Wednesday, September 24, 2014

NFL Picks Week Four: On the New Year, God and football

I am not a particularly religious man. As a child I went to Hebrew school every Sunday from the age of eight all the way through my bar mitzvah and my confirmation at age 16, an event I find most memorable both for my horrid mutton-chop sideburns that I somehow thought were fashionable and the moment at which I walked back from the bathroom to sit down to lunch in the synagogue with my family only to have my dad lean over and inform me that my fly was open. Perhaps it was that open fly, perhaps it was the democrats or perhaps it was the undeniable influence of enlightened liberal arts education (or maybe it was just being a Mets fan), but somewhere between my bar mitzvah and the current day I lost the faith. I'd like to believe in a higher power, but the rational side of me has difficulty justifying it.

However, I do value tradition and customs and on a cultural level I feel overwhelmingly Jewish, likely as a justification for my family's loud dinners and neuroses, but also because I believe in the importance of connecting with your heritage. German-Jewish scholar Solomon Maimon once posited that Reform Judaism, my particular brand, was not so much a system of rules outlining how one ought to worship, but a forum for discussing the very nature of spiritualism and the almighty. This speaks to me, and while I may not believe in God, I like to think that if there is one, it is modest enough to value my general goodwill as a person above my dedication to praising its name. If you've ever read the Old Testament, this hope is probably foolhardy, but as a result of that, I may consider myself to largely be an atheist these days (though the best atheistic gospel of this week may have come from Keith Olbermann), but I still try to hold to some of the customs I was raised with as best I can. I am rarely in a synagogue and I can't remember the last time I attended a shabbat dinner, but I light my menorah, I fast on Yom Kippur, and tonight when the sun sets, I will party like it's 5775.

לשנה טובה, kids. 

Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the annual turning over of the Jewish calendar (though this is different from Simchat Torah, when we roll the scroll all the way back to Genesis). Many Jews mark the beginning of the high holidays by attending services in synagogue and having dinner with their family. Tonight I will be doing none of those things. The closest, I will get to observing the holiday tonight will likely be a few token Happy New Year greetings and an endless hunt to purchase a copy of this for my almost-nine-month-old nephew Sammy, which is probably likely to give him more happiness than the other gift I considered for him this week.

No, instead in my family, we celebrate these holidays on the actual dates if we can, but more often than not on the date when we can all manage to get together for them. This year, that means we'll be ringing in the New Year tomorrow on the second night of the holiday, which brings up a pretty profound quandary, as well as the entire reason I'm bothering to write about the Jewish holidays on this blog.

The Giants play the Redskins tomorrow night.

This is not the first time the Jewish holidays have coincided with the NFL season, but it is the first time I can recall that my family's observance will directly conflict with a New York Giants game, a three-hour weekly stretch that, let's be honest here, I consider pretty much sacred. Feeling that way may seem stupid to many of you, but if I'm an atheist, I see no reason how one of these is really more important than the other in the grand scheme of an enormous, ever-expanding universe. Furthermore, it isn't the stupidest thing anybody has said or done in America in the past week or at least the last three days.

Complicating this further is that while my brother and his wife know of my love for the Giants -- and how dismayed I am that my nephew is not yet large enough to fit into the Giants onesie I bought him a year ago -- they, I imagine, will consider the Giants game to be about as important as whether or not to tip the delivery man $3 or $4 the next time they order in. In fact, tipping the delivery man is almost certainly more important to them. I will probably not get to put the game on the TV in the background of dinner and my family is likely to get bugged by the fact that I will constantly be checking my phone. Even more problematic: The night will likely end during halftime meaning I will miss a portion of the second half in transit.

All of these are issues that, on a practical level, will cause us to examine whether or not we place more value in the rituals we follow somewhat out of obligation or the rituals we follow because that is what we have chosen and what, over time, our lives have truly developed around. Past attempts to balance these two obligations have been mixed and controversial, such as the time I listened to Ron Dixon's game-opening kick return touchdown against the Eagles during intermission when my grandmother took us to see Seussical for Hanukkah or when I listened to the Giants' epic collapse against the 49ers in the 2002 playoffs on a transistor while my family went to see Urinetown. Some people have come up with more clever solutions to this intersection of football and religion, but I honestly don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow night when the game kicks off right around the time my sister-in-law is serving brisket (which, for the record will be delicious).

Somehow, some way, I will manage to figure it out and get through it. And if I'm lucky, maybe my brother will allow me to wake up my nephew so he can take in his first Giants game with me. Or not. Either way, I will find a way to navigate both my religious obligations, nontraditional as they may be, with my dedication Big Blue.

Perhaps most importantly, this will serve as a valuable learning tool for me because in will not be the last time religious obligations run concurrent with football. In fact, Northwestern's game against Wisconsin, an important Kalan family ritual in its own right, falls on Yom Kippur next weekend. Kickoff will be an hour before I'm due at my grandmother's to break my fast.

I hope she doesn't mind that I'll be wearing purple pants.

Last week: 7-9-0
Season: 18-30-0

NY Giants (+3.5) over WASHINGTON
Green Bay (-1.5) over CHICAGO
INDIANAPOLIS (-7.5) over Tennessee
Miami (-4) over OAKLAND
NY JETS (+1.5) over Detroit
PITTSBURGH (-7.5) over Tampa Bay
Carolina (+3) over BALTIMORE
Buffalo (+3) over HOUSTON
SAN DIEGO (-13) over Jacksonville
Atlanta (-3) over MINNESOTA
SAN FRANCISCO (-5.5) over Philadelphia
New Orleans (-3) over DALLAS
New England (-3.5) over KANSAS CITY

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