The Media Line">

Israelis, Palestinians huddle, as football finds fans in the Holy Land


How do you say ‘hut’ in Hebrew?

On a warm November Thanksgiving night in Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium, the Judean Rebels are demolishing the Herzliya Hammers in a rowdy American-style football game in Israel.

The IFL, or Israel Football League, is in its fourth season and gaining popularity, with eight teams from across the country.

The two teams couldn’t have been more contrasting. The veteran Rebels, in their professional orange jerseys, was made up of a gumbo of characters, including Jewish settlers, American-born seminary students, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians. The Hammers, a new expansion team donning white shirts with hand-drawn numbers, were mainly native-born, many veterans of elite Israeli army combat units.

It was quickly becoming a massacre as the Rebels were shutting down the Hammers, who had ventured up to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzilya on the Mediterranean coast.

There’s a reason the padding is so heavy in this contact sport. Bones can be and are broken. On the first play of the game, a player from the Herzliya Hammers suffered a fracture and had to be taken out by an ambulance crew.

“I love this game, because we get to hit people,” says Shlomo Schachter, a heavy offensive lineman on the Judean Rebels.

“We don’t get hurt,” chimes in his teammate Musa Elyyan. “We hurt the other people.”

Tonight’s game leader, the Judean Rebels, are staging a revolution of sorts. Nowhere is the cliché that sports brings people together more apparent than in this team, which has Jewish settlers playing side by side with West Bank Palestinians.

Schachter, his long and sweaty side curls framing the sides of his face, is pumped up. His team is having a great night against the hapless Hammers as they rock up touchdown after touchdown. He played college football in the states and dreamt about playing in the Holy Land.

“One of the ways we are a rebellion is that we’re trying to create a new path in the world and create a coexistence between Palestinians and settlers together in the West Bank, that we have people together to play football,” Schachter tells The Media Line.

Musa Elayyan lives in the Palestinian village of Beit Hanina north of Jerusalem. He grew up in the U.S. and moved here with his three brothers a few years ago. Hooked on football, they began searching out the sport. One team – the Jerusalem Lions – were hesitant about letting them join, fearing it would bring tensions. But Schachter’s team scooped them up, putting aside the fact that the Rebels were mostly pious residents of Jewish settlements.

“We are as [Schachter] says a revolution. This is a rebellion. We are the first team of Israelis and Palestinians who get along and work as a team unit. We can create a model on the field and we can create one off the field,” Elayyan says.

Elayyan, a clean-cut and strapping young man, says no one hassles him or his brothers about playing on a team with settlers.

One could say that this game is about coexistence, about bringing Jews and Arabs together, about bringing religious and secular together, but really it seems to be about killing the man with the ball.

“Israelis find American-style football so interesting both because it is physical and because it is strategic. There are all sorts of strategic moves. We especially have a lot of combat soldiers playing, also Israeli Arabs. We have foreign workers, and also Russian immigrants, an a whole core of Americans including some who played organized football back in the U.S.,” says Steve Leibowitz, the president of American Football in Israel, which runs IFL.

The small stadium is filled with spectators, who pay about the price of a movie to get in.
Hotdogs and beer give the event add to the American atmosphere. The IFL plays on a 60-yard field instead of the standard 100-yard ones in the states. The Kraft stadium and its Astroturf in Jerusalem were sponsored by Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots.

“[Football] isn’t a Jewish sport, although there have been great Jewish players.  Bob Kraft once said to me that when you reach your bar mitzvah age, that is when you realize you have more of a chance of owning a football team than playing on one in the NFL,” Leibowitz told The Media Line.

The sport is growing in popularity in Israel and is soon to expand to high schools.

“We have five high schools who will be taking part in our first-ever season in our Kraft IFL high school league, which will be kicking off in January,” says Uriel Sturm, IFL commissioner. “This is the future of the sport. It’s not about bringing professional football here. It’s about bringing football to Israeli youth and Israeli players.”

Sturm adds that he believes American-style football would be great preparation for high schoolers for their military service.

The IFL teams come from as far north as Haifa and south as Beersheba. It draws natives of Russia and Ukraine as much as from the U.S. and Canada. One of the quarterbacks is the son of the current chief of the Israel Defense Forces. The average age is about mid 20s, but some are older.

“I never even saw this game on TV before, but it seemed to me to be a lot of fun and it’s a blast,” says Guy of the Haifa Underdogs. “I’m the oldest. I’m 43, and I’m the rookie. I’m the water boy.”

“Big Mike” Gondelman is a drug addiction counselor in his day job, and veteran college player and now plays for the Jerusalem’s Kings.

“I’m the biggest guy in the league, 6’ 9” 400 plus,” says the large ultra-Orthodox man.
We have guys who are yeshiva students. We have guys who are in college. All sorts.
We range all over you know. It’s really beautiful. Everyone sort of just blends together and we make a great team,” Gondelman says before rushing off to change into his football gear.

