What would have happened had there been a Jewish team in the Major Leagues? In an original novel serialized on The Arty Semite, Ross Ufberg imagines the trials and triumphs of The Lions of Zion, an all-Jewish team competing in the National League in 1933. Read the first 24 chapters here.
At a Wedding, One Must Dance
It was a gloomy train ride spent staring out the window of my compartment or sitting dumbly in the dining car, with Khetzke across the table from me. Barely a minute went by that I didn’t think of Butcher. Meanwhile, Khetzke was all out of sorts. He put salt in his coffee and got up from the table only to sit back down a minute later, forgetting what it was he’d meant to do. He turned his head around every time the door to the dining car opened, half expecting Butcher to walk in and take a seat with us. But there’d be no more good-time kibitzing, no more horsing around with our friend.
When we arrived in Chicago it was deep night. The air was colder here and I huddled into my light jacket. At the hotel, while everybody rested on the plush red chairs in the marble lobby, I stood. It was somehow improper to sit on anything but a low bench when, back in the Bronx, Butcher’s wife was sitting shiva. Those words came back to me — the ones we’d uttered when we said goodbye to the widow: Hamakom y’nakhem eskhem b’soykh sha’ar aveylei tsiyon viyrusholayim. May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Lions of Zion, Mourners of Zion: these two phrases now seemed awfully close to each other.
Little did I expect that relief would come from Fayvl Melamid. When we came down to breakfast a bellhop greeted us with a letter:
My Dear Baseball Mishpokhe,I told you I’d wait to get married until you were back in town. Tonight is the night. My cousin will meet you after the game at the hotel. My kallah Shani and I hope you can join in our simkhah. Zayt gezunt! — Fayvele
“How can we go to a wedding…” I cried, after Reb Shlomo read the note aloud.
“I guess he didn’t hear the news,” says Khetzke. “Should we tell him?”
“It’s all over the Jewish papers. If he doesn’t know, it means somebody is protecting him. Better he shouldn’t find out until after the wedding. That means we must attend.” And so Reb Shlomo decided we’d play ball and then dance. All on the heels of Butcher Block’s funeral.
We could barely find the koyekh to drag ourselves onto the field. Dollar-a-Klop Barney threw a flat ball and we got clobbered. The only encouragement Reb Shlomo had for us during the baseball massacre was a prayer for the game to end soon. Our bodies were at Wrigley Field, but our heads were in the clouds, looking around for an angel in a ball cap.
A little boy with curly peyes and a dark jacket three sizes too big for him was waiting for us when we got back to the hotel.
“The Lions — this is you?” he asked, the Yiddish accent so thick it could suffocate a bear. “I’m Heshie Plotkin, from the kallah’s side. Come, come. Soon starts the simkhah.”
We put our bags in our rooms and came back down five minutes later, following the little Litvak through the bustling streets of downtown Chicago. We found ourselves in a mini ghetto. Every corner had a modest storefront shul, and there were bent Jews with packs on their backs, selling everything from nails to shmattas to French postcards.
Little Heshy ducked into a scarred brick building and held the door. The small entryway opened off into two rooms. In the first room, the wedding was already underway. We took a seat as quietly as we could and watched: Fayvl stood under the khuppa and the bride circled round him seven times. After the brokhes over the wine, Fayvl — good old Fayvl, a shlemiel even at his own wedding — fumbled in his pockets for the ring. Then someone approached with another — an empty — wine glass. The rabbi took it and wrapped it in a white kerchief, then laid it at the khossen’s feet.
Reb Shlomo turned to me. He was crying.
“You see, Talmedel, Fayvl’s breaking the glass and remembering the destruction of the Temple. It’s good we don’t tell him about Butcher. One destruction at a simkhah is enough for even the most pious of Jews.”
Afterwards we moved to the only other room in the little shtiebel — a square, wood-floored banquet room where the newlyweds sat at a long table in the front of the room, and the guests milled around and ate and danced as tradition demanded.
