September 2010

West Ham United vs. Yom Kippur (and Stoke City)

My favorite English football club may not be very good. Okay, they’re definitely not very good. But what West Ham United tends to lack in on-field acumen, they tend to make up for in wildly entertaining storylines. Just within the last four years they’ve been rescued from foreclosure at the hand of the Icelandic national bank by two brash billionaire pornographers. They’ve forced an English court to cite anti-slavery legislation in regard to their transfer dealings. They loaned an “in-his-prime” winger that couldn’t even make the field for the lowly Hammers to Real Madrid; Julian Faubert proceeded to make the squad for the Spanish giants and promptly fell asleep on the bench.

So it comes as no surprise the most compelling storyline in English soccer this past weekend belonged to the team with no points. The team that managed to allow three goals in each of their four matches before Saturday’s ESPN America fixture. West Ham is nothing if not consistent. I present to you this fresh drama not just as fan of the claret and blue, but also as a Jew (color you surprised, Jon with no “h” and the surname Levy, who knew!?).

After coming perilously close to relegation last season, West Ham fired their manager and started fresh for the 2010-2011 campaign with former Portsmouth and Chelsea boss Avram Grant. Avram quickly set about his business in the transfer window and, among other dealings, landed a loan for former Portsmouth and Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim. Manager knows the player. Player knows the system. Mike Vrabel plays for the Kansas City Chiefs now. I get it. This was all well and good until the High Holy Days came a’ callin’. You see Grant and Ben Haim share another common bond aside from the fact that they both make their living in footy; both are Israeli Jews. As a result, both missed out on the team’s visit to Stoke this Saturday in observation of Yom Kippur. For the record, if this had been a Saturday night fixture the holiday would have been over and both the manager and defender would be in attendance.

A quick note on Yom Kippur for the Gentiles: Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement and is the most important holiday on the Hebrew calendar. Christians, think about Lent, but for one day instead of forty, and you’re mandated to give up food and drink so you don’t get to choose something kitschy, say, “I’m giving up thrift store shopping for Lent! Woo!” Alcoholics, think about Step Nine(?), the one where you go around saying sorry to people and making amends.

Every other year it seems like there’s a Jewish player in some sport who misses a game or competition to observe this holiest of days. Sports media tends to make a cute little story about it because the games aren’t usually of the crucial variety and the concept of a Jewish professional athlete is and probably always will be somewhat of a novelty here in the States at least. I always hearken back to the Yom Kippur when former Dodgers slugger Shawn Green took a game off during a stint in which he was the hottest hitter in baseball and the Dodgers were in a pennant race.

But this West Ham situation is different, and all of us poor souls who follow the team know it’s not just because our boys are the ones in question. West Ham has been generally disorganized to start the season and found themselves headed into Saturday at oh and four, but the competition probably has more to do with the dismal record than do the United players themselves. Losses to Chelsea, Man U, and Aston Villa are losses to definitively better teams, and despite the fact that you always hope to bag yourself a signature win like West Ham fan Russell Brand did in bagging Katy Perry, these losses are generally acceptable. The Hammers also swung and missed at the curveball that the Bolton Wanderers have been to them in particular for the last few years. Losing two or three times a year to Bolton is not acceptable, but it’s something WHU supporters are used to, even in decent seasons.

This brings us to the present day, where team captain Matthew Upson has called for stability in the squad, noting that his partner position in central defense and the right back spot have been revolving doors. He’s called for players to “put their stamp on the squad” and in essence, not give the manager a choice. Presumably one could do this by being part of a defensive unit that allowed less than three goals on a given day, and if that happened, owners Sullivan and Gold would surely bestow trophies on those guys. That being said, they might execute a bunch of defenders who found a way to let the crushing fourth slip past Robert Green.

So essentially, in the face of the squad’s first winnable match against an opponent who did not put a Reebok-sponsored voodoo curse on East London ten years ago, West Ham United entered Saturday’s match without their manager and a central defender who is actually a proven Premier League performer. This is unfortunate, as a defender who partnered Upson better than anyone else this season and could very well have used a clash like the Stoke match to cement his spot in the back four. And I’ll spare you the rant on what a new manager missing a match for a reeling team says for the stability portion of Upson’s rallying cry: suffice it to say it ain’t good.

So what would I have done if I were in their shoes? Well I would play. I would coach. I would report to work as the guy that administers the magic spray if that was my gig. But I’m obviously a much better West Ham fan than I am a Jew. I wake up early Saturday mornings to watch this shitty team play on computer feed which sometimes works and sometimes even comes in with English commentary. Meanwhile, my Passover ritual is as such: I respond to the no leavened bread prompt by eating more Mexican food than usual, you know, because tortillas are flat! I also make sure to listen to the greatest Passover song of all time during that stretch Creeping Death”. Metallica rules.

Metallica Creeping Death- Yom Kippur Anthem

But such is often the case with religiously apathetic chosen people here in America. Judaism itself is much more important to men of faith who hail from Zion like Grant and Ben Haim. I may have stopped paying my dues, but we’re still part of the same frat, and from time to time we still wear the same “funny hats.” I respect the decision of the manager and defender to skip the Stoke match, but I did, heading in, very seriously fear the consequences of not seizing the opportunity to grab a point or three and mark a fresh start to season for a team that needs cohesion.

In short, I hoped Avram and Tal don’t spend the next six months trying to atone for their absence this weekend. And I won’t apologize for that, even after Scott Parker vaulted the Hammers in front and they held on for the season’s first point at the Brittania. The Carling Cup fixture vs. Sunderland is another chance to move forward this week, and then back to league play for the weekend, where sitting on one point, the boys are only seven out of fourth—Champions League in their sights.

Jon Levy is co-founder and Sr. Writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at and you should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.

Jon Levy

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    The LA Dodgers once had to start a rookie in a critical pennant race game because Sandy Koufax, still probably the greatest Jewish athlete of all-time, wouldn’t pitch on the High Holy Days. I don’t recall what happened in that game, but I remember it was extraordinarily controversial, especially at a time when America was having an awakening to its own Anti-Semitism in the first generation wake of the Second World War.

    While I respect deeply what Grant and Haim did here, I’ll admit that I too don’t think I’d do it, meaning, I think I’m playing on Easter or Good Friday. At least they captured a point, and a road point no less. Maybe today’s match vs. Sunderland will mark another turning point.

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  • Jon

    Winner winner, gefilte fish dinner.