Community Sports News

The Jewish Sportsmans Dilemma – To Pray or Play

28 July 2016
By Mandy Yachad, Maccabi SA Ambassador, July 2016

I would like to share with you some of my experiences during my time, many years ago, as a sportsman and more particularly how I managed - or at least tried to manage - to combine a sporting and professional career whilst at the same time attempting to uphold my faith and beliefs and the conflict which it created. Before I do so though, I must sketch some background.
South Africa has always been and remains a sports mad country with a passion which has been fuelled over the past 20 or so years by the staging of the Rugby and Cricket World Cups and more recently by the successful hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, which, can you believe it, was six years ago.

When I was growing up (and I suppose this has not changed), it was the dream and ambition of every young boy to play sport for his country, the sports in which South Africa excelled on the world stage, during my youth, being cricket & rugby. Let me hasten to add that unlike today, for most that ambition was not driven by a desire to become an icon or make a fortune from sport – as most sports were purely amateur – but rather driven by the honour of representing one’s country and competing at the highest level.

From a Jewish perspective this ambition was made more realistic and more tangible, particularly in the 1960’s and early 1970’s in that the Jews, who constituted less than 1% of the total South African population, had two representatives in the Springbok cricket team which toured England with the Springbok team in 1965, namely Ali Bacher and Denis Gamsy.

South Africa was plunged into international cricketing isolation in 1968, when the then Prime Minister, John Vorster, advised the MCC that Basil d’Oliviera, a man of colour who was born in South Africa but who had qualified to play for England, would not be welcome in South Africa as a member of the England team which was due to tour later that year, at the same time declaring the English team “the team of the anti – apartheid movement”. Although that tour was called off by the MCC, there was one further tour to South Africa by Australia, in 1969 / 70 in which series the Springboks under the captaincy of Ali Bacher won 4-0, which tour was followed by the years of official isolation.

It is quite amazing that the ensuing isolation did not in any material way affect the quality of our sport (as was evident when we did eventually return to the international arena) or in any way lessen or dampen most young South African’s desire to play for their country. Perhaps it was because there was an optimistic and naïve belief that this situation would be of a very temporary nature, which belief was given credence by the fact that some sports, including rugby and, albeit on a much quieter and smaller scale, hockey, were still competing internationally.

It is also very sad that the period of 21 years of cricketing isolation deprived not only South Africa but the whole cricketing world of some exceptional cricketers with and against whom I had the privilege of playing. These included players such as Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Mike Procter, Clive Rice, Peter Kirsten, Jimmy Cook, Garth le Roux and Kenny McEwan. The topic of how South Africa would have fared against the rest of the world during that period is a fascinating discussion of its own …

But now to my story…

Someone who googled my details in Wisden (which, for those who are not familiar, is the bible of cricket) would discover that I was born on 17 November 1960. It will not tell you however that I come from a traditional Orthodox family or that I was named Menachem Mendel after both my late grandfathers, which also indicates my Chassidic roots. Both my parents came to South Africa at a very early age from Eastern Europe and whilst certainly keeping the traditions, beliefs and a very strong connection to Yiddishkeit, they were, like many other first and second generation South Africans, strongly influenced by the South African way of life.

My late mother, alav hasholom (who passed way in 1972) was a very competent sportswoman, excelling in both hockey and swimming. She played provincial hockey and I assume that it is from her that I inherited my passion for sport.

My late father, alav hasholom, was not a sportsman himself, but was an avid spectator and a supporter of mine and we spent many afternoons watching and supporting our favourite soccer and cricket teams.

I attended Houghton Primary, a public school which was not at all renowned for its sporting prowess and during my primary school years my Jewish education consisted of an hour of learning Hebrew each morning before school.

In any event, at primary school we only played sport during the week, normally on a Wednesday afternoon, and never on Shabbos and it was only at high school that I encountered my first conflict of playing sport on Saturdays. Highlands North Boys High was a government school and so if one wanted to play a team sport – I played cricket, hockey and rugby – the matches were often played on a Saturday.  At that stage I did not realise the religious implications of playing on Shabbos and like many others living in a non, or only semi religious world, I regarded it as being part of the normal way of South African life.

It was around this time, in 1972, that we were first exposed to Chabad with the arrival in South Africa of Rabbi and Mrs Lipskar as the official shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Lipskar became the rabbi of the Chassidim Shul in Harrow Road. My dad was then on the committee at the Chassidim Shul and I was with him at the airport to welcome the Lipskars. The Lipskars have now been here for over 44 years, and they and the other Shluchim have had a profound influence on our lives and the lives of many South Africans since then.

An indication of the dual life that I now started to lead, was that while on the one hand I was in the early days of embarking on a sporting career, on the other hand at my barmitzvah in 1973, I was the first barmitzvah boy in our Shul, the original Chassidim Shul, to layn the whole parsha, a practice which is now common and which I’m proud to say, was continued by my sons Shaul and Ariel at their Barmitzvahs.

It was at high school that I was first chosen for representative sides which often meant being away from home. This presented a second area of conflict which had two elements.  Firstly, with regard to keeping kosher and secondly with regard to davening and putting on tefillin.