Fayvl was the happiest fish in the ocean as we all went up and gave him our mazel tov. His bride was radiant, a real Yiddishe queen, and so excited were the new couple that twice the bride’s father had to remind them to save room between them for Modesty to have a seat.
When the dancing got under way, only a few of the Lions joined in. Janusz the Shabbes goy, for whom this was naturally his first Jewish wedding, couldn’t help himself. He was a quick study and brought to the old Jewish dances something of his own native customs. Slowly others wandered over, but Khetzke, Barney, Reb Shlomo and I remained seated, or we stood on the edges of the dancing. After the mizinke tants — Shani was the youngest daughter — the men gathered in a circle for the hora. The bride and groom were placed in the center of the circle, and the guests were to twirl and clap and wish them health as they moved. I was leaning against the wall closest to the door, about to slip out, when Reb Shlomo came over to me.
“Nu, Talmed. For this we have to dance.”
“Dance? I can’t dance. I’m in mourning.”
“This is a simkhah. A Jew is obligated to be happy at a simkhah.”
“Not if he’s a mourner, he isn’t. And besides, I don’t see you dancing.”
“I’m about to. I invite you to be my partner.”
He put an arm on either of my shoulders and gripped me tight.
“Listen to me, sweetheart. It is our duty to break glass at weddings, but there must be a balance. Too much of one thing and the world is turned upside down. Farshteyst? Hunchback Yid or no, there are times you got to stand up straight and pretend like you got nothing weighing you down.”
“Butcher’s been dead for two days and you want me to forget?”
“Khas vekhalileh! Forget, no. But the rabbis teach it is forbidden to show public signs of mourning at a joyous occasion. Fayvl will notice if we’re not sharing in his happiness, and who are we to bring sadness into the greatest day of his life? Talmed, I tell you — one glass breaking is enough! Now come and dance!”
So what could I do? I danced.
At first reluctantly, circling the bride and groom with a feeling of treachery in my heart. In my head I asked Butcher to forgive me, to understand that dancing was not my idea. I was holding hands with Hester on one side, Reb Shlomo on the other. And even though he was the one who’d rounded us up for the hora tants, he looked morose. The smile he’d slapped on his face was about as convincing as a pillowcase slipped over a rock.
And then came Khetzke the Cowboy. He walked over to us with a giant silver tray in his hand. The tray was covered with schnapps glasses. With each small le’khayim, the lines on Reb Shlomo’s face smoothed out an iota. Hester’s legs kicked just an inch higher with every swallow. Fayvl, dancing arm in arm in the center of the circle with his father-in-law, now reached out and pulled me into the center, too. Round and round we went, Fayvl Melamid and me. A part of me was so sad I thought my heart would burst. But the sweat running down Fayvl’s face made me forget for a moment all of the world’s tsurris, and I thought, “With such sweat one could bring forth a wild rose from a bed of rocks!”
With a roar from his lungs, Fayvl shouted:
“Come, come, Lions of Zion. Tantsen mir!”
Big Hup lumbered over, Janusz smacked his knees and leaped like a frog; Khotsh, the usually miserable mamzer, came sprite as a grasshopper; in short, it was the entire team dancing the leybstants — the lion’s dance.
Fayvl beamed as we took hands and moved first to the left, then to the right, as the violin played a special fast tune for us. The guests, even the scholars and righteous ones among them, looked impressed. Who else could say they had the Lions of Zion dance at their wedding?
The bridegroom’s radiant eyes beamed as they scanned the circle.
“Wait, wait! Where’s Butcher?”
Without skipping a dance step, Reb Shlomo raised his hands high above his head.
“Butcher’s catching up on sleep. If he coulda got out of bed, he woulda come. Blessed is the God of sleep. Tantsen mir!”
The melody lifted. The krekhts from the violin turned into smiles. The poyk poyked. The drums drummed. Our spirits lifted high, high, higher, and for a minute we stood up straight and danced like unburdened Jews. The leybstants ended. The Lions of Zion, current, former, and otherwise, joined in a heaving circle. Butcher would have forgiven us our celebrations.
The Lions of Zion, Chapter 25