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Footy Crunch Time, Shul Crunch Time

September 22, 2011 – 7:24 pm12 Comments
Harry O'Brien presents the Dalai Lama with footy

Collingwood football star Harry O'Brien, seen here presenting a football to the Dalai Lama, mixes his spirituality with his football career. Is that a scarf-tallis Harry's wearing?

By David Werdiger

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted on Facebook: “The sounds of the Shofar can only mean one thing – the countdown is on to the impending footy finals. Go [nickname of AFL team that I can’t bear to put in writing]!” The relationship between AFL finals and the holiest days of the Jewish calendar – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – is paradoxical, incongruous, and uniquely Melbourne.

Maybe people have mixed feelings about that “one day in September” (and I’m not even referring to the film of the same name)  – they both invoke powerful, emotional wishes for success, a build-up over many weeks, a loud siren sound that pierces the air and electrifies the atmosphere, and a religious fervour.

AFL has so much in common with religion that many fans describe it as one. It has all the cultural elements of religion – uniting family and community, inter-generational transmission of values, passionate loyalty and one-eyed defence against “non-believers”, a host of rituals, and regular attendances – how many people would say they go to the footy “religiously”? Indeed, what Rabbi wouldn’t want people to be as “religious” about attendance to shul as they are to the footy? (To which the shul member replies, “If you provided as passionate and uplifting experience as 70,000 screaming fans at the MCG every week, I’d be there religiously too.”)

Fortunately or otherwise, my High Holyday prayers have not been distracted by thoughts of my football team for many years. But what happens when the two religions clash? There are many stories to draw upon, most famously in the US when Sandy Koufax didn’t play in the 1965 World Series because of Yom Kippur, or when NFL games were rescheduled two years ago because they affected New York fans. Closer to home, the famous pre-Neilah words of Rabbi Lubofsky OBM on Yom Kippur 1966 (“I would like to announce that St Kilda has won the Grand Final – now get back to your praying”) is embedded in St Kilda shul folklore, and David Smorgon’s decision not to attend an AFL final on Rosh Hashanah in 2009 was met with praise from all circles. Situations like these are a Kiddush Hashem, when public figures step up and declare unequivocally that their Judaism comes first.

But while it looks like Judaism trumps AFL, it is only by the slimmest of margins. The Jewish “finals” come before AFL finals, but on a regular Shabbat, football seems to get priority among most fans. Indeed, one shul I know of has an unwritten rule that the Shabbat service doesn’t go much past midday during season.

The 2011 AFL Grand Final will take place on Shabbat Teshuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which this year falls immediately after a Thursday and Friday Rosh Hashanah. If there is another replay, that would fall on Yom Kippur itself.

While some of us look back on a long season (year) of ups and downs, and think about what we would have done differently, and how we’d like to change for the future (and some of us are thinking about our own lives, not our footy teams), perhaps it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the roles of football and religion in our lives. There is certainly scope for comparing our relative commitment to each, and our attitudes and behaviours. Do you talk about religion at the footy? If not, then why do you talk about footy at shul? Would you ever arrive to the game after the opening bounce? If not, then why do you come late to shul? Conversely, perhaps our Rabbis can learn a thing or two from football culture to help people be more religious, about their religion?!

Wishing everyone a Shana Tova – a year of health, happiness and blessing.

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