My family, like many traditional South Africans, kept a strictly kosher home. However, keeping kosher away from home was a challenge. As time passed however and I became more observant, I discovered firstly the importance of kashrut and secondly that it was not that difficult to keep kosher away from home. When I did travel, I tried, as much as possible, to arrange to be at a kosher home for supper on Friday nights. And later on in my career when we stayed in hotels rather than hostels, I made the necessary arrangements to take food with me and would arrange to have a fridge in my hotel room.

The second challenge was that of davening and putting on tefillin every morning. It was difficult and I often felt uncomfortable, if not embarrassed, to be seen by my team mates wearing my tefillin, thinking that they would regard me as something of a freak. As there was very little, if any, privacy, the end result was that there were some days when, because of my feeling of embarrassment and my perception of being regarded as strange, I either failed to put on tefillin or did so but without the correct intention or thought, being more concerned with getting over with the davening as quickly as possible. It was only in the latter years, as I progressed in my Yiddishkeit, that I adopted the attitude and plucked up sufficient courage that no matter with whom I was sharing, to be open with my davening and putting on tefillin.

As my sporting career and more particularly my cricket career progressed, so the inner conflict between playing sport at a high level and trying, at the same time, to be frum, grew.

1978 was a milestone year for me. It was the year I started studying law at Wits and was also the year during which I first played provincial cricket and was first chosen to represent South Africa at hockey. Whilst being chosen to represent my country at hockey was certainly the highlight in my hockey career which spanned 13 years, and playing my first Currie Cup game for Transvaal – the Mean Machine – against Western Province was to me an achievement of a long time ambition, the first major highlight of my cricketing career was being chosen for South Africa against the West Indies team which toured in 1983 and 1984 and scoring 123 not out on my One-Day international debut. My success was however tinged with some sadness as by this time my mom (who was my greatest supporter) had passed away and my dad was not able to be at the stadium nor watch it on television as he had progressed in his Yiddishkeit and was by then keeping Shabbos.

I had to wait a further seven and a half years, until November 1991, to again play for South Africa. This time it was in India in my one and only official appearance in the One-Day series on South Africa’s readmission to world cricket.

By this time I was married with two children and my internal conflict continued to grow particularly as Pam and I wanted to bring up our children in a frum environment. Up until 1991, I was still playing competitive hockey and the first concrete step I took to resolving the conflict, although not an absolute step, was retiring from provincial and international hockey. Although it took me a couple of years after that to take a similar step to retire from cricket, this decision was a milestone for me and set the ball rolling. I soon not only realized, but confirmed that there were other and certainly more important things in life. At the stage of taking the decision with regard to hockey however, cricket was still an integral part of my life and it took me some time to come to that decision.

When I did decide to retire from cricket in 1994 at the relatively young age of 33 for a batsman, there was speculation as to the reason or reasons for my decision. Although I had regularly and quite consistently performed at provincial level, I was continually overlooked for higher honours and many thought that this, together with my work commitments, were the major reasons for my decision. However, the main reason – and I made it clear at the time – was that I finally concluded that I could no longer reconcile the conflict between my religious beliefs and ideals on the one hand and playing a sport which by its very nature required the desecration of Shabbos and Yomtov on the other.

Looking back, the paradox in my situation was quite amazing. I was effectively leading two lives. On the one hand I was going to shul every morning and davening three times a day and on those Saturdays when I wasn’t playing cricket or hockey, I was keeping Shabbos. On the other hand, on most weekends I was involved in either league or provincial hockey or cricket, going to shul on Shabbos morning and often having to sneak out early (unfortunately before the brocha) to get to a game. Towards the end of my career, I would make every effort not to drive to the ground and would run or walk when the stadium was close enough or arrange for a team mate to pick me up so as not to have to drive myself, waiting until after Shabbos for my wife to fetch me. At the time I suppose I justified to myself that within the frame work of playing sport at the level at which I was playing, I was doing the best in the circumstances.

Having played sport at the level at which I was playing, it made the decision to quit extremely difficult and I would be lying if I said that I did not get a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction from my sporting career but from a religious and peace of mind perspective, I do not for one moment regret having made my decision to quit.

After having given up playing serious sport and resolved the conflicts to which it gave rise, I thought that I had resolved all the major difficulties. However, I was confronted with another religious conflict namely, the wearing of a yarmulke on a fulltime basis. Wearing a yarmulke fulltime was something which I really knew should be done but it was something I found difficult to implement particularly having regard to my sporting and working associates (although towards the end of my cricketing days I did wear tzitzis and also a yarmulke under my cap or helmet!). To cut a long story short, after much prodding and encouragement from many people, I finally took the plunge and while having a yarmulke on my head all the time initially felt a little strange and I was more than a little self-conscious, it soon became very natural.

Over the many years of playing sport in an environment of predominantly non Jewish people, I learnt some very valuable lessons, lessons from which I think we can all learn. Very often I thought that the non-Jews would frown upon me for outwardly insisting or displaying my Yiddishkeit and that this would lead to anti-Semitism. In fact in most cases the opposite was true. The more I went out of my way and insisted on keeping kosher and the more transparent I was with my davening and putting on tefillin and then later in wearing a yarmulke, the greater the respect and understanding from those non-Jews with whom I came and come into contact. Another very valuable lesson which I learnt was that in a secular society, whether it be in a sporting or work environment and leaving aside the issue about playing on Shabbos, it is absolutely possible to maintain ones Yiddishkeit and to use one’s environment to be an example to Jews and non-Jews alike as to how it is possible to remain and practise as a Jew.

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