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Football Victory: A Yom Kippur Story
Not all wins take place on the playing field.
A soul was getting ready to descend from the supernal “World of Souls” to what Kabbala calls, “The World of Action.” Like all pre-flight souls, this one was assigned a primary mission and several secondary missions.
It was also given a time limit. It would have just 46 years to complete its task.
THE WORLD OF ACTION
The soul plunged, and landed in the womb of one Gittel Poseh Claman, a Russian Jewish immigrant living in Manitoba, Canada. On November 8, 1921, the soul, snugly wrapped in an 8½ pound body, emerged, amidst cries of “Mazel tov!” Eight days later, the soul-cum-body was circumcised and duly named Zalman Baer Claman.
Now, a soul descending from the “World of Souls” to the lowest of all worlds, the “World of Action,” is like a denizen of a Park Avenue penthouse awakening in a slum in the middle of a rumble. The “World of Action” has only one thing going for it, which makes it worth the trip. It is the only world where free choice is possible. Not the chocolate-or-vanilla choices which occupy most minds. Only one area of choice is truly free: the choice between right and wrong.
That’s how souls, all of whom forget their missions the moment they are born, end up accomplishing the tasks they came to perform. It is like being set down in a maze, with the prize ensconced in some concealed chamber in the middle. If at every fork, the soul chooses right over wrong, eventually it will reach its unknown goal.
Zalman Claman grew up and became an orthopedic surgeon. At 23, he married an opera singer named Ruth Rusen. Zalman was to be the flamboyant star of a fantastical life; Ruth would be his supporting actress.
Zalman was a Renaissance man. He went from serving as a country doctor in a remote Canadian province to pioneering for a year in the nascent state of Israel to establishing a small hospital and a string of medical offices in Los Angeles. He relished the poetry of Yeats, could quote Plato and Dostoevsky, tinkered with plans for a new type of helicopter, designed a balloon from plastic sheeting to protect construction workers in sub-zero temperatures, taught his children to hunt with a bow and arrow, and read from the weekly Torah portion at the family’s Shabbos table.
It was an era in which traditional but non-observant Jews like the Clamans were bearing an average of 2.1 children. Especially for professionals, large families were considered gauche and plebeian. But the Holocaust had just ended, and Zalman and Ruth felt they had a moral obligation to repopulate the Jewish people. So they made their first truly daring decision. Boldly facing the raised eyebrows of their families and friends, they bore ten children.
As much as Zalman was a unique individual, he believed, and taught his children, that the needs of the group take priority over the needs of the individual. In particular, kindness and sensitivity to have-nots is the responsibility of a Jew. He once gave his child a walloping for teasing a handicapped girl. “It’s the obligation of Jews to fight for the oppressed,” he would say.
He put his ideology into action by opening his medical offices in the black ghettos of Los Angeles. He believed that the poor deserved the same level of medical care as the rich — and he gave it to them. In the days before Medic-aid, he operated on patients who he knew could not afford to pay him. He never turned anyone away.
In the summer of 1965, the Watts riots devastated Los Angeles. With the ruins still smoldering and white people afraid of venturing anywhere near Watts, Zalman decided that he had a moral obligation to treat his patients, many of whom had surely been injured in the riots. His nurses, however, were too scared to come with him. So Zalman, with an armed friend riding shotgun, brought his two oldest children to assist him. Sure enough, as they neared his office, which was the only building left standing in the whole block of burned-out buildings, they saw a line of patients waiting outside the entrance. They evidently trusted that Doc Claman would be there to take care of them.
Helping the larger society, however, never took him away from what Zalman considered his primary mission in life: his children. He involved them in everything he did, even encouraging them to miss school in order to go on rounds with him. When he was experimenting with his cold-weather balloon scheme during the period the family lived in Canada, he sent his two oldest children, Alan and Beatty, to check that the plastic sheeting was holding together. When he attempted to build a dune buggy from an old car, he taught Alan to wield an arc welder to help him do the job. Sometimes when he finished his rounds early, he would call home and capriciously announce: “Pack the gear! We’re going camping!”
Upon getting an emergency call in the middle of the night, Zalman would go into Beatty’s room, and ask out loud, “Are you awake?” The sound of her father’s voice was a clarion call to adventure. Beatty would jump out of bed and accompany him to the hospital. Afterwards, they would stop at Redondo Beach, at “The Insomniac,” an all-night Beatnik coffee shop. While the young teenager sipped hot chocolate and gawked at the bohemian scene, Zalman would gather pertinent information about fishing conditions from the old fishermen. Then they would return home, Zalman would make pancakes for the family, and, in the pre-dawn, the whole family, including Ruth, would head out to go fishing.
Every night ended with all the younger children cuddling around their father on the parental king-size bed while Zalman told them fanciful stories of his own invention. The stories were invariably morality tales, where the child hero or heroine was faced with a choice between pursuing self-gratification or helping a person in distress. The child would choose right, complete the altruistic mission, and be rewarded with a magical treasure.
Zalman believed that a human being could accomplish anything he set his mind to, and he drilled this lesson into his children by entrusting them with adult-level tasks. His modus vivendi was to train them, then trust them. Thus, when his children reached the age of thirteen, he would bring them to his medical office and teach them how to do filing, billing, developing X-rays, and even lab work. Whenever any child showed a talent, Zalman hired tutors to encourage their potential—in art, piano, math, ice-skating, etc. He himself taught Alan physics.
Values, however, were always more important than skills. To teach his children open-minded thinking, he would gather them around a table with a glass set in the middle, and ask each one to describe what he or she saw. Then, in an attempt to stretch their minds, he would suggest looking at the glass from another angle, from the top, from the bottom, etc. Don’t lock yourself in to a single perspective, was their father’s explicit lesson.
Only in the area of morality did he believe in absolutes. Right and wrong were stringent categories, not fuzzy intangibles. Where moral issues were concerned, Zalman Claman brooked no compromise. He punished his children for doing wrong, even as he honored them for doing right.
His method of rebuke was to paint a picture of what the culprits had done, and, with his arm lovingly encircling them, force them to recognize the repercussions of their actions. “Here’s what you did,” he would say to a misbehaving child. “What do you think is the consequence of this?” The guilty party herself was forced to draw the conclusions and repair the misdeed.
The clue which kept Zalman choosing the right direction at every fork in his life was his pre-ponderant sense of responsibility to the collective — his family, the Jewish community, and society in general. He drummed into his children that all people set an example all the time, by everything they do. Every wrongdoing has a ripple effect, and negatively impacts the entire public. There is no such thing as a victimless crime. Society always suffers from the moral failures of its constituents.
This is a quintessentially Jewish concept, and is the reason why the confession recited in the synagogue on Yom Kippur is phrased in the plural. When a Jew confesses to a battery of despicable sins she may never have committed (violence, sexual perversion, giving false testimony, etc.), she is not only asserting the collective responsibility of the Jewish people. On a more profound level, she is recognizing that if she mini-cheats on her exam, she is collaborating in the moral degradation of the whole society, which ends up with Enron executives mega-cheating.
Thus, Zalman insisted that his children act morally and set an example to everyone around them. In the sphere of morality, there were no private choices. Being a child of Zalman Claman was like piloting a jumbo jet.
Unbeknownst to Zalman, time was running out for him. He always considered his primary mission to be raising his children. He would not gauge success in that endeavor by how much money or prestige they amassed, but by their ability to choose the greater good over private gain. Like a football coach, whose success is in the hands of his players on the field, Zalman’s ultimate test as a parent lay in the hands of his children.
Zalman’s first-born son, Alan, had proved himself to be a top athlete in high school, but when he applied to play football in college, no one took him seriously. After all, at 5’9″ and 190 pounds, he was laughably small for a football player, who usually weighed in at 230. Sports columnists would later refer to Alan as “the Lilliputian tackle” and the “pocket-sized player,” but his father had imbued him with a sense of giant potential. No matter how many times the predominantly Catholic football players at the U.C.L.A. field turned away the little Jewish kid on the pretext that they didn’t have enough helmets or shoulder pads, Alan kept coming back and asking to play.
When enough guys stopped showing up, because their studies were floundering or the grueling practice was too much for them, Alan was finally given a chance. He played on the freshman team, while always maintaining a 3.4 grade point average.
In the spring of 1965, U.C.L.A., one of the lowest ranking teams in America, acquired a new coach, Tommy Prothro. After Prothro saw movies of Alan’s playing, he told him, “You’re exactly the kind of player we want — quick and aggressive on the field.” He offered Alan a full scholarship and promoted him to first string on the varsity team.
Alan had made it. His status soared, and he became a sought-after date. After months of working out four to five hours a day, Alan was in the starting lineup for the first game of the season. He played well, tackling his opponents with an innovative head-on tackle to the chest instead of the ankles. At 19 years old, Alan was riding on top of the world.
Then he found out that the second game of the season was scheduled for Yom Kippur.
Alan, who was active in his local Conservative synagogue, understood that this posed a problem, but he was confident that a solution could be found which would enable him to play. He went home and informed his father of the scheduling conflict.
The refrain of “Whatever makes my child happy… who am I to tell my child what to do?” was already playing on the hit parade of the national conscience. Zalman Claman, however, sang a different tune. He told his son unequivocally: “You’re a Jew. You can’t play on Yom Kippur.”
The following day, Alan told his coach that he couldn’t play the next game. Coach Prothro responded with an ultimatum: “If you don’t play in this game, you won’t play at all. I’ll give your position to someone else, and you’ll lose your scholarship.”
Indeed, the Yom Kippur of 1965 was the same Yom Kippur that Sandy Koufax would refuse to play in the first game of the World Series. Koufax, however, was at the top of his profession, recognized as the greatest pitcher in America. He faced no personal penalties for standing up for his convictions. Alan, on the other hand, was at the very beginning of his collegiate football career, a career which threatened to be stillborn that Yom Kippur.
Alan returned to his father. Surely there was some compromise which would be acceptable. Perhaps he could fast, as he did every Yom Kippur, and still play.
For Zalman Claman, the Torah was the source of all morality. When faced with a moral quandary, he didn’t improvise his own subjective solutions. Instead, he consulted an objective source. Now, he took his son to their local rabbi.
The rabbi comprehended all that Alan stood to lose. He shook his head. A Jew simply could not play football on Yom Kippur. Alan would damage himself spiritually, and worse, since he was known as a Jewish football player, he would set a bad example for other Jews.
As soon as Alan heard the words, “bad example,” he decided that he would not play on Yom Kippur, no matter what it cost him. This was the principle on which he had been raised: the moral obligation to set a good example.
On Yom Kippur, Alan accompanied his family to synagogue and remained there all day. When he returned home after the final shofar blowing, friends called to tell him that on the radio throughout the game, the sportscaster kept repeating, “Claman is not playing today because of the Jewish holy day.”
He had set a good example. He had scored a moral victory.
In the heavenly Mission Control Center, a check registered next to the entry for Zalman Baer Claman.
THE ROSE BOWL
During practice the next few days, Alan warmed the bench while his replacement played defensive tackle. Coach Prothro quickly ascertained that the substitute was not nearly as fast, strong, nor smart as Alan. By the next game, Alan was back in the starting line-up.
Alan became the only Bruins player to play first string for all the remaining games that season, and racked up more hours on the field than any other player.
The Bruins went on to achieve a stunning season. By the end, they were one of the top five teams nationally and played in the Rose Bowl against America’s top team, the undefeated Michigan State.
On the eve of the Rose Bowl, the Herald-Examiner wrote: “Alan Claman, sophomore, 5-9, 194 just might be the shortest, lightest, and bravest starting defensive tackle to play on any Rose Bowl team in recent years.”
In what was described as “an all-time Rose Bowl thriller,” U.C.L.A., against all odds, defeated Michigan State 14-12.
As for Alan, the Los Angeles Times quoted Coach Prothro as calling him, “the biggest little man in college football.” In the words of one sports columnist: “Pound for pound, Claman just might be the best collegiate lineman in the country.”
Alan became “Honorable Mention All-American,” and was voted “Most Valuable Player” in a match against Stanford’s acclaimed team. Once, he even tackled U.S.C.’s star player, O. J. Simpson.
Incredibly, the “pocket-sized tackle” was the only Bruins player who, in three years of collegiate football, never once suffered an injury. Decades later, living as an observant Jew, Alan would say, “I believe that because I didn’t play on Yom Kippur, God protected me throughout my football career.”
Alan went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Eventually, he started his own business in commercial aircraft parts. As a corporate executive, as much as a college football player, his father’s moral legacy served as a beacon for him.
The Yom Kippur of 1965, so fraught with challenge and inner triumph for Alan, turned out to be the next-to-the-last Yom Kippur of his father’s life. In March, 1967, Zalman Claman suddenly died of a rare auto-immune disease. He was 46 years old.
Among his family, his patients, the many people who admired this larger-than-life figure, there was shock and tears.
In the supernal worlds, to which the soul returned, there was only cheering.