Monday, October 06, 2008

Take me out to the ballgame

Soccer is probably the most popular sport in Israel. Beitar Yerushalaim, the primary Jerusalem-based soccer team, has possibly the largest and most fervid fan base in the country. The Beitar website taunts viewers with the banner 'Welcome to Hell.' Indeed, Beitar fans have dubbed Teddy Stadium, where games are played, "Hell" because of the atmosphere they create for rival fans in the stadium.

The team was formed in 1936 by David Horn, the local chief of Beitar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement. The youth movement was named after Joseph Trumpledor; it is an acronym for Brit Trumpledor (Covenant of Trumpledor). Joseph Trumpledor became a symbol of heroic Jewish self-defense when he died defending the Galilean village of Tel Hai. He famously uttered "Never mind, it is good to die for our country" in his last breath. This fighting spirit pervades Teddy Stadium during Beitar Yerushalaim soccer games.

On game days one is alerted by afternoon time that Beitar will be playing that evening as the streets and buses become increasingly crowded with fans sporting the team's yellow and black scarves. Earlier this year, I boarded a bus at Hebrew University and sat with a friend of mine, clad in black and yellow, who was en route to a Beitar game. As we wound our way through Jerusalem's streets I asked him about his loyalty to the Jerusalem soccer team, given the fact that he is from Haifa. My secular Haifa friend who is a member of the left-wing Meretz party told me that when he was a teenager he decided to be a Beitar Yerushalaim fan, despite its distance from his home and its reputation as being politically right-wing, because of his love for Jerusalem. I was moved by his devotion to our capital city, which defies logical explanation.

Last week I finally attended my first Beitar Yerushalaim game. I joined a friend and a colleague of mine who took his "Sports and Zionism" class to view the Zionist athletes in action. We chose to buy tickets in the section where the crazy fans sit, akin to the bleachers section at Yankee Stadium. It was an enlivening and wild experience. One of the most popular Beitar Yerushalaim chants calls upon G-d: "We are believers, the sons of believers. We have no one to rely on, except for our Father in Heaven." After watching the fans shout this tune with such fervor, one gets the sense that soccer, Beitar Yerushalaim soccer, has become their religion.

(Beitar fans waving the team scarf)
("We are believers, sons of believers...")
(Johnny- my student, me, crazy Beitar fans)
(Yael, me, Joanna- my student)