Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Story Seven: Hammering Hank

This one definitely wants to be more. This is more of the outline/section of a larger story about the West End of Boston, Hank Greenberg and Boston as the world was preparing for war. This draft feels like it needs a lot of work and yet... the point here is to get the ideas down, not to edit or revise... yet. I do know this, I need to spend some time learning more about the West End of Boston as well aas some time at the Vilna Shul museum.


Dad winked at Max.

“If we ‘forget’ to turn the radio off, then mom can’t object if we listen to the game tomorrow,” he said.

Max knew that look and the tone in his dad’s voice. It was his way of getting around what he called “mom’s crazy Orthodoxy.”
Both of Max's parents came over to America when they were little. My dad’s family from Germany, my mom’s from Lithuania.

They grew up in the West End of Boston, across the canal from the Irish in Charlestown. But Max's dad’s family moved to an emerging Jewish community in Brookline while his mom’s family chose to stay in the community that had become a “little Vilna.”
It was hard sometimes. His dad’s family spoke English and changed their name from Berg to Mountain. They were Americans that happened to be Jewish while his mom’s family still spoke Yiddish and talked about going home one day even as they refused to move from the community that had been the only home they had known since coming to American and the only one I had ever known.

The one thing both families agreed on was “The Hebrew Hammer,” Hank Greenberg. The Jewish player from the Detroit Tigers. He was a leader to show the world that Jews were just like everyone else.

While his dad was a steadfast Red Sox fan, all of Max's community cheered for Hammering Hank. When boys played stick ball with in the schoolyard or street, no one wanted to be Ed Morgan if they were playing first, they all wanted to be Hank Greenberg. He was one of them. He was that Orthodox Jew that became what all of us wanted to be: an all- American guy.

“What am I hearing?” my mother said as she bustled into the room. Her wig was a little askew as she looked at my father. It was her “I mean business look.”

“Ruth, Ruth, Ruth,” my father started, “if the Rabbis say that Hank Greenberg can play on Rosh HaShannah, then we can leave the radio on and listen when we come home from shul.”

Max waited for the Yiddish to start. Whenever my mother was mad or disagreed with my dad, she would argue with him in Yiddish. Instead she looked at him long and hard. Then she looked at me.

“Ima,” Max started, “it’s Hank Greenberg. His Ima is letting him play today. His Rabbi is letting him play. I’m not asking to play today, only to listen while he plays the Red Sox to see what happens.”

As she looked at me with her hands on her hips, I noticed she had her wooden spoon in her hand. I realized she had been cooking when Abba turned on the radio.

“I have to finish the kugel for tomorrow,” she said looking at me. She left the room and my father gave me another friendly wink.

“Good job Max.”

I smiled.

“I am always amazed at how Tom Yawkey was able to recover so quickly from that fire last January so that we were able to go to games this summer. That’s because when people are industrious, even in these times, they find a way to make things work. If you learn one thing from baseball my son, I hope that is it.”

“Ima doesn’t like baseball, does she?”

“Ima doesn’t understand baseball.”


Max's father thought a while as he listened to the low voices from the radio to make sure the right station was on.

“My parents came from Germany. They understood that leaving Germany meant leaving what they knew. They were starting new in this country. They saw opportunity for their children. The were coming to something. Your mother’s family came from Lithuania. They fled to to this country to escape from the pograms. The Tsar’s soldiers, the angry people in the village that blamed the Jews for everything that went wrong and gave them no credit for what went right. They came to America to be safe. It’s about are you looking forward or looking back.”

“Is that why Papa and Nana moved to Brookline while Tzadye and Bubbe stayed here?”

“Papa teaches at Harvard, Tzadye’s business is here.”

“But Papa could live here like you do. You teach at Boston Latin and live here.”

His father smiled.

“Max, one day I hope you will go to college and be more than I can imagine you’d ever be. It is why I want you to study hard and learn well. Your mother hopes for you to be a doctor or a lawyer, someone who is respected and well loved in the community. Like baseball, she doesn’t understand America the way I do.”

“You look forward.”

He smiled.

“I look forward, as should you.”

“Tzayde says as good as Hank Greenberg is, I spend too much time thinking about baseball and not enough about Torah.”
“What did you say to him?”

Max shrugged.

