For Ex-Orthodox, More Than a Game

With Sports Forbidden, Even Game of Soccer Is Act of Rebellion

Potent Statement: Tossing a ball around in the park is a powerful statement of rebellion for young people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities.
claudio papapietro
Potent Statement: Tossing a ball around in the park is a powerful statement of rebellion for young people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 24, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
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Hasidic kids don’t grow up playing on AYSO or Pop Warner teams. Among most ultra-Orthodox, sports are seen as frivolous, a waste of time better spent learning Torah. Exposure to sports varies from community to community, and some ultra-Orthodox play team sports at summer camp. For most, though, games stop after elementary school.

Even the games Orthodox children play aren’t quite like the games other kids play.

In Satmar, school kids play a game similar to Sharks and Minnows, where one person stands in the middle, trying to tag everyone else as they run back and forth between two safe zones. Once tagged, a player has to help tag other players.

Instead of a shark, however, the kid in the middle is called a “*galach,”* Yiddish for “priest.” The game is apparently intended to instill fear of conversion in the insular community. But Sol said that when he was young, he missed the game’s anti-Christian overtones.

A 30-year-old former Satmar remembered another game, Limination. The rules were just like Elimination, an every-man-for-himself version of dodge ball. The Satmar wasn’t sure why the name had been bastardized. The only difference between Limination and elimination that he could identify was that the Satmar kids didn’t have any balls to play with, so they stuffed old sweaters into an oversized fiber envelope and taped the thing into a vaguely spherical shape.

A lack of sports equipment and instruction is a common theme. One player in his mid-20s, from a Hasidic community near Montreal, said he and his friends used a basketball to play a version of soccer in which dozens of kids tried to kick a ball to opposite sides of a lot. The basketball was called, for some reason, a “rocketball.”

The ex-Montreal Hasid said that all game-playing had stopped after he turned 13, and boys were made to wear black hats and long coats whenever they were outside. He didn’t get his first pair of tennis shoes until after he had left Orthodoxy and enrolled in college in New York.

Horowitz had played some baseball growing up in Boro Park, but doing so was a serious act of rebellion. As a student at a Hasidic yeshiva, he and his friends would sneak off every Friday afternoon to the park. Led by one boy whom Horowitz remembered as an athletic prodigy, the boys formed a baseball team. Horowitz played left field. They played furtive games against teams of boys from non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, going undefeated for two years.

Eventually Horowitz and his friends were ratted out to school officials and forced to stop playing or face expulsion.

“I used to watch Little League games [and] dream of playing with them,” he said.


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