Some of us believe in heaven right here on earth. We welcome this month’s arrival of the High Holidays, those solemn days commemorating the birth of the world and the hour of supreme human penitence.
But we also take heed of our earthbound beliefs.
I’m reminded of this anytime I think about Jerry Hoffberger. He owned the Baltimore Orioles when they were baseball’s best franchise. He owned the National Brewing Co. when it outsold all other beers in Maryland.
And he belonged to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, whose spiritual leader in the summer of 1999, Rabbi Rex D. Perlmutter, eulogized Hoffberger on the day many gathered at the synagogue to pay our final respects.
Hoffberger, he said, had been president of the synagogue and thus sat in a comfortable chair at the bimah’s back wall during the High Holidays.
“You can’t see it out there,” the rabbi told all assembled that day. He pointed to the little area where Hoffberger once sat. “But there’s a slot in the wall, where you can slip notes through. It was put there so they could give Jerry the Orioles’ scores during the High Holidays.”
I love that story because it captures such a sweet slice of the human spirit. We wish to show our reverence for the spiritual, but mean no disrespect if we keep our feet on the ground while gazing skyward.
Also, it reminds me of my father and our visits to shul on those occasions when Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur coincided with Sundays and the old Baltimore Colts were playing football.
The Colts were considered Baltimore’s “other” religion, and it was inconceivable that we could get through a Sunday without some news of their exploits.
Maybe that explains why we sat precisely where we sat in synagogue.
My father was president of the Liberty Jewish Center brotherhood, yet every year insisted on High Holiday seats in the very last row — in back in the temporary section, which was not exactly 50-yard line stuff. It was a row so far back, in fact, that the metal folding chairs on which we sat were practically on Liberty Heights Avenue and, from our distant outpost, the ancient holiday rituals seemed barely audible.
“Why do we have to sit all the way back here?” I would ask every year.
“Because,” my father would explain.
He seemed to feel this reasoning sufficient for his son. And I do not know if the Colts’ connection played a part in his decision, but I do know this: back there, we had direct radio connection to the outside world, like some French Resistance operatives during the war.
My father was not an impious man. He’d been raised in an Orthodox synagogue and made certain his children were, too. But he needed language somewhat more immediate than that which traced its roots back 5,000 years. Sometimes such language arrived in a whisper. It was an usher, positioned just behind our row, who had a transistor radio with an earpiece.
“Unitas,” he would say.
“Shema, Yisroel,” came the prayerful cry from the front of the synagogue. “Hear, O Israel.”
“To Berry,” said the usher, intending to be heard by my father, if not all of Israel.
“Gimme a score,” my father would say.
“Colts up by 10.”
“How much time left?” my father would ask.
“What am I, Chuck Thompson?”
I can still picture my father passing the usher’s bulletin to me on one side of him, and to my uncle, Dr. Richard Loebman, who sat on the other, each of us in turn relaying the good news to those sitting beside us.
The news made its way outward, heads turning like the tide coming in. The Colts were ahead; God was smiling upon us. The gentiles were getting their spiritual lift down on 33rd Street, but here on Liberty Heights Avenue our Jews were taking a little secondhand sporting pleasure.
Out there, they drank Jerry Hoffberger’s National Bohemian beer. In here, we fasted for 24 hours. In both places, it felt like heaven right here on earth.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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