports affiliation, also converted to Judaism. Not long after the book was published, I read about Sexton’s attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah in the local New Jersey Jewish newspaper. As Jews, this kind of conversion raises far more complicated questions for us than ones about sports teams. How are we to react when our children choose a spiritual pathway that may not be aligned with our own sense of the way we identify? How might we as Jews better understand the reasons that people come to affiliate with our faith in the first place?
As a child growing up in Philadelphia in the 1990s (not in a milieu too dissimilar from television’s The Goldbergs), I spent most of my childhood cursing the Atlanta Braves, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine as they denied us entry into the playoffs year after year. But this week, my three-year old son proudly donned his Atlanta Falcons jersey and cheered “Go Braves, Go Falcons.” After this city and its people have become dear to us over the past year, is it any wonder that my son has “converted” to the religion of Atlanta?
Fortunately, we only let my son watch the first half of the Super Bowl. We sent him to bed a little before halftime. We haven’t told him about the end of the game. Either way, I am happy as a Philadelphian that he’ll become part of another proud losing football tradition, or, that I still have a shot of making an Eagles fan out of him yet.