With the Fall Classic on the horizon, and my beloved Dodgers tearing up the NL West, it is high time we talk about baseball, though strange as it sounds, about something that never happened.
You may have seen the article in the Wall Street Journal last month, written by a former congregant of mine in Chicago, Jonathan Eig. Eig tells of the August 1947 incident at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field when the Brooklyn Dodgers played the Cincinnati Reds. Jackie Robinson had crossed the color line of Major League Baseball the month before, a debut that had been greeted with death threats, boycotts, and countless pitches thrown at his head. Things reached a boiling point that August day with the Cincinnati fans subjecting Robinson to a fusillade of vitriolic racist jeering. At that moment, Robinson’s teammate, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a white man from Kentucky, crossed the field and put his arm around his teammate – a gesture that quieted the crowd and sent a message to the stadium and the nation. If you saw the Jackie Robinson film 42, you will remember the emotional scene. In Brooklyn, there is a statue depicting the embrace. In 1990, a picture book called Teammates canonized the incident for future generations.
A beautiful and iconic exchange recounted for decades, an exchange that Eig explains is made up of whole cloth. I encourage you to read the article, but in brief, Eig’s research reveals that in the days that followed, the press made no mention of the hug; Robinson’s only comment about Cincinnati’s Crosley Field was that it was a “nice experience.” In interview after interview, Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s centenarian widow, shares that no such hug ever happened. If it did happen, she is sure it was neither at that time nor place. One of the greatest and most memorable moments of sports history is as close to the truth as the ending of Robert Redford’s “The Natural” is to the ending of Malamud’s book by the same name, which is to say: not at all.
The most interesting part of Eig’s article, however, is not the story of the hug, or even the debunking of the myth, but Eig’s thoughts as to why the story exists in the first place. In Eig’s view, the myth of Reese’s hug inaccurately credits him, and by extension the white establishment, as having eased Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues. The hard truth is that both Robinson’s teammates and their wives kept their distance from Jackie until they realized that Robinson’s success on the field would result in their own financial success. Then and only then did they warm to him. More accurate, and more to Robinson’s credit, is to focus on his resilience and courage in the face of his racist detractors and non-embracing teammates. The hug never happened, but the story of the hug, the statue of the hug, are all, if you will, hugs we give ourselves to make ourselves feel better, rather than confront the truth of what actually happened or – in this case – never happened.
To be human is to be an inveterate storyteller. All the narratives we construct – the true ones, the untrue ones, and the ones we tell ourselves are true but are actually not – are acts of self-construction, prisms of understanding by which we build identity. We tell all sorts of tales to clean up our prickly pasts or provide heroic origins to our leaders. We do it all the time as a nation: think of the story of Plymouth Rock and the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. We put the spotlight on certain moments and elide the uncomfortable ones at the expense of telling the full story. In Dara Horn’s latest book, for instance, she dismantles American Jewry’s myth of our ancestors’ immigrant names being changed at Ellis Island. She explains that rather than admit to the well-documented fact that we willfully changed our names as part of our efforts to assimilate into a less-than-hospitable America, it is far more comfortable for American Jewry to insist on the legend of the bumbling immigration agent – thus retaining a sweetly nostalgic, but historically inaccurate, connection to the Old World.
The best example, biblically speaking, of our penchant to pick and choose, to intentionally and artfully craft the stories of our lives, is in the description of the first fruits offering as described in this week’s Torah reading. Upon bringing the first fruit of the annual harvest to Jerusalem’s Temple, the ancient Israelite farmer is instructed to recite a brief summary of Israel’s history, a script that appears in the Passover Haggadah, as interesting for what is not in it as for what is:
“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to God, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You God have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
At first blush, the passage is not noteworthy. A familiar story of a people enslaved and redeemed. But as we dig deeper, the choices as to what is included and excluded are altogether remarkable. Who is this mysterious fugitive Aramean – the shared ancestor to us all? Why is there no mention of Moses, no mention of Pharaoh, no mention of the Song at the Sea, no mention of Mount Sinai, no mention at all of the wilderness wanderings? What do we make of this story that leaps from liberation to first fruits but is told so differently than in the prior books, differently than the Psalms and from the later historical books? According to biblical scholars, it is the most ancient of all recountings of Israelite history – a telling made curious due to its manifold idiosyncrasies, both emphases and omissions. I won’t get into the volumes of scholarship untangling the intent behind the diverse renditions of ancient Israel’s history, the point is one and the same. Our stories, even – and perhaps especially – our sacred canonical ones, are acts of self-construction, realities that we have created for ourselves, true and untrue narratives that reflect a series of choices by which we tell others and ourselves who we are or would like to think we are.
