The Curmudgeon isn’t big on role models.  In a perfect world, or maybe even just a much better one, the only role models children would need are their parents.

In a perfect world, or maybe even just a better one, some other people might be role models, too – people like relatives, clergymen, teachers, and neighbors.  Maybe even some public officials, heaven forbid.  But again, this isn’t a perfect world.

And so we’re often left with celebrities as role models, and that’s not good.  In theory, The Curmudgeon agrees with former professional basketball player Charles Barkley, who when asked to reconcile the boorish behavior in which he occasionally engaged during his playing days with his status as a role model, famously declared “I’m not a role model.”

But he was.  First of all, he was a constant national media presence for more than a dozen years, and in fact he remains one today.  Second, and more important, he actually has declared himself a role model on many occasions.  Every time he got paid to endorse a product, he wasn’t just endorsing a product:  he was implicitly – and, one might argue, explicitly as well – declaring “Be like me.  Use this product.”  The notion that a child should somehow be able to distinguish between different aspects of an individual’s life or actions in judging which behavior is appropriate to respect and which isn’t is utterly absurd.  If endorsing a product isn’t a declaration of role model-dom, The Curmudgeon doesn’t know what is.

Most celebrities aren’t very good role models for the very reason that, aside from the arrogance that money and attention inevitably instill in them, they’re not perfect.  Almost anyone you put on a pedestal will eventually fall off it with a thud.

Parents are different.  Kids can look up to their parents even though they recognize, from an early age, that their parents aren’t perfect.  Mom burnt the toast.  Dad cursed when he hit his thumb with a hammer.  They punished me for something my sister did.  Kids aren’t always very bright, their brains and sensibilities are still forming, but when they see their appropriate role models fall short of expectations, they have a context for understanding that failing and an innate love that helps them move beyond it in a way that they never will with their favorite football player, actress, or singer.

Once in a while, though, someone comes along and does something that’s so special that it transcends the inherent limits of celebrity role models.

Someone like Sandy.

Tomorrow night at sundown, Jews around the world will observe the holiday of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  The Curmudgeon doesn’t use the term “celebrate” because there’s nothing to celebrate about Yom Kippur.  It’s not a happy holiday.  To the contrary, it’s a grim, uncomfortable day that marks the end of a ten-day period during which we are supposed to identify, reflect on, and atone for our sins.  As part of that last day, we’re not allowed to eat or drink or wash for comfort.  We’re not supposed to mind those inconveniences, or even notice them, because we’re supposed to be praying or resting up for the next round of prayer.

The overwhelming majority of us, The Curmudgeon included, do no such thing, of course.  We’re cultural Jews.  We enjoy, participate in, and respect the traditions, but our literal observances of them are sporadic and selective.  We follow some of the rules and attend some of some services, but mostly, we respect the spirit but not the letter of the laws.

To these cultural Jews, including The Curmudgeon, Sandy Koufax is a role model and a virtual idol.

Sandy Koufax was a baseball player, a pitcher first for the Brooklyn Dodgers and then for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The last six years of his career are arguably the greatest stretch of pitching performance that baseball has ever seen.

In 1965, Sandy’s team was in the World Series, and the first game coincided with the arrival of Yom Kippur.  Sandy was supposed to pitch.  Sandy did not pitch.  Sandy did not even come to the ballpark that night.  It was Yom Kippur, and the idea of working, or even coming to work, was inconceivable to him.

And among the Jewish people, a legend was born – as was a role model.  What was so remarkable about Sandy’s decision was that, like most of us, he wasn’t an observant Jew.  He didn’t go to synagogue every Saturday morning, didn’t deny himself the pleasures of a cheeseburger or a shrimp cocktail on religious grounds, didn’t wear fringed garments under his uniform.  He didn’t even attend services that October night when he should have been on the mound.  He was a cultural Jew, like most of us, but even a cultural Jew understands that you do not fool around with Yom Kippur.  For many Jews, Yom Kippur is one of only two days of the year they attend synagogue.  Even for those who don’t, though, they understand that Yom Kippur is a day to lay low:  if you’re not in synagogue, you’re at home.  You don’t go to work, but you also don’t go shopping or out to lunch or to the beach.  You think there’s something wrong that you have to use a personal or vacation day to take off from work to observe your most important holiday while your non-Jewish friends and co-workers pay no such price to celebrate theirs, but you pay that price and you pay it willingly.

The Curmudgeon’s parents recognized the teachable moment when it presented itself (even though the term “teachable moment” wouldn’t come into common use for another thirty or so years) and carefully pointed out to their son, a little more than a month shy of his eighth birthday, what Sandy was doing, why he was doing it, and why he should be like Sandy when it came to respecting the holidays.

And it turns out The Curmudgeon’s parents were far from alone.  Across America, the legend of Sandy Koufax would grow – and grow and grow and grow.  We all understood who he was and why, at least in this respect, we should be like him.  Today, nearly fifty years later, the legend has not diminished even a little.

Ten years ago a writer named Jane Leavy wrote what might, at first glance, be perceived as a biography of Koufax.  It isn’t.  It’s a 273-page reflection on the enormous cultural impact this one man has now had on millions of American Jews.  Sandy, who still seems a bit mystified by that impact and the adulation it has spawned, is an exceedingly private man, and for this reason, The Curmudgeon was hesitant to read the book; he felt like doing so would be an invasion of the man’s privacy.  Learning that Sandy opposed the book’s writing reinforced this feeling, but later, The Curmudgeon read that Sandy, ever the gentleman, did not discourage his friends from talking to the writer and even spoke to Leavy – not to tell his stories or offer his perspective, but just to confirm the veracity of what she had learned, because even though he didn’t want her to write the book, once he understood that she was writing it he wanted it at least to be accurate.  The Curmudgeon read the book, and it was a moving testament to the extraordinary impact that one man, through one simple action, has had on several generations of his people.

Including The Curmudgeon.

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  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On September 24, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Very nice.
    Have an easy fast.

    • foureyedcurmudgeon  On September 24, 2012 at 12:53 pm

      Thank you.

      And yes, about the fast: it’ll be one of those times in which we observe more the spirit than the letter of the law.

  • Scott  On September 25, 2012 at 7:13 am

    …I saw the title and I thought this was another beach tag rant. It’s amazing the impact that his actions that day so long ago have had on generations of Jews. Does this qualify Mr. Koufax as a cultural icon? Sorry, I couldn’t resist…

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