“I didn’t say anything really. No matter what I say, he’ll still say I don’t study enough Torah.”

My father laughed.

“Good strategy.”

“Why is it OK for Hank Greenberg to play baseball on Rosh HaShannah?”

“Because some Rabbis understand that we need leaders and heroes, just like Juddah Maccabee and King David had to break the rules, sometimes so do our modern heroes. Do you think any Jewish kids in America will doubt how important the holidays are after this?”

Max thought for a moment. “I guess not. I mean, he plays and travels on Saturdays instead of going to Shul. I’m sure his family studies Torah like the rest of us but during the baseball season, he’s a baseball player.”

“What does that tell you?”

“He works hard to be such a good player. If G-d gave him the ability to be a good player so that Jewish kids have a role model, then wouldn’t it be a sin to waste that?”

“That’s how you should be thinking Max. Our Creator gave us common sense, skill and intelligence. It would be a shande not to use those things or to listen to those that show us how to use those things.”

“So why do people like Tzayde get upset that he is playing on Rosh Hashannah? Originally he wasn’t going to, but his rabbis said his team needed him. So why do people get upset when his rabbi said it was OK?”

“That is the question isn’t it?”

Max looked at his father.

With a sigh his father continued, “One thing you can count on with Jews is that we always disagree. When you study Talmud, you see how the rabbis argue through the ages about everything… it doesn’t matter if it’s from whether the Hannukah candles are lit from left to right or right to left, if there’s a question, we will debate and argue it.”
Max thought for a moment.

“Dad, why are you a Red Sox instead of a Braves fan?”

“I hadn’t thought about that.” He stroked his between his thumb and forefinger for a while thinking. “I guess,” he finally said,
“because your grandfather took me to a Red Sox game instead of a Braves game. He loved the look of Fenway Park. It opened the same year we moved to Boston so he feels like Fenway is a part of his identity as an American. I was just a kid, but my dad was determined that I be like any other boy in the neighborhood, so that summer he took me to some Red Sox games.”

“So if he took you to Braves game we might be Braves fans?”

“And if I had a million dollars I might be Mr. Rockefeller.”

Max laughed. His father was full of those sorts of things when he asked him “if” questions like that.

They sat quietly in the front room, something that he and his father liked to do a lot. The apartment was full of good smells, his mother’s apple kugel and roasted chicken. He could hear Bubbe and his mother arguing in the kitchen like they always did.

His little sister, Sarah, was probably trying to knead the rich challah egg bread or roll out pie crust for the apple pie his mother always made for Rosh Hashannah. His baby brother Saul was most likely sleeping in the basket in a corner of the kitchen out of the way but where his mother could still keep a watchful eye.

Their little apartment felt comfortable, it felt like home. His grandparents lived next door but were in their apartment more often than not. He knew Tzayde would soon be home from his cobbler’s shop and clean up before coming over to signal the men would walk to shul to start the holiday.

“Is this what Vilna feels like?”

“I don’t know Max, I’ve never been to Vilna. But this does feel like home to me.”

“Do you think Hank Greenberg’s home feels like this?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never met the man or his family to ask. I suspect that before he was famous that yes, he did grow up in a place like this.”

“Will I be a great baseball player one day?”

“Who knows. Even if you work hard, you may never be a ball player, but if you study hard, you will always be a great scholar. Remember Max, smart is not something you are, it’s something you get. All of us have gifts given to us and we need to work harder to develop the things that don’t come easy and yet we always have options.”

Max nodded as his father smiled.

“Would you be mad if I went to New York University, like Hank Greenberg did, instead of Harvard or Yale?”
His father looked at him.

“In six or seven years, when we have to decide on a college, we can think about it then. By then you will know if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or even a baseball player. Perhaps you will choose to be a rabbi. Perhaps you will choose to be something else. You’ll figure it out when it’s time but for now let’s get ready for the holiday, it will be dark before long.”
Max stood up from the chair and began to move towards his bedroom. At the living room door he stopped and turned around.


“Yes Max.”

“Thank you for letting me listen to baseball.”

His father smiled.

“Every boy needs a hero, I’m glad that Hammering Hank is yours. Now go get ready.”

Max ran back and hugged his father.

“Thank you Abba.”

“I love you too Max.”

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