I almost never pray.
Sometimes I plead, or beg, or look up towards the sky with a smile when something too perfectly bad or too perfectly good happens. I’ll make wishes in my head at 11:11 and I’ll knock on wood three times to not jinx myself. Rarely do I see a shooting star without some private hope, and I’ll always ask for something big when I blow candles out on my birthday. But praying? I pretty much reserve that for one thing: Washington Redskins football.
Three weeks ago, after getting absolutely demolished by the Philadelphia Eagles, I decided I would go to the Big Man for a big win. We were headed to Green Bay to face a frighteningly good offense led by Aaron Rodgers, and I was pretty certain God wasn’t enough – but I figured, why not?
That morning, I woke up with very clear intentions: I was going to be as good a Jew as I possibly could for the whole day and then go to the local American bar – Mike’s Place – and see what kind of Godliness the Skins could put together. I woke up feeling positive, put on my kippa, my Robert Griffin III shirt and went downstairs.
The first thing I did was the morning wash. I’m not sure what the blessing is over this wash, but I know how it works: you pour water into a large, quart sized cup, you pick the cup up with your right hand and splash the water three times over your left, then switch hands and splash it three times over your right. I do this outside our cafeteria, trying my hardest to think of God and not Redskins’ quarterback RGIII, and then I get in line for breakfast.
Without question, this is the saddest part of my day. Breakfast in the yeshiva makes you feel like you’re in County. There is a long line and lots of loud kids with Brooklyn accents, and when you get to the food you’re almost always disappointed. Today it’s scrambled eggs that look like a four-year old made them, salad, and big chunky white blobs of cottage cheese. I try to be grateful for this food, to not think about the bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches or the RJ’s Heart Attack that I miss so dearly, because I know God would want me to be grateful, and I know I should be grateful, and because the Redskins really need this game.
I grab some of the eggs and the salad, walk right past the cottage cheese and pull two pieces of bread from a giant black trash bag stuffed with sliced loaves. Shlomo, my roommate, is in the cafeteria and sitting by himself. I tell myself I’m going to sit with him because he’s alone and I enjoy his company (which is partially true), but I know the real reason is because I want that hot sauce he’s got hidden in his book bag. Hot sauce in a yeshiva is comparable to how Hollywood makes cigarettes seem in prison: everybody wants it and nobody has it. I say what’s up to Shlomo and immediately get to the point.
“You got the goods over there?” I ask with a smile.
“Yeah, yeah. Just keep it under the table cause I’m getting low,” he says completely seriously. “I don’t want anyone else to see.”
He passes me the Frank’s Red Hot Sauce under the table and I smother it on my breakfast out of sight from our classmates before passing it back. I put my plate back on the table, look down at my now orange covered plate and think about all the people who would kill for a meal like this that could fill them up each morning. I say the blessing on the bread:
“Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melach ha’olam, hamotzi le’cha min ha’aretz”
Shlomo, barely audible, mutters “amen” under his breath. We eat.
After breakfast, I’m heading back to my room when I remember a lesson I heard not long ago. I had asked Rabbi Wenglin what he got drilled most often about from students and he surprised me with this answer:
“The most heat I get is from female students, almost always for the ‘Thank God I’m not a woman’ prayer.”
“The what?” I asked him.
He went on to explain that each morning he does a prayer where he thanks God that he is not a woman. The idea is this: Adom (Adam) is the ultimate man. By being a man, you inherit some serious obligations from God. In Judaism, women are not bound by time sensitive mitzvahs. Essentially, you could say men are held to ‘higher standards’ by God. This basically means they have more responsibilities in prayer. Men are the ones who go toshul, Men are obligated to sleep in the sukka during Sukkot, etc. The way Rabbi Wenglin put it to me was like this: say you’re playing in a football game (coincidence), and on the last play of the game you catch the ball, run the wrong way and score a touchdown for the other team. Say you play for the Eagles. That night you’re walking home through Philadelphia and you pass a bar with a few people watching SportsCenter – you see your own highlight reel playing. What do you do? Do you walk inside and say, “Hey, that’s me!” No, of course not. You keep walking. It’s the same thing with us, we can’t stand up and say “I’m a man!” because we are constantly making mistakes, constantly failing Mitzvahs, constantly missing opportunities to do God’s work. But, what a man can thank God for is that he’s not a woman– because he’s not. So each day men wake up and say a prayer thanking God that they aren’t women, and that’s our way of starting the day and saying, “I’m a man,” without making the gregarious claim that you are fulfilling all your duties.
Considering this, I stop in my walk back to my room and say – loud enough so only I can hear – “thank you God, for not making me a woman.” The Skins really need this game.
