PITCHING IN THE PROMISED LAND
University of Nebraska Press 272 pgs $24.95
When I learned that a professional baseball league would be starting up in Israel in 2007, I was excited that my two great loves, Israel and baseball, would be together at last, like chocolate and peanut butter. America’s pastime had taken root and succeeded in other far-flung places before; professional leagues already thrived in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, even down under in Australia, so why not Israel?
But Israel is like no other place in the world, and I wondered whether baseball could take root in the parched soil of the Holy Land, where the Hebrew words for “bullet” and “ball” are the same, and pumped-up young men are better known for throwing rocks than fastballs.
Aaron Pribble, a former professional baseball player turned schoolteacher, who starred for the Tel Aviv Lightning in the Israel Baseball League’s only season, provides readers with a front row seat and his own unvarnished take on the upstart league in his new book, “Pitching in the Promised Land.” Pribble, born to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, a self-described “redneck Jew-boy” who never had a bar mitzvah, learns as he arrives at Ben-Gurion Airport that the young security official considers him not sufficiently Jewish and places him dismissively in line with suspect Arabs to have his luggage swabbed for explosives. Pribble’s struggles with his identity make “Pitching in the Promised Land” more than just another book about a not-ready-for-prime-time pitcher, à la Dirk Hayhurst’s pedestrian 2010 “The Bullpen Gospels.”
Readers are introduced to a cast of ballplayers from the United States, the Dominican Republic, Australia, and even Israel who struggle through the eight-week season on shabby ball fields, without proper equipment. They survive delayed paychecks, a near strike, a lack of fans, cramped living conditions and a canceled TV contract. Readers are privy to standard baseball hijinks and camaraderie, a fifth-inning (!) stretch Hebrew-English rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” tie-breaking home run derbies and more than a few “Bull Durham” quotations. “Pitching in the Promised Land” is funny at times, with aged Dominican players claiming to be teenagers, a light pole rooted in the middle of right field and the unlikely appearance on the ballpark’s PA system of Dr. Ruth Westheimer crowing, “Now, boys, if you play nice from now on… I promise you great sex for the rest of your lives!”
The organizers of the Israel Baseball League, however, take the usual Israeli “what will be, will be” approach to virtually everything from the lack of availability of ice for pitchers’ arms to a ball field that isn’t completed until after the season begins. If the league’s quixotic organizers are presented as major league incompetents, pathetic clowns who believe that a heavy dose of chutzpah alone is enough to bring baseball to the land of Israel, Pribble himself comes across as a complex, conflicted and sympathetic soul grappling not only with his career as a middling pitcher whose fastball tops out at a sluggish 84 mph but also with dueling narratives of the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Pribble steadfastly disagrees with the settler movement and what he calls the “Wall of Separation,” is highly conscious of the Arab villages razed after what he calls the “war of 1948” and desires more than anything else to visit the West Bank city of Ramallah to see how the Palestinians live. He provocatively chooses to call the chapter on his visit to Jerusalem “Al Quds,” but spends only five brief pages describing his visit, indifferently running down his checklist like a grade schooler after summer vacation: “On the bus again, we drove to Mount of Olives… On the bus again, we reached a bazaar… On the bus again, we stopped and ate lunch in a park… On the bus again, we reached the Old City. Finally.”
The chapter on Jerusalem is one missed opportunity, among others, for Pribble to provide greater depth into his own personal conflict and, like many of the chapters in “Pitching in the Promised Land,” I couldn’t help but feel that equal attention was being paid to unequal subjects — a chapter describing an unremarkable game against the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox is virtually the same length as his chapter on Jerusalem.
During Pribble’s trip to Masada he has an epiphany: feeling pride and a connection to history. “I was not a half-Jew, and certainly not a half-assed Jew, bar mitzvah or no bar mitzvah… as often as I disagreed with Israeli actions in the back-and-forth of the conflict, Masada made it clear that Jews have a patent claim to this land.” It is not unusual for a Diaspora Jew to come to grips with his Jewishness, surrounded by history and the awesome beauty of nature, but Pribble continues to struggle with reconciling his humanistic views with the harsh reality of the present-day conflict.
Perhaps the most touching section of the book occurs when Pribble finally manages to visit Ramallah and sees a couple of kids playing in the street who remind Pribble of the young Israeli boys who come to see him pitch. He asks them “Do you know baseball? Do you like it?” They don’t speak English, but he teaches them to throw and catch the ball. And when he leaves Ramallah, just before dusk, the boys are still throwing the ball back and forth in the street, having a game of catch, two friends on warm summer evening. “It was only symbolic,” Pribble muses, “but the seed of baseball was planted in Palestine. Perhaps someday children would throw baseballs instead of rocks. We could hope.”
But hope is not enough, and chutzpah only goes so far, and the Israel Baseball League collapsed after one season, unable even to pay its players their final paychecks. Pribble is likable and human throughout the book. He writes well, about both baseball and, somewhat superficially, his struggles with identity. Deeper consideration of his Jewishness would have gone a long way towards explaining how he was leaving Israel a changed man, “a Jew assured of his heritage, more confident of his place in the world.”
Jonathan Papernick is the author of short-story collections “There Is No Other” and “The Ascent of Eli Israel,” (re-released by Skyhorse Publishing May 2011)