The observation that the tales we tell of ourselves are non-veridical constructions of reality is an observation that is neither new nor terribly interesting. We all know we do it and we know that others do it too. What is interesting – really interesting – is the cascade of implications that such an observation has on the work of these weeks prior to the holidays – these weeks of introspection when we are called on to repair our relationships in the run-up to Yom Kippur. I have a friend who is fond of reminding me that people’s perception is their reality. What I think he means by this (though it is just my perception), is that the stories we construct for ourselves – the joys, sorrows, hurts, and betrayals, real or imagined – are our truths, the realities in which we take shelter and refuge. I am reminded of Kafka’s comment that “Everyone is necessarily the hero of their own imagination.” The fault is always with my sibling, not me; my co-worker, not me; my spouse, not me: “Look what you made me do.” Our moral lapses always fall on another person, on society – never on us. We tell ourselves all sorts of stories to keep our hands and hearts clean, making ourselves the protagonist, the victim, the morally sympathetic character in the tales we tell.
But here’s the thing, the uncomfortable truth that we need to confront at this time of year. Your story – the story you have been telling yourself, comforting yourself with, justifying yourself by, and taking shelter in all this time – may not be as true as you think. Now is the time of year to pressure-test our stories, reexamine them, poke at them, and ask how we arrived at them. Now is the time to break the idols of our self-righteous echo chambers. We have to do so because we need to allow for the fact that that other person – that sibling, that spouse, that co-worker, that friend – has a totally different reality in which they live. No different than we in ours, they are the heroes of their own stories! The thank-you card which we were just too swamped to write? The dinner invitation that you just didn’t have time to reciprocate? The money that you said you were going to Venmo but never did and they don’t really need the money anyway? It is human to pad ourselves from our sharp edges with self-soothing stories. None of us could make it through the day if we didn’t. But those self-soothing stories are our stories, not theirs. They have their own version and – let me tell you – in their version, you are not as endearing, as congenial, and as sympathetic as you believe yourself to be. I am sure that there have been real wrongs committed in the year gone by, things for which individuals must seek forgiveness and grant forgiveness in order to enter the coming year in strength. I am doubly sure that in most cases, in the storehouse of our bruised relationships, nobody has done anything so irredeemable. In most cases, our fractured relationships are reflections of the competing truths we are all carrying around and our unwillingness to concede that our stories must live alongside the stories of others.
All of which is why we need to share our stories. I can’t promise that between now and Yom Kippur everyone will make up with everyone. But what I can tell you is that there are certain paths that have a better chance of succeeding than others. Do not – I repeat – do not start any conversation whose aim is reconciliation with the sentence or sentiment, “What normal person could do such a thing?” Try starting the conversation with a tone of modesty, humility, and willingness to listen. Invite the person out for a coffee saying you would love to talk. Qualify your words by acknowledging that you are party to only one side of the story – your side. Use “I” language.
“This is what I experienced.”
“This is how that moment felt to me.”
“This is why I felt hurt.”
Then ask that person to share their story, their truth, their version of what happened. Seek to understand if you want to be understood. And then do the most important thing of all. Stop talking. Just stop. Just listen. Listen to their narrative. Squirm in their truth. Listen and ask yourself if there were cues that you missed, a moment in which you could have acted differently. Listen with the same grace with which you would want to be listened to.
I can’t promise that it will all tie up neatly in a bow; it is entirely possible that the two of you will discover that you operate in two different and incompatible realities. But what I suspect will happen is this. I suspect that conversation will reveal that the person in front of you is not the unfeeling ogre that you have made them out to be. I suspect that you will discover that your story – the story you have told yourself all this time – is not quite as airtight as you think it is. Most of all, I suspect you will discover that when two people sit down together seeking reconciliation, presuming positive intent, and listening to each with generosity of spirit, then no matter the hurt, those two people will discover that they are not as far apart as they thought. That it was more about miscommunication than malice, more of an oversight than ill intent, and that the chest-clearing conversation can be the first step toward understanding and reconciliation.
This evening we will gather for Selichot services, and with them we formally begin the holiday season. Tradition teaches that the record of our lives, the Book of Life, sits open. We would do well to remember that only God in heaven is in possession of the whole story. The books sitting in front of each of us contain only one point of view – our own. Everyone has their own book, everyone has their version, everyone has their truth. I can think of no better way to spend the weeks ahead than to sit down with those people we love most, those people with whom we were once close but are no longer, and share our stories, listening to each other’s, so that maybe, just maybe, we will enter the new year having hugged it out – for real – ready to draft a shared narrative together.
Eig, Jonathan. “The Hug That Jackie Robinson Never Received.” The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-hug-that-jackie-robinson-never-received-11660968060