A few hours later I take the light rail that runs through Jerusalem down to the Old City. The light rail in Jerusalem is one of the best features of public transportation I’ve ever seen in a big city. It works like this: you buy a ticket at a little booth right at the stop, when the train comes you slide the ticket into an electronic box that stamps it and then returns it to you, and if you get on a cart with the ticket police and they ask you for your ticket, you simply show them your stamped pass. Some people have Rav Kavs, which are essentially bus IDs that you run over the scanner. One trip costs 6.60 sheck – about a dollar and eighty cents. Soldiers ride for free. I ride this light rail – at the minimum – twice every day. Usually I buy one ticket and don’t validate it unless the ticket guys are on the train. Typically they aren’t, and I use the ticket and validate it later when I’m on my way home. Sometimes I catch the train at the last second, can’t buy a ticket, and then avoid the ticket police by hopping off at stops and switching to cars they just checked. Its my little way of working the system, taking one back from the man. I’ve also heard the fine for not having a ticket is 200 sheck, although I’ve been caught twice and kicked off without further punishment. But today the Redskins need a W, today I buy and validate my ticket, today I am with God.
By now I’ve gone full blown Jew-mode. I’m wearing my Redskins towel draped over my kippa which is on top of my head because I heard somewhere that two head coverings is better than one (further evidenced by the black hats and Hassidic Jews who wear two head coverings). I’m touching every single mezuzah I pass, then kissing my fingers, and doing the blessings whenever I can. When I get to Daniel’s house, which is about a 45 second walk from the Kotel, I say hi to him and his Hassidic brother, wish them both chag samaech and sit down on the couch to shmooze for a bit. Daniel offers me a beer and I accept. I open it, and the sight of his brother just barely reminds me to say a blessing before I drink. I don’t know if there is a blessing for beer, but I go ahead and say the one for the wine anyway:
“Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melach ha’olam, borei poree hagafen.”
Daniel and his brother both say “amen.”
We chat and chat, and I'm doing my best to keep the topic on Judaism, hoping that God is watching. At one point I go to the bathroom and – not knowing the blessing – ask Daniel’s brother Emilio to teach it to me. After I come out, I repeat him word after word and then immediately forget it.
Daniel and his brother both say “amen” when I’m finished.
By the time we’re leaving Daniel’s house and headed for the bar, I’m not feeling good about the whole God and football thing. My mind is moving too quickly for my own good. What did I miss? What did I get right? It isn’t like I can fool God, he knows everything – including my motivations for being a “good Jew” today. Plus, as I’ve always said, “God doesn’t care about football.” I used to cringe every time an athlete thanked God, now me – some shmuck who isn’t even playing – is asking for his help. But no! God is infinite. He is non-divisible, meaning his attention is non-divisible. He can put as much of himself into anything as he wants, including sports. If I pray it will work. This can work. How many Jews are in Green Bay anyway? If I do some good praying, the Redskins can do this.
We walk to the bar. On the way, there are more bad omens to be found. The Old City is packed. It’s the high holidays here, and there are Jews and non-Jews alike just flooding the ancient town that holds so much religious history. People are singing and dancing in the streets. People are praying and celebrating at the wall. People are selling chickens on the sidewalks and asking for tzedakah on every corner. Hassidic bands are everywhere. Suddenly, it occurs to me that God probably cares way more about these people – these real Jews – atoning for their sins and enjoying our God given city instead of walking to the bar to get hammered and watch football. “No,” I remind myself. “God is infinite…no Jews in Green Bay… non-divisible… we can do this…”
We run into a Rams fan who is also on his way to the bar. They’re playing the Falcons, and he says something like, “I think we got a chance.” I laugh and respond, “No you don’t.” He walks away with his head down; I look up at God and apologize.
A few minutes later we bump into Mark, my second roommate. Mark had heard me talking on the phone to my dad a few nights before, and opens the conversation by saying, “what is thy doing?” I laugh and correct him, “’what is thee doing?’ – but that’s a nice try.” They invite us to the Western Wall and – embarrassed – we confessed we’re more concerned with the football games coming on in an hour.
As we come out of the Old City and onto Jaffa street – walking along the light rail tracks – I see a peculiar looking man coming towards us. He is Arab looking, very thin, dark skinned and a little shorter than me. He’s wearing tan pants and a tan jacket and shoes with the big soles that make him appear a little taller. But its not so much his look as it is what he’s doing: looking at the ground muttering these odd guttural sounds, slapping his mouth like the stereo-typed Native American and then cupping one ear and then the other and making more sounds with his mouth shaped like an O. He slaps his forehead a few times and covers his ears and then stops in the middle of the street, while looking at his feet, yelps and crouches into a squatting position. This guy is on another planet.
As Daniel and I get even with him, he rings his hands and then goes back to cupping his ears and starts walking towards us. With years of training from the homeless men and crazies in Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh, Daniel and I keep walking, eyes forward.
“This guy is bat shit,” Dan says to me.
The man continues to walk even with us, now having just turned around from the direction he was coming when I first saw him. Neither of us talk, we just keep our pace and keep our eyes on him as he walks next to us – cupping one ear and then the other, tapping his mouth like a Native American, staring at his feet and making odd noises. We pick up our pace a little bit and he falls behind us. After creating a few feet of separation, I turn around to look at him. Suddenly, he’s stopped moving, his eyes are on me now, looking up for the first time, and his hands are over his ears.
“Ughhhhhhhhhhh,” he groans, as if he’s pulling something from his diaphragm. “Ughhhhhhh-Isaac.”
My name comes out perfectly audible at the end of his grunt. The hair goes up on the back of my neck. My arms and legs are immediately covered in goose bumps and I get the slight sensation I’m going to faint.
“Isaac,” he says again. This time perfectly clear as he walks in between Daniel and me, who are now planted in the sidewalk as if we had stepped into quick sand.
“What the fu…” Daniel trails off as he walks between us clicking his tongue and cupping his ears, eyes back on his feet. I’m feeling wholly uneasy and freaked, and Daniel looks a little pale.
“That….was…. weird, man,” I say, shocked to the point of stating the obvious. “The dude just said my name.”
“Yeah, bro,” Daniel forces a laugh. “I was here.”
I look up to the sky and briefly wonder if this was hashem, if I’m missing a signal or something, if I’m doing it wrong. I can’t think of anything so Daniel and I walk on in silence.
When we get to the bar we are working under the assumption that Mike’s Place has NFL ticket. Uneasily, looking at my shirt and Daniel’s Dolphins jersey, the manager tells us that they only have four of the six NFL games this week. Daniel is a big Miami fan and we decide if they’re showing either the Dolphins or the Redskins we’ll stay. He reads the list. They’re showing neither.
As we walk out of the bar, still trying to overcome the mystification of the strange man saying my name, I decide to spin this the right way.
“Alright man, God is going to make us work for this,” I say.
Daniel is fully aware and fully supportive of my “God loves football” plan. We walk down the street to get some 10-sheck falafel from the dready Hassidic who has the best sandwiches in town and decide it is time to make a new game plan. After making some calls, I find out that a few guys from the Yeshiva are watching the games on a wifi stream in the cafeteria. The Skins are on their list. We decide to go and walk to the light rail stop. I buy a ticket and promise myself I will validate this one. The time is 7:42 p.m. in Israel, which means the games will be starting in 18 minutes – at 1:00 p.m. back in the states. When we get off the train we hustle to the corner store, buy a few beers and some chips, and then come back to the Yeshiva. It is dinnertime now so we get another meal – this one BBQ wings – by far the best food you’ll get at Ohr Somayach. I’m feeling revived, I wash before dinner and ask someone to say the blessing on the meat for me and I start getting pumped.
As we set up two laptops in the corner and take over a table right above the router, disaster strikes: the Internet is down. It is 8:00 p.m. on the nose and I know the game is just kicking off. Panic begins to set in. Daniel and I can’t decide what to do, and Navid – a friend of mine from LA who has brought his computer – encourages us to wait it out. I begin to daven – or pray – rocking back and forth and trying my hardest to channel Him. 10 minutes go by. The Packers go up 3-0. As I always do during Redskins games, I call my dad to chat. We’ve both got gut instincts that tell us the Skins will put up a fight. "RGIII looks okay," he says, "but our defense is still terrible." I tell him I’ll call him back and go back to following my friend’s phone. 10-0 Packers. The first quarter is almost coming to an end I decide I can’t wait any longer. Daniel says he’s pretty sure there is an open Internet connection at his apartment, all the way back in the Old City where we started, and if we leave now we could catch the whole second half. I agree, thinking this is God’s plan – he wants to challenge me, and I will overcome it. I pay for and validate another train ticket, hitting my record for most tickets bought in a day since I’ve arrived. I keep the towel over my kippa and read the traveler’s prayer aloud off of a wallet-sized laminated prayer book before we go.
We hike back through the Old City and all the way back to where we started. Daniel’s brother is gone and we go into his bedroom to try the Internet on his computer. It works, but we can’t stay in his brother’s bed all night. We take the computer to the family room, crossing our fingers the connection will still work. As the game loads, I call my dad. It is 17-0 Packers, they have the ball and they’re moving. As the game appears on my computer screen I hear my dad groan and watch Jermichael-Finley strut in for a 3-yard touchdown to make it 24-0. This game is all but over. I open another beer and say the prayer again, still in cahoots with God and still hopeful for Redskins.
“Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melach ha’olam, borei poree hagafen.”
Daniel mutters “amen.”
As the second half begins, all hope fades. The Packers work their way down the field and score to make it 31-0, an insurmountable lead in the NFL. I deflate, pull my towel off my head and start feeling the blues only a real, dedicated sports fan can feel when his team appears to be hopelessly pathetic. Daniel and I flip between the Skins and Dolphins game for the next hour or so, and as time winds down on the Redskins I consider my day.
Was it worth it? Is it a bad thing I took the time to appreciate my food or my alcohol? Didn’t it feel good to pay for my train ticket each time I rode it? Wasn’t it better that I kept a positive attitude when the bar didn’t have the game and the Internet at Ohr Somayach wouldn’t work? Did I really need God to do all those things?
As the final seconds tick off the clock, Daniel offers me a hand rolled cigarette. Feeling the liberating sense of self-loathing, I accept. I take my first drag and look through the smoke as the clock goes from :04 to :03 to :02 to :01 to :00; the score board reads 31-20 Packers and I think to myself, “God doesn’t care about football.”