Amid weeds and bonfires, Jerusalem kids step up to plate

Watching kids playing baseball in Israel is like seeing a couple of young Irish guys smack around a hurling ball or a troupe of Brazilians playing no-hands volleyball here in America.

That's why it caught Paul Candau's eye so quickly on a recent trip to Jerusalem to visit his buddy Howard Felson, an Israeli youth baseball coach.

Candau, a board member at Contra Costa Jewish Day School, adult-league left fielder and certified Oakland A's fanatic, saw baseball as a great way to establish a rapport between American and Israeli kids. Administrators and students at the day school couldn't agree more.

The Lafayette school sent $350 for uniforms and equipment to the Jerusalem Lions, and the team showed its gratitude by placing a Contra Costa logo on its