An Israeli take on the Sandy Koufax Yom Kippur story

In the 1965 World Series, Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers famously decided not to pitch against the Minnesota Twins on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. 

Over the past 50-plus years, the Sandy Koufax Yom Kippur story has been told and re-told. It gets told at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, at Friday night dinner tables, at weddings, at Passover and, this is also key, at the 4th of July, over turkey at Thanksgiving and with, say, friends by their Christmas tree. The reason for all this telling is simple. Sandy Koufax proved at the 1965 World Series that American Jews could be both American and Jewish. You didn’t have to choose. You could be both without sacrificing either.

Now comes Dan Kremer, who is Israeli and Jewish, and the World Equestrian Games, which are ongoing now in a little town in the western North Carolina mountains called Tryon — assuming Hurricane Florence doesn’t get there — and, as it turns out, Israel for the first time on the international stage has put together a show jumping team with an eye toward someday making the Olympics, the WEG jumping competition is scheduled to begin on Yom Kippur, September 19, and Dan Kremer made it plain that, just like Sandy Koufax, he could not and would not take part on Yom Kippur.

All of which raises a fascinating series of questions. 

 Dan Kremer // photo by Moises Basallote

Dan Kremer // photo by Moises Basallote

Spoiler: there is no absolute right series of answers to these questions, no lightning bolt from the sky as a sign from above — unless, of course, in a scene that might evoke something from the Torah itself, as the Jewish community calls the Old Testament, Florence decrees it shall be so.

There is only a man, a principle, his conscience, a connection to something bigger than himself — and what ought to be done about it or, more properly, what perhaps should have been done months ago if not longer. 

Of course, that begs the threshold question: how this situation came to be in the first instance. 

And, maybe, the most intriguing question, back to identity — does the case of an Israeli Jew who declines in 2018 to take part in an Olympic-style equestrian competition in rural North Carolina on Yom Kippur make for a parallel to that of Sandy Koufax sitting out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series in Minnesota?

Start with this:

Yom Kippur is widely acknowledged as the holiest day of the Jewish year.

On the traditional Hebrew calendar, a day is marked from from sunset to sunset. So Yom Kippur this year starts on the evening of the 18th and concludes at sunset on the 19th. Those who observe the traditional rituals do not eat for 24 or so hours and spend the day in contemplation and study — in the United States, for instance, for many hours at the synagogue. 

In Israel, the roads are empty. No cars, no trucks, no buses.

To be clear: there is no Israeli law saying thou shall not take part in sports competition on behalf of the national team on Yom Kippur in Tryon, North Carolina. 

It is also the case that an Israeli equestrian team has a long way to go to make it to the Olympics. A very long way. Tokyo and 2020 would be a miracle akin to those relayed in the Exodus story.

Dan Kremer is not overly religious. For that matter, Israelis tend to divide themselves into, on the one hand, “religious” or “Orthodox,” and, on the other, “secular.” He would be “secular.” He served in the Israeli army, indeed in a special unit known for daring and bravery.

He suffered a leg injury during his service and returned to riding — he had begun as a little boy and at 17 won the Israeli national championship — as part of his physical therapy.

Seeking to develop as an elite-level rider, Kremer, now 35, has been living in Europe since 2004. Even so, as he says of Yom Kippur, “When you grow up in Israel, it’s something special. Whether you are Orthodox or you are not a religious person, it’s a special day. It connects a lot of things together between the religious [elements] and the world.” He paused. “I lost my uncle in this war,” a reference to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, adding of the holiday, “It’s a day to be respected … there are some days that, you know, it takes you back to the roots and this is one of the biggest ones.”

Earlier this year, it became clear to Kremer that the first of the four days of the WEG jumping competition was scheduled for September 19.

For those unfamiliar with equestrian sport, or with WEG, and the massive popularity of both — WEG, per a pre-hurricane estimate, was projected to be the fourth-biggest world sporting event of 2018, in a year with the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the men’s soccer World Cup in Russia and the Tour de France. 

The 2014 edition of WEG, held in Normandy, France, attracted more than 500,000 spectators and a worldwide TV audience of some 350 million, according to organizers.

In late February, Kremer started an email string with the Israel equestrian federation asking if officials knew about the conflict with the holiday and, if so, what was to be done.

To make this long part of the story short — they said, yes, and it’s complicated.

Here, too, is where things get sticky and reasonable people can disagree. 

Is the international equestrian federation, which is based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and goes by the acronym FEI, out of line for scheduling WEG in September, when the Jewish holidays typically fall, in the United States? As a sign of the holiday’s growing import, Yom Kippur is now, in districts nationwide, a formally recognized public school holiday. 

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which starts a 10-day countdown to Yom Kippur, began at sunset this past Sunday, September 9. 

The French 2014 edition of WEG ran from August 23-September 7. Because the Hebrew calendar is keyed to the cycles of the moon, not the sun (this week launched the Hebrew year 5779), Rosh Hashanah in 2014 began on September 24. Thus no conflict of any sort. 

Why is 2018 WEG starting two weeks later on the calendar than 2014 WEG? Because of the North Carolina heat and humidity, which figured to be that much less as autumn neared (an epic hurricane would obviously make for a different sort of reckoning).

Next into the calculus: Israel is a small country, with a population of just over 8 million (and it must be acknowledged that not all are Jewish); there are maybe 15 million Jews in a world of 7 billion people; at any rate, if every international sports federation tried to account for everyone’s holidays everywhere, it might soon be at a loss to get anything on any calendar.

For all that, it’s also the case that Judaism, along with Christianity and Islam, the three monotheistic faiths, are inextricably linked to one another, which begs the question of whether the European (and in recent years, Middle Eastern) sensibilities that accent FEI proved insufficiently sensitive to the most important day of the Jewish calendar — particularly when Israel is seeking assert itself on the Olympic equestrian stage.

Or is that one step too far? Is it in any way reasonable for FEI to take account of such a thing? If the Israeli federation wanted change in the WEG schedule, shouldn’t it be primarily if not entirely on the Israeli federation to take up the matter at the earliest possible opportunity?

Officials at the Israeli equestrian federation declined to comment for the record for this story. 

In other Olympic sports, schedules have — amid considerable discussion and with enough prior notice, which can sometimes mean months, a year or even more — been moved around.

In this instance, it would be entirely unfair to riders from other nations to reschedule the first day of jumping from the 19th solely because of Yom Kippur. In all, WEG literally involves more than 800 horses and riders. 

On that first day of the jumping competition, with team and individual rankings at stake, riders compete in a speed round; the idea is to pick up as few penalty points as possible.

On Day Two, the fences get put up higher and, to make things just that much more difficult, there’s now a water element.

The top 60 riders at the end of Day 2 go on within the individual competition; so do the top 10 teams.

Team finals are on Day Three; then there’s a rest day; on WEG’s scheduled wrap-up day, September 23, Day Four brings the individual finals. 

The Israeli federation did inquire about a variety of options with FEI, including doing Day One on the 18th, later on the 19th or in the early morning on the 20th. The FEI says that contact was made June 25.

So from February, when Kremer’s first email to the federation went out, through almost the end of June — all that time, and no official dialogue with the FEI.

To show just how complex this all gets: 

The FEI, stressing that it is “based on the principle of equality and mutual respect,” says the issue was discussed at its highest levels and it has “offerered to try and facilitate the Israeli Jumping athletes competing later on 19 September.”

But — as the FEI notes, first, “there are no floodlights in the U.S. Trust Arena,” site of the jumping competitions, and, then, plainly, “competing in the dark is obviously not an option.”

So what would it mean, if anything, to compete “later”? Remember — it’s Yom Kippur all the way through sunset on the 19th. Tickets for that day clearly say the program runs from 9 a.m. until 5:15 p.m.; sunset is at 7:29:31 p.m.

The FEI also says it has “advised” the Israeli federation it is “not possible to modify the [overall] Games timetable.” Why? On the eminently reasonable grounds that everyone has to be treated under “fair and equal conditions” and, big picture, “changes to the schedule would impact other disciplines.”

 Kremer in action // photo by Frank Fotistica

Kremer in action // photo by Frank Fotistica

Amid all these questions, there’s this:

Dan Kremer, who competed at the 2015 European Championships, was originally named to the Israeli team.

And then, feeling insufficient support, particularly from the national federation — what, was he supposed to compete on Yom Kippur in this age of social media and just hope no one would notice? — he withdrew. 

“This was his dream, to compete under the Israeli flag,” said his brother, Itamar, in a phone call.

In a Facebook post, Itamar wrote, “My brother is a hero because he has gone with the basic values of integrity and trust …,” adding, “I’m proud of you Dan Kremer as far as I’m concerned you’re already the world.”

The four now due to compete for Israel: Ashlee Bond and Danielle Goldstein, with roots in the United States; Alberto Michán, who, representing Mexico, rode in the 2008 Beijing Games and then tied for fifth in the individual jumping competition at the London 2012 Games; and Daniel Bluman, who rode for Colombia at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, finishing 15 spots behind Michán in London, a top-20 performance.

A side note: Michán, obviously an excellent athlete, is for complex reasons in the delicate position of having to ride essentially a loaner horse, complicating matters even further. 

What position will each of these four take on September 19? Is it a personal decision? Or should they act together?

Which leads, finally, to the ultimate question: what does it mean to compete as an Israeli athlete, for an Israeli national team, with the blue-and-white Star of David on your uniform?

What does that mean?

Bluman, in a feature published earlier this month in Sidelines, an equestrian-oriented outlet, noted that his grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, enduring three years in Auschwitz before moving to Colombia. “Through it all,” he said, “the one thing that has always remained with me is my culture: what it means to be Jewish and to come from a family who has had to go through the Holocaust.”

Just weeks ago, Israel’s parliament passed legislation that first and foremost defines Israel as a Jewish state.

What could possibly be more Jewish than Yom Kippur?

For its part, the Israeli equestrian federation recommended — in writing — to all the show jumpers not to compete. 

An Israeli team stands to gain collective experience at Tryon. But — to reiterate — absent that miracle, an Israel show jumping team is not going to qualify at the 2018 WEG, or likely anywhere over the next two years, for the Tokyo Games. A laudable goal would be Los Angeles in 2028, with Paris 2024 a maybe longshot.

Meanwhile, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, David Lau, has called Dan Kremer to express support.

Also on Facebook, Dan Kremer said of that call:

“As I told the rabbi, there is me, Dan Kremer, the private athlete who can do whatever he desire[s] on Yom Kippur, but under the flag of our people, one is no longer private, but a symbol of a proud nation and people.

“… After many months in which the subject bothers me and a few days of real emotional turmoil, I feel much more complete now with my decision which may have hurt me slightly in the sport and the economic end, but strengthened me in many other ways and touched the hearts of so many Israelis and Jews in Israel and abroad.”

On the telephone, Dan Kremer also said this:

“My decision, I didn’t decide it because I am a religious person or like Sandy Koufax. When he made this decision, he didn’t think he was making history. It was a decision he made because he felt the connection to the roots and to doing the right things for his community.”