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Two Jewish Musicians, Sandy Koufax’s Decision, and the Power of a Kiddush Hashem

One of the most popular “Fun Question ” pages I have ever made was the question, “If you could have three people over to your house, anyone from the beginning of time, for a Friday night Shabbos meal, who would you invite?”

Rav Dovid Feinstein shlita (who should have a Refuah Shelaimah B’karov) gave the most interesting answer when he answered three aniyim, three poor people. The response I received for that answer was unbelievable. Everyone else to whom I had asked the question had answered with individual names of people, but Rav Dovid Feinstein did not answer with specific names, rather just three poor people. Rav Paysach Krohn loved Rav Dovid’s answer so much that he made an entire podcast on the question and Rav Dovid’s answer. To this very day, people still talk to me about it.

Though I loved Rav Dovid’s answer, in my opinion, the most interesting answers were from Jewish Music Legend Abie Rotenberg and Jewish Music Singer Benny Friedman. In 2016, I interviewed Abie before a Camp HASC concert and asked him the “Three Dinner Guest” question. His answer was: Dovid Hamelech, Eliyahu Hanavi, and Sandy Koufax. Dovid Hamelech is a very common answer among Jewish musicians and Eliyahu Hanavi was no surprise either. But Sandy Koufax??? I know Abie is a big baseball fan, but that answer was very unusual!

Koufax is arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time; he unanimously won the CY Young Award three times. Arthritis ended his career at the age of 31, and he became the youngest person ever elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell said, “Trying to hit against Koufax was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

Abie told me that he chose Sandy Koufax because he made the biggest Kiddush Hashem of his lifetime by not pitching on Yom Kippur in 1965.

Abie wanted him as his guest so that he could tell him what a Kiddush Hashem he made and how great of an impact that singular act had in his life and had upon Jews across America.

Koufax refused to pitch in the first game of the World Series in Minnesota, choosing instead to attend Yom Kippur davening in shul and observe the fast. This was huge, considering that Koufax is a secular Jew, raised in the Jewish neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and had played on Yom Kippur in previous years. He no doubt understood that for him as the marquee star to pitch the first game of the World Series on Yom Kippur would be a blow to his people, a very public repudiation of their traditions. More would be lost, even if he won the game, than gained.

It just so “happened” that Koufax was given an opportunity to make up for his absence in the first game when the World Series went to a seventh and deciding game. Koufax threw a three-hit shutout to win the Series and earned the MVP award. Despite all his achievements on the field, Koufax is still remembered best for his Yom Kippur break, which instilled Jewish pride in millions of Americans.

Two decades removed from the horrors of the Holocaust and two years before the Six Day War proved Jewish might, Koufax stood as a symbol of dominance and success. Now he had burnished his reputation as someone willing to honor the traditions of Judaism before all else. Had Koufax been Orthodox or regularly attended shul, his observance of Yom Kippur would have been expected. But the fact he had pitched on Yom Kippur in the past and was not especially religious made his decision in 1965 even more significant. It bonded secular Jews with the observant and forged a new cultural identity for American Jews. And so, Abie concluded, this inspiration was a huge Kiddush Hashem all over America.

A year went by and I interviewed Benny Friedman. I asked Benny the same question and to my surprise he told me the exact same three people as Abie Rotenberg: Dovid Hamelech, Eliyahu Hanavi, and Sandy Koufax. My first reaction was that Benny must have seen the “Fun Question” page I did a year before and was copying Abie Rotenberg’s answer. However, Benny promised that he had not seen Abie’s answer and this was truly his own. Again, Dovid Hamelech and Eliyahu Hanavi were no surprise. But Sandy Koufax? Why would a Lubavitcher Jewish Musician from Crown Heights say Sandy Koufax?

Benny then told me a story that stuck with him from his childhood. (I actually confirmed the story in a Sports Illustrated article.)

On Oct. 7, 1965, the day after the Minnesota Twins had defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series and the day after Yom Kippur, a 28-year-old Chasidic Rabbi named Rabbi Moshe Feller approached the desk clerk at the St. Paul Hotel and told him he wanted to speak with Sandy Koufax.

The clerk considered the bearded man in the black hat and payos before him. Like everyone else, he surely knew that Koufax had not pitched Game 1 because it fell on Yom Kippur and he must have figured this man was the pitcher’s Rabbi. He gave him the phone number to Koufax’s room.

Koufax answered. Rabbi Feller told him what he had done was remarkable, putting religion before his career, and that as a result more people had not gone to work and more children had not gone to school in order to observe the holiday. He said he wanted to present Koufax with a pair of tefillin. Koufax invited the Rabbi up to his room on the eighth floor.

In Rabbi Feller’s account, he told Koufax he was proud of him for “the greatest act of dedication to our Jewish values that had ever been done publicly” and presented him with the tefillin, which he said Koufax took out of their velvet box and handled reverently.

Rabbi Feller’s story speaks to the powerful impact Koufax’s decision had on American Jews, both then and now, 50 years later. “It’s something that’s engraved on every Jew’s mind,” says Rabbi Feller, now 83. “More Jews know Sandy Koufax than Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.”

Benny Friedman grew up in Minnesota and his father Rabbi Manis Friedman was a shaliach for Chabad. Rabbi Friedman worked together with Rabbi Feller in Minnesota and Benny always remembered this story. Sandy Koufax made the biggest Kiddush Hashem and for that he wanted to have a Friday night meal with Sandy!