Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
Some time ago, I mentioned to the parents of a student of mine that I like to go bowling. The boy’s parents, who have been bowlers on the local scene since their student days at Albany High School, responded to my revelation with a mixture of admiration and shock. They admired my motivation to frequent the bowling alley for more than my kids’ birthday parties, despite my admitted lack of skill. Yet they were also shocked to find their rabbi relishing a sport that is often stereotyped as the gritty domain of coarse, beer drinking louts who bum around all day. I forgot about the conversation until the day before the young man’s bar mitzvah ceremony, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual for 13 year old boys. That Friday morning I stood in the sanctuary of our synagogue – a place of holy retreat from the world- taking posed photographs with his family in honor of this milestone. I saw a gift bag that had been placed inside my lectern but I thought little of it, until my student approached me with it, smiled, and said, “This is for you.” Inside the bag was a shiny, new bowling ball. The family told me to take the ball to one of the well known pro shops in our area. They had paid for me to have the ball’s finger holes custom drilled and to have it monogrammed. I was speechless, for I had never received such a unique and sincere gift before, and I was now initiated into the bottom ranks of the elite bowling community. Separated from the “Sunday birthday party crowd,” who can be identified by their frantic search for the lightest ball in the racks as a gaggle of kids clings to them, I knew that I had arrived.
Why am I attracted to the game? I’ve been asking this question since the time I laughed all the way through the Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers’ comical film noir about bowling. I’ve decided that I like to bowl for at least three reasons. I bowl, obviously, because it’s fun and because I can play it fairly well. I’ve never been much of an athlete, and I don’t expect that state of affairs to change in the future. Yet, when I watch frail looking eighty year old men from the senior league easily scoring strike after strike, I say to myself with conviction: “I want to do that! If they can do that, so can I.” Bowling is a challenging yet simple sport that even I -an uncoordinated man lacking in court sense- can play with success. Bowling is also a kind of spiritual act for me, one in which I pull myself out of time momentarily and focus my awareness on following the directional floor arrow leading to the sacred center pin, the key to a strike or a spare. I suspect that the inventors of the game were spiritual people themselves, for the idea of one ball breaking up ten pins is strangely reminiscent of the Jewish mystical teaching that God, who is indivisibly One, formed the physical world through a chain of ten emanations of divine creativity. Maybe there is some truth to the old school kids’ tale that whenever you hear thunder, that’s just God going bowling. Perhaps my most important attraction to the game is this: Though rich and satisfying, my experience as a spiritual leader feels at time like the proverbial life in the fishbowl. When I get to the bowling alley, the lanes are filled with a very diverse group of people who have no idea that I am a rabbi or even Jewish, nor could they care less. Bowling allows me to transcend my daily circumstances and just be one among many kinds of people in blessed anonymity
I remember stopping by a local alley a while back, still dressed in my suit and tie after a morning meeting. In the lane next to me were two young, tough looking, blue collar workers who were taking some time out of the work day to bowl a few frames. My game progressed, and I felt increasingly inspired as gutter balls led to some spares and then to three consecutive strikes in the last three frames. The computerized score keeper then informed me that I had achieved what is called a turkey. Wondering what that meant and embarrassed that I didn’t know what to do next, I nervously turned to the two men and said, “Excuse me, but the scorer is telling me that I got a turkey. What do I do?” I was terrified that they would start laughing at me. Clearly not interested in wasting too much time on the conversation, they paused, and then said the two words that are every bowler’s salvation : “Bowl again.”
They may not have thought twice about the encounter. However, looking back, I realize that at that moment I had crossed the deep cultural and social divide between us through that most human act of reaching out in need of help and support. On the lanes and in all of life, this universal recognition of mutual need is the basis of civilized community, and an indispensable ingredient in promoting peace and justice. At $2.50 a game, my favorite sport may just prove to be the cheapest form of international diplomacy in the future. Trading in our army boots for bowling shoes, we can spend our time knocking down pins instead of each other.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.