As time ran out, the Judean Rebels shut out the Hammers 44 to zero.

“I think people love us because we are a beacon of light in dark times. When people look at the news they aren’t used to seeing Palestinians and Israelis are getting along, having fun together. You know, the last thing you expect to see when you turn on the news is the two of us, you know, sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner together. And that’s exactly what is happening tonight,” he says.

Lebowitz says he hopes to see competition with regional football leagues from as near as Turkey. But for the time being, just getting Israelis hooked on the sport is something to cheer about.

“I think there’s a great potential, not only for people to play the game, but also for spectators to come out and watch,” he says.

And in Hebrew, the word for ‘hut’ which snaps the ball into play is ‘Achad.’

Pico-Robertson Live in the ‘hood: Little sukkahs, on the hillside, little huts made of …


You rise from your 300-thread cotton sheets and walk along your Carrera marble floors through the hand-crafted French doors that give out to a spectacular patiooverlooking the city. Off to the side is a small, frail- looking structure that looks like an old hut, with palm leaves on top.

You make your way into this little hut, and you say a blessing. There is art from your children on the vinyl walls, as well as a picture of the kabbalist Rav Kadoori. Over a Persian rug is a 2-by-8-foot table with 10 folding chairs, and on a beige tablecloth sits two covered challahs, a jar of honey, a Kiddush cup, and a Chumash. In the corner there is a wooden stand with an oriental lamp, and hanging from the thatched roof are fake fruit and other decorations that your kids made.
 
You have entered one of the great rituals of Jewish life: The sukkah.It may also be the least comfortable.
 
I have eaten in sukkots in Crown Heights where rain fell on my soup. I’ve slept in sukkot and my lower back was mad at me for a week. The sitting can be tight, there is rarely enough space to move around, and if you’re in my hometown of Montreal, you better bring your scarf and gloves.
 
So what is it about this odd ritual that has such a hold on the people who experience it?
 
The first, most obvious thing is that it’s really a lot of fun. This is not a very noble thing to say about a holy ritual, but it’s true. You get to feel like a kid again, like when you used to assemble play kits, or get silly with your siblings under a makeshift tent in the living room.
 
Once you enter the sukkah, you feel blessed. Don’t ask me to explain this. It’s just a vibe. A glow. An energy field — you walk into a sukkah and you’re happy to be alive.
 
The coffee tastes better. The kugel and the spicy Moroccan fish are incredible. You sing like Bocelli. Your kids don’t get on your nerves as much. Even your shmoozing is happier; you’re more likely to bring up the new Cirque du Soleil Beatles show than the enraging U.N. representative they had on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
 
Am I exaggerating? Of course, I am. (I’m Sephardic). But a sukkah will do that to you. It makes your heart overflow; you feel more generous, more grateful.Maybe that’s because the sukkah itself overflows. A rabbi once said that the sukkah is “the only mitzvah that you can walk into with your muddy boots.” It envelops all of you. Other mitzvahs connect to one part of the body — you eat matzah with the mouth, you put on tefilin with the hands, you read Torah with the eyes — but the sukkah wants every part of you!
 
The sukkah loves your beautiful voice and wonderful humor, but it also embraces your warts and wrinkles and “muddy boots.” It understands human nature: You can’t separate the good from the bad. This little hut does not discriminate.In fact, the sukkah might be the most egalitarian, unifying mitzvah of all. The origin of this holiday is agricultural — a way of thanking God for the blessings of the land. Every “species” of the land that we commemorate — the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the willow and the myrtle — represent, according to our Midrash, a different part of the Jewish people. Our little sukkah embraces them all.
 
Which makes you wonder: If something is so much fun and so magical, so overflowing with unconditional love and embracing of every part of every Jew, why are there not more Jews putting up their own sukkah? I can’t speak for all Jews, but in my new neighborhood, they embrace the sukkah like a Chassid embraces another l’chaim.
 
Pico-Robertson is where the sukkah rocks. You can feel it in the air. From the frantic rush to purchase sukkah kits at the local mitzvah store, to the last-minute scramble to get schach (palm leaves to cover the sukkah), to kids everywhere bringing home sukkah decorations from school, to seeing so many sukkot being put up on the front lawns, you are reminded that in this part of the world, you simply do not hide your Judaism.
 
And in a few days, all the sukkot of the Hood will have sprouted. If you want to see how cool this looks, you should really rent a helicopter.
 
But for now, just use your imagination and picture , as you fly above, hundreds and hundreds of cozy little huts speckling the landscape. Inside each of these little huts there will be thousands of songs that will be sung, thousands of blessings and l’chaims that will be made, and thousands of stories that will be told.
 
After you land, feel free to pop into one of these little huts — and don’t forget your muddy boots.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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