Kevin Youkilis says he truly doesn’t know what he would do if faced with the same dilemma as Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green.
What if the Boston Red Sox are scheduled for a post-season game on Yom Kippur, which begins on Friday night, Oct. 7.
Both Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in 1934, and Koufax, the L.A. Dodgers’ ace left-hander, while not particularly religious, felt enough of an obligation to their faith not to play on that holy day.
In Koufax’s case, it meant missing the opening game of the 1965 World Series. In 2004, with the Dodgers fighting for first place, Green elected to sit out the Friday evening Kol Nidre game but played Saturday afternoon.
For the 32-year-old Youkilis, a two-time all-star currently among the American League RBI leaders, it would be a tough decision.
“I don’t put religion into sports,” Youkilis said recently when the Red Sox were in Philadelphia for a three-game series in what was being seen as a World Series preview. “I consider religion entirely different, so I don’t bring it to the field.
“I’ve never played on Yom Kippur. Hopefully if we were playing, it would be a night game, not a day game.”
Youkilis acknowledged a “lot of pressure” from the Jewish community not to play.
“But you have to stick with your beliefs,” he said. “You can’t worry about people who aren’t influential in your life who say things or tell you you’re wrong.
“I know Shawn Green had a tough time with it. It just depends upon the community. In Boston they probably don’t even care. They’d want you to play.”
For one who grew up in Cincinnati rooting for the Reds, who dutifully went to Hebrew school through bar mitzvah (“It was a long haftarah,” he recalls), before his parents allowed him to concentrate on baseball, playing in Boston has both its perks and drawbacks.
While you’re an instant celebrity, it also means you don’t have much privacy—including at synagogue.
“Boston’s not a town where you go unnoticed,” said the 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound Youkilis, whose grandparents emigrated from Romania. “Synagogue is no different.
“People want you to go to their synagogue. But sometimes it can be a little difficult. People approach you and sometimes get starstruck.
“You just have to pick and choose where you go. You just hope people realize what you’re there for.”
In his eight-season career, during which he has earned a Hank Aaron Award and a Gold Glove, Youkilis has emerged as one of the Red Sox mainstays.
For a Jewish kid to have such success—Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and Texas’ Ian Kinsler also are playing at all-star levels—it’s hard to dodge the tendency to make him a role model.
Youkilis, however, dismisses that notion.
“I know kids look up to us, but to me the biggest role models in your life are your parents,” said Youkilis, voted Jewish Player of the Decade in 2010 and who recently began marketing a “L’Chaim” T-shirt.
“We don’t make it out to be as big as the Jewish community does,” he said. “We just see ourselves as baseball players. It’s very special to be among a select few; a great thing for Jewish kids, but more so for Jewish fathers and adults.’‘
As much as he says he doesn’t want to kill anyone’s dream, the two-time All-American at the University of Cincinnati advises young people that “school and education are more important than sports.”
Youkilis, who turned pro in 2001, encourages students to “set your goals high, but also realize education is more important and will take you farther in life than sports.”
Youkilis is an exception. His baseball career has led to two World Series titles, and his current contract is for four years and more than $41 million.
Still, pro sports isn’t always a fairy-tale life.
“It’s work, it’s a job,” said Youkilis, who is involved in several charitable endeavors, including Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Boston, where he attends the annual Chanukah party.
Still, he said, “It’s probably the best job you can ask for compared to sitting behind a desk and wearing a suit and tie. But to say it’s an easy, fun-going thing, I’d be lying.”
When Bryan Greenberg was a struggling actor a decade ago, he was caught up in the kind of New York hustle familiar to the aspiring fashionista he plays on HBO’s “How to Make It in America,” a gritty series about the American dream amid Wall Street disaster.
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep,” the 31-year-old actor said. Instead, he juggled auditions while working as a waiter, bartender, caterer and assistant to a mortgage broker.
“New York forces you to do multiple things at once because it’s so expensive,” Greenberg said from his current Hollywood Hills home. “But that is true now everywhere, because of the economy. It’s not just go to college, get your degree, get a job. You have to be sharp and have a bunch of different hustles just to try to get by, which is why the show is so timely.”
Greenberg plays Ben Epstein, a fashion-school dropout in his late 20s who is still employed folding jeans at Barneys — to his own dismay and that of his Upper West Side Jewish parents. But this sensitive Jewish boy and his cocky Dominican buddy (Victor Rasuk) have a plan: to somehow launch a retro jeans line with a roll of exclusive Japanese denim purchased from the back of a truck.
Working on the same streets that once saw early 20th century Jewish immigrants laboring in the schmatte business, these modern-day garmentos scrounge for funds by selling vintage T-shirts and trolling downtown parties for contacts. They connect with Ben’s childhood friend, David Kaplan (Eddie Kaye Thomas), a wealthy nerd who agrees to invest, in part, because Ben can get him into a downtown club that routinely rejects him.
“Anything is still possible in America, even for some loud-mouthed Jew,” the socially awkward Kaplan exclaims. It helps that Ben plays basketball with the club’s bouncer.
Greenberg, too, found connections on the basketball court. That’s where he met the HBO series’ creator, Ian Edelman, who at the time was still working as a production assistant.
Greenberg, who grew up Conservative in Omaha, Neb., and attended Camp Herzl in Wisconsin, had enjoyed some modest success in roles on TV’s “One Tree Hill,” “Unscripted” and “October Road,” and as Uma Thurman’s much-younger lover in the film, “Prime,” which starred Meryl Streep as his Jewish mother, a psychoanalyst. In fact, Greenberg’s own mother is a therapist.
“I had no idea that Ian was a writer, just that we had great chemistry on the court. So when I read in Variety that he had sold this show to HBO, I was stunned.”
The actor couldn’t call his basketball friend directly — he didn’t have Edelman’s home telephone number — but rather had his agent set up the formal meeting with the series producers. Edelman liked what he saw in the audition room.
“[Bryan] just felt like Ben Epstein,” Edelman said. “Ben is like a lot of kids [I] knew growing up in New York: cool, creative, friends with a lot of different types of people, comfortable uptown and downtown,” he said. “But we worked hard to make Ben feel real. To me his Upper West Side Jewishness is all part of that. A way of seeing the world, a wit, a self-deprecating charm, an openness to all different types of people, socialist grandparents.”
Greenberg’s career had started to take off in 2005, when he played himself as the star in George Clooney’s HBO series, “Unscripted,” a mix of reality and fiction revolving around the demeaning, real life travails of aspiring actors. Greenberg’s character, named Bryan Greenberg, constantly humiliates himself, as when he brags about beating out an actual developmentally disabled person for the role of … a developmentally disabled person.
Clooney proved charming and supportive, flying Greenberg to the set of Warner Bros.’ “One Tree Hill” in his private jet so that the younger actor could work that show at the same time as “Unscripted.” Greenberg said Clooney could also be blunt, such as the time he called the younger actor into his office after he hammed up one scene.
“He said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you act. The second I catch you acting, it’s over for me.’ It’s still the best acting advice I’ve ever received,” Greenberg said.
“How to Make It in America” has helped Greenberg move closer to his own American dream: He’s the romantic lead on a show that shares producers with HBO’s “Entourage,” and a home in the Hollywood Hills has replaced the two-room East Village dump with the leaking toilet that he once shared with two other people.
But trying not to be limited by stereotyping has proved challenging at times. “There was an audition that came up last week for a project where they didn’t even want to see me because they thought I was ‘too Jewish,’ ” he said. “But that’s OK. With a last name like Greenberg and because of the characters I’ve played, there’s going to be some baggage.”
These days Greenberg is striving to expand his repertoire and to challenge himself as an actor: “I’m going into audition rooms in character and trying to earn these parts that people don’t necessarily want to see me in because they don’t envision me in that role.” Certainly, the character could be Jewish, he said, but right now he’d rather portray a racist cop, for example.
“You never get to a place where you’re totally comfortable,” he said of his approach. “You’re always hustling, always trying to make it.”
“How to Make It in America” airs Sundays on HBO.