(from Within My Illusions)
Though words fade with time,
The impression of your hand
Remains on my heart.
photo by Jennifer Bloom
I was sitting with a friend one evening this week when shortly into our conversation, she pointed at me and exclaimed, “Ah! I see! It’s a baseball glove.” Momentarily caught off guard, I put my hand on my chest and remembered the necklace I was wearing—a gold baseball mitt that had been part of a set of my grandfather's cufflinks. My dad had them converted into pendants for my sister and me when we were teenagers. My friend nodded as I shared the story and said, “You rarely change your necklace, so I figured there must be some significance.”
My Grandpa Hank has always seemed larger than life to me, both because of his stature (he was 6’4” and over 200 pounds) and because of the lore that surrounded him. As a child, I knew him through our family dinners at the Hamburger Hamlet (where my sister and I would excuse ourselves from the table to play the Ms. PacMan video game in the lobby), through summer afternoons at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club (there would always be a crowd gathered around the court where he was playing), and through weekend mornings at the house he shared with his wife, Mary Jo, and their rescue dogs (my sister and I usually played on our own while the adults visited with one another).
Often over the years, when people learn that my grandfather was Hank Greenberg, their reaction is palpable. With tears in their eyes, people have told me stories of what he meant to them or their parents or grandparents, stories that have been passed through the generations of their own families.
Grandpa Hank was 64 years old when I was born; he died when I was eleven. I didn't have the chance to sit at the "grown-up table" with him. It was only later, when I was in my teenage years, that I began to learn and understand the stories that made him a hero in the eyes of so many people, especially members of the Jewish community.
My Grandpa Hank played first base for the Detroit Tigers baseball team in the 1930's and 1940's. (If you're interested in baseball statistics, you can read about his hall-of-fame-worthy career here.) Being a prominent Jewish baseball player during a time (and in a city) where antisemitism was particularly visible, he both faced tremendous antisemitic vitriol from some and was a role model for others. His legacy is recounted in books, articles, film, rabbinical sermons, and bar and bat mitzvah speeches, with authors describing both his baseball prowess and also:
his decision about whether or not to play baseball on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah (he played) and Yom Kippur (he did not play) in 1934 and how his decision was uplifting to people in the Jewish community;
his years of voluntary service in the U.S. Army during World War II in what would have been the peak of his baseball career;
his words of encouragement to Jackie Robinson during an encounter at first base in 1947 when Robinson was a rookie and my grandfather was playing his final season with the Pittsburgh Pirates;
his role in helping to desegregate baseball during his time as General Manager of the Cleveland Indians in the 1950's.
It's become a tradition in my family to recite a poem called "Speaking of Greenberg," published by Edgar Guest in 1934 in the Detroit Free Press, about the antisemitism my grandfather initially faced, his decision to sit out on Yom Kippur, and, ultimately, the ways he was accepted by the Detroit community. It's become my custom to wear my baseball glove necklace during the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I like to think that the necklace keeps the connection to this part of my lineage close to my heart. Ten years ago, I had the chance to consider my own connection to Grandpa Hank's story and what it has meant for my Jewish identity in a short PBS segment.
Maya Angelou has been quoted as saying, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I consider the indelible impression of possibility and upliftment that my Grandpa Hank made on so many people through his devotion and commitment to what he loved and valued, and through creating opportunities for others to do the same. I also think about the long-lasting emotional scars that can be left by harsh words fueled by prejudice, power dynamics, or simply misunderstanding.
As Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Sunday evening, coinciding this year with the autumn equinox, the sun in Libra, and the moon in Aquarius, may our words, our actions, and our presence leave those we encounter feeling uplifted, connected, and whole. And for those who observe the holiday, may you have an easy fast.