Friday, October 7, 2011

Red River Rationale

I’ve spent the last five years working in the Jewish communal world. There have been plenty of perks, to be sure, from free in-house health club memberships to the daily opportunity to serve perfectly reasonable parents who would never blow anything out of proportion.

But the unquestioned, undisputed best thing about my experience has been how often I haven’t had to go to work.

With a calendar filled with Jewish holidays – some of which I’ve never heard of – these organizations are constantly closing their doors in observance. And when the dates line up just right, you can end up with more four-day weekends than you know what to do with.

That’s exactly what has happened in 2011, as Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Simchat Torah have all fallen (or will fall) on Thursdays and Fridays. The lone exception is Yom Kippur, which is today. Deemed the holiest day of the year, Jews are expected to spend it in synagogue, atoning for their sins and cleansing their conscience, so that they can move forward in their lives with a clean slate.

While that may not be my idea of an ideal Saturday, it normally wouldn’t be that big of an issue. After all, I’ve screwed up plenty in the last 12 months, and I’ve got more than a day’s worth of stuff to apologize for. But the problem is that this year the holiday happens to coincide with another special occasion that also deserves my undivided attention:

Texas vs. Oklahoma.

Dating back over a century, the “Red River Rivalry” is one of the most storied series between two of the most storied programs in all of college football. It’s featured Hall of Fame coaches, Heisman Trophy winning players, and all-time great teams, and it’s important enough that fraternities and sororities feel the need to make a t-shirt about it every year.

Like any border war, there is a palpable hatred between the two sides, which contributes to one of the most electric atmospheres anywhere. Played at the neutral Cotton Bowl in Dallas, in the midst of the State Fair of Texas, the game day air is filled with obscenities and taunting and the seductive smell of corndogs. The crowd is split at the 50 yard line, leaving each horseshoe end filled with either burnt orange or crimson. From the opening kickoff, the stadium never stops shaking, as each play brings half of the fans to their feet. Even for those who aren’t fortunate enough to be there, the energy and enthusiasm are so strong that they pour through the radio or TV screen.

(Quick story: in 1995, the game ended in a tie. The ramps to get out were jammed, because everyone had stayed until the finish. Amid all of the chaos, one of my friends started the “Texas-Fight” chant, and immediately, a bunch of other Longhorn fans joined in. Well, this did not go over well with the crusty old Sooner who was right next to us. He turned to my friend and began berating him for leading a cheer for a team that hadn’t won. “That’s how STUPID you are!” he screamed over and over. And this was considered a standard interaction.)

Because UT and OU are in the same conference – and are also often near the top of the polls – there is more at stake than just the bragging rights that come from bending over your hated neighbor. There are title shots and national rankings up for grabs, and the outcome can make or break you, determining the course for the rest of your year.

In other words, it’s the Yom Kippur of each school’s season.

And while I was born a Jew, I was raised a Longhorn, and I now devote as much time to UT athletics as a rabbi does to breaking down the Talmud. Message boards, press conferences, game recaps, film analysis, recruiting videos, insider reports…you name it, I consume it. It’s a year-round obsession, and there are no holidays.

Not even for the holiest that Judaism has to offer.

So instead of being in services today, I’m going to be in my burnt orange shirt – the one that carried the Horns to the 2005 championship – living and dying with everything that happens on the Cotton Bowl floor. I realize that most people can’t understand this, that they probably think I’m crazy for putting a football game above something as important as Yom Kippur. And honestly, it’s hard to argue with them. But from the moment I discovered this scheduling conflict, I knew what my ultimate decision would be.

Still, there was an uneasiness inside me, and I was determined to figure out an argument that could justify my actions. Below is what I came up with. I don’t know if it’ll carry any weight with the Big Man upstairs, but I’m praying that He’ll at least give me a little something for the effort and find a way to show mercy on my soul…

Hunger Pangs

For the longest time, I never enjoyed watching UT games at a bar. It was just too loud, and there were too many distractions, and I couldn’t stand listening to those loud-mouthed, know-it-all fans who, in actuality, knew nothing at all. I much preferred a more controlled environment, where I could concentrate on the task at hand.

When I moved out of state a few years ago, though, I was forced to leave my couch, because the games were rarely televised locally. So I found out where the area’s alumni chapter held watch parties and gave it a shot. Much to my surprise, I kind of liked it, and I’ve been going ever since. It’s a really cool spot, with a downstairs room reserved specifically for Longhorns, and when the fight song blares after every score, you practically feel like you’re home again. The only thing better than the camaraderie – and the cowboy hat-wearing regular who high-fives the entire bar when something good happens is tough to beat – is the special Texas-flavored menu they offer, which is full of things like chili dogs and Frito Pie and discounted Shiner Bock beer.

But today, I won’t be ordering any of it.

Like Jews across the world, I’ll be fasting. It’s an integral component of Yom Kippur, a demonstration that, for one day at least, we put aside our physical needs and focus solely on our spiritual wellbeing. And while I won’t be doing it in a synagogue, I will be doing it surrounded by people stuffing their faces with some of my favorite Lone Star State delicacies.

That’s sacrifice enough, isn’t it?

Step 9

As I explained here, I’m a huge fan of DVR. And when my schedule forces me to, I’m okay recording a UT game and watching it after the fact. Trying to make it back home without finding out who won is a fun challenge, and I’ll pull out every trick I can think of to ensure that happens. I’ll ignore my phone. I’ll take off my glasses if I’m near a TV (probably the only advantage to having less than perfect vision). I’ll even stick my fingers in my ears like a two-year-old if I hear somebody mention the word “football.” I’m pretty much willing to do anything.

But I am not willing to do any of it for Texas-OU.

Unless there’s a family emergency or Bruce Willis is summoning me to stave off Armageddon, I have to watch this live. I’m just too consumed by it to be useful at anything else. I can barely sleep the night before the game, much less absolve myself of all of my sins during it.

So even if I went to services, it wouldn’t do any good. I’d be an absolutely atrocious atoner. I’d atone so poorly that all of the people I’ve wronged would come looking for me like Costanza did when the recovering alcoholic gave him an insufficient apology. Next thing you know, I’d be climbing in the ice chest at Baskin Robbins, looking for Rum Raisin and trying to atone for my insufficient atoning.

Time Served

Judaism states (or, at least Wikipedia says Judaism states) that the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are among the most important of the entire year. It’s a time for introspection and reconciliation, when we can step back and examine our lives and make things right with ourselves, with those around us, and ultimately, with G-d. The Lord is watching throughout, taking notes, penciling in to the “Book of Life” each person’s fate – who will live, and who will die – for the coming year.

And at the end of the 10th day, the Book – and thus, our destiny – is sealed.

Given this, it seems pretty dumb to use my “closing argument” to blow off services and watch a football game. But because I knew this was going to happen, I put in my time early, going to services on three consecutive days last week.

The way I see it, I’m like that college basketball team that is dominant all season, then loses in the first round of their conference tournament, but is still deserving of a No. 1 seed in March Madness. After all, your entire resume, your full body of work should count for something, and one bad day shouldn’t be enough to erase it.

But I guess only time will tell how much the Lord has in common with the NCAA Selection Committee.

Family Ties

I attended those three services last week – two for Rosh Hashanah, one for Shabbat – at a synagogue in Chicago. I prayed. I chanted. I sang. I stood up when I was instructed to. I even listened to every single word of the rabbi’s sermon.

Of course, it helped that my brother was the one giving it.

That’s right…my brother is a rabbi. He has been for over three years now, but the shock still hasn’t worn off yet. When he initially went back to school, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if it was going to be a good thing or a bad thing, if he’d transform into a completely unrecognizable person, or if it would somehow negatively affect our family dynamic.

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about. My brother is still the same guy, cracking Larry David jokes and walking around in his boxer shorts. But now when he does put his pants on, he goes out and leads his flock of congregants on the path towards enlightenment.

And it’s this work that should offer me some cover here. If each Jewish family is expected to devote a certain amount of time and effort to Judaism, then the Stollers are more than hitting their quota. My brother practices it a ton, I barely practice it at all, and it all evens out perfectly, placing our bottom line right where it needs to be. Rocking that boat will only screw things up at this point.

"Our Destiny Chooses Us"

In the movie Rounders, Mike McDermott (played by Matt Damon) is a professional poker player who is torn between two diverging life paths – grinding out a living at the table, or taking the legitimate route and becoming a lawyer. Deep down, he knows that he’s a card player. It’s who he is. But he recognizes the inherent risks that come with it, and he understands that pursuing that lifestyle will also cost him the girl he loves.

Searching for guidance, he turns to his mentor, Abe Petrovsky, one of his law school professors, who at one time had also faced a similar dilemma. In the professor’s case, his parents wanted him, coincidentally, to be a rabbi, but in his heart of hearts, he believed he was destined to work with the law. So that’s what he decided to do, and subsequently, his family never spoke to him again. Hearing this, Mike asks him if, knowing what he knows now, would he still have made the same choice.

“What choice?” Petrovsky replies.

When it comes down to it, we have to stay true to who we are. Whether it’s a gambler or a lawyer or, heaven forbid, a Sooner, nothing good comes from trying to be something we aren’t. We just end up angry and resentful, wondering what might have been.

Me? I’m a Longhorn, and when Texas lines up to play Oklahoma – even on Yom Kippur – that is what’s at the center of my universe, and I’m not going to fight it. I know that may be blasphemous, and I know I might be tempting fate, and I’ll be happy to repent again next year.

In the meantime, though, I just hope the Horns aren’t the ones who end up paying for my sin.

(Note: The Longhorns did end up paying for my sin, getting blasted 55-17. I have spent each and every day since praying to Bevo in hopes of achieving atonement.)

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?