Gridiron Goliath Breaks Fast With Big Game, Nimble Timing

By Nathaniel Popper

Published October 01, 2004, issue of October 01, 2004.
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The sunset that brought Yom Kippur to an end came in the midst of a University of Wisconsin football game in front of 82,179 fans in which Matt Bernstein led his team to victory over Penn State by running 123 yards.

Bernstein decided to play on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, but he did not ignore the holiday. In an effort to observe Yom Kippur, Bernstein began his fast a few hours before the holiday began on Friday, and ended 24 hours later, just seconds after the opening coin toss at 4:45 p.m. He devoured some slices of turkey and orange, and after a few gulps of water took to the field, where he helped his team improve to a 4-0 record and maintain their 20th-place ranking in the national polls.

“I got to temple and I fasted and I got to play the game,” the 270-pound Bernstein told the Forward several days after the game. “I really tried to get everything in as good as possible.”

Bernstein’s creative approach to observing the holiday was largely overshadowed by the decision of baseball player Shawn Green to sit out one of the games his Los Angeles Dodgers played during Yom Kippur, but to suit up for the other.

The religious balance that both players tried to strike did not appear to bring any immediate cosmic consequences. In the game that Green played during the Kol Nidre service Friday night, he hit a decisive two-run homerun to help the Dodgers beat the San Francisco Giants 3-2 and retain a top spot in the playoff race. When Green sat out the Saturday afternoon game, his team lost. Meanwhile, Bernstein gave the best effort of his career, in a game that roughly coincided with the concluding Ne’ila service Saturday.

But in more earthly terms, both players underscored the more personalized way that many contemporary Jews practice their religion. In Los Angeles, where much of the talk during the holidays was about Green’s stellar performance on the field Friday night, his religious decision fit neatly into the themed discussion on Yom Kippur at Temple Emmanuel regarding what it means to be a Jew, said the Reform congregation’s rabbi, Laura Geller.

“One of the statements in 2004,” Geller said, “is that Jews can be anything they want to be, even a sports star, and define for themselves how they want to be Jewish.”

Green made it clear before the game that he is not an observant Jew, and a Dodgers spokesman said that he stayed in the hotel room during the game he sat out.

“Everyone approaches their religious worship in their own way,” Green said at a press conference a day before the start of Yom Kippur. “I’m not Orthodox, but I’m Jewish and I respect its customs.”

While Green generally has been praised within the Jewish community in recent years for increasingly embracing his public image, he drew criticism for playing in one of the two games that fell on the fast day.

Rabbi David Wolpe, religious leader of Sinai Temple, a conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, criticized Green’s unwillingness to sit out both games.

“It is about the expectations of a tradition that is about 3,000 years older than the Dodgers and a community that was here long before and will be here long after the game of baseball,” Wolpe wrote in an article on Beliefnet.com.

The Dodgers were entirely supportive of Green’s decision to sit out one game, and the team spokesman said that about 80% of the fan response was positive.

The controversy, however, extended beyond the Jewish community. During a “Crossfire”-style segment on a Los Angeles sports radio show, the two hosts held an hour-long debate on the issue, with one announcer arguing that Green should have sat out either both games or neither of them, and the other defending the Dodgers’ first baseman. At the end of the segment on 710AM, fans called in to judge the debate. Those supporting Green’s decision won by a squeaker, 10-8.

But Green seemed to do more to recognize the holidays than any of the other nine or so major leaguers who are on record as being Jewish, none of whom decided to sit out either his Friday or Saturday games.

Besides Green, the sharpest focus fell on the Boston Red Sox, whose two Jewish players, Gabe Kapler and Kevin Youkilis, both talked before the game about the difficulty of the decision. In the end, both dressed for the game, causing disappointment among some Boston-area rabbis.

“I’m disappointed because I think a ball player has a public role, and this is a chance to keep it,” said David Lerner, the rabbi at Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass. “The fact that they didn’t, it reflects where a significant chunk of American Jewry is.”

Of all the high-profile Jewish sports stars in the spotlight on Yom Kippur, it appears that the senior at Wisconsin, Bernstein, came the closest to following the religious spirit of the day, though his achievement involved some bending of the rules. The team normally goes into a lockdown at a local hotel on the Friday afternoons before games. Bernstein’s parents, though, flew in that day from Scarsdale, N.Y. and picked up Matt to begin their observance. The Bernsteins did not make it to Friday night services, but they did go to services at the campus Hillel Saturday morning.

Usually Wisconsin football games begin at 11 a.m. on Saturdays, and Bernstein said he would not have played at that time. But because last week’s game was televised, it was pushed back.

“In college football, television is everything,” Matt’s father, Steve Bernstein, told the Forward. “I’m not going to say it was an act of God, but it was a stroke of luck that it was at 4:45.”

Matt grew up in a Reform household, and he is not devoutly religious. He has played on Rosh Hashanah in the past, but also attended services. Matt’s younger brother, Alex, is also a student at Wisconsin, and because of the brothers’ size, they were chosen to hold up the Torah scrolls during holiday services.

“He lifted it up like I would lift up a toothpick,” said Andrea Steinberger, the rabbi at Hillel.

Far more unusual than Bernstein’s Torah-lifting performance, though, was his performance on the field. Bernstein, who is already being talked about as a candidate for the National Football League, normally plays fullback, mostly a blocking position that allows for little glory. During the first half of Saturday’s game, he played this role and only touched the ball once. After 24 hours without food, Bernstein was tired.

“It was tough,” Bernstein said, “but for some reason it really didn’t feel like it was all that bad.”

By halftime, though, all the tailbacks were injured, and Matt was called upon to fill in. As the players came out for the second half, Matt’s father said, the sun was just setting on Yom Kippur. On the first play of the half, Bernstein ran the ball 12 yards and never looked back. The 123 yards he accumulated during the second half was more than his grand total for all the games in last season combined.






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