Journalism's teshuvah on Yom Kippur

jetsandjewsAs a religion reporter, I always hated the holidays. Christmas, Ramadan, Yom Kippur -- they all meant coming up with new stories for centuries-old traditions. In five years, I think I only managed to write one holiday story that I was proud enough share, that of a Muslim teen balancing the discipline of fasting for Ramadan with the physical demands of varsity football practice, and another that was interesting but not among my faves.

Hytham's story was an inspired one. But, in general, holiday stories came about at the request of an editor and were usually discovered by one of two means: dumb luck or calling local religious leaders and asking, for example, why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

I wasn't unique. Survey the coverage this past weekend of Yom Kippur. It was generally bland and unremarkable, offering really only something of value to those who aren't familiar with the Jewish Day of Atonement. And that's what made two stories from the Los Angeles Times and New York Times so fascinating.

The latter was from the Times' sports columnist George Vecsey. His position, in and of itself, should indicate that you're in for a treat. The impetus? Yom Kippur began this year at sundown on Sunday, which meant all kinds of schedule maneuverings for the Yankes, Jets and Giants. Vecsey loved it:

Baseball cannot avoid conflicts. Games are played on Good Friday, the most solemn day on the Christian calendar. On Oct. 2, 1978, they played on Rosh Hashana, and Bucky Dent hit one into the screen at Fenway Park. Supply your own moral.

One year, baseball did get a message from on high. In 1986, the geniuses scheduled two Mets-Astros postseason games, for the night and next afternoon of Yom Kippur. Yours truly predicted a downpour of Biblical proportions, which in fact occurred, postponing the afternoon game. They got what they deserved.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays made it into the postseason for the first time, but a potential fifth and deciding game was scheduled for Yom Kippur.

"The way I run my life, there was no decision to be made," the team owner, Stuart Sternberg, said the other day. He was prepared to attend services, but the Rays won in four games, on their sweet run to the World Series.

The Rays -- that's the seem team that went from being the worst in Major League Baseball when "Devil" was part of the club's name to the best in the American League after they dropped the unholy association.

Vecsey's piece meanders a bit, but the tone is beautiful and, though he makes sure to quote ESPN and club executives talking about the financial implications of the schedule changes -- because that's really what this is about -- he is clearly applauding professional sports for realizing that, though they are religion, they aren't God. "When religion is at play," the headline warned, "a game is just that."

Not much religious exploration here, but the column doesn't need it. There was, however, some great religious insights in this short LA Times piece on how Persian Jews celebrate the High Holidays. Or, more aptly, the additional burden some young Persian Jews carry to synagogue:

Facing enormous pressure from their families to marry within the community, many of these young people -- and their matchmaking relatives -- say they use the day to scope out potential romantic interests and tap into vast social networks to get the scoop on prospective candidates.

The irritability and less-than-fresh breath that can accompany the 25-hour fast don't seem to stop many of them from dressing up and synagogue-hopping from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside in search of a soul mate.

"If you go to the mall a few days before, everyone's looking for an outfit for Yom Kippur," said Dalia Azizi, 25, of Beverly Hills. "Every year the skirts are getting shorter. They're going to temple and they look like they're going to a club."

Talk about a money quote. Bulletin board that one 'cause it's worth looking back upon. Not often religion stories gets comments that illustrative. (Reminds me of how I've often felt looking around at what people wear at my own church.) And not bad for an LA Times newcomer at the who's pretty fresh out of school.

In fact, this was only Robert Faturechi's second byline in the LA Times. Nonetheless, Faturechi, who, shameless college newspaper plug, succeeded me at the UCLA Daily Bruin, was clearly working within very limited space. But he still managed to not only quote the individuals who proved his story, but he gave, in short order, the essential info about why Persian Jews prefer other Persian Jews; this seems like a bit of context that would be missing in many of the religion stories I read these days.

The community's religious leaders generally seem to approve. A skirt slightly shorter than might be deemed modest or some overt flirting, the reasoning goes, are small prices to pay to encourage marrying within the group.

"If young people start to connect and later on try to meet, it's very positive," said Rabbi David Shofet, a prominent spiritual leader of the local community and son of the former chief rabbi of Tehran. ...

For many Jews of other ethnic groups, marrying within the religion might be sufficient. But for those whose background is Iranian, maintaining the culture can be just as important. Many of the customs can seem curious to outsiders, to the extent that convergence through marriage with families that don't share the background can be fraught with cultural land mines.

And why on Yom Kippur? Faturechi explains that, much like Christmas for Christians, the High Holidays are the one time a year when most Jews, even me, come around.

Here's hoping that Faturechi will appear a lot more frequently.

PHOTO: A bit of photoshop trickeration from the Village Voice's Runnin' Scared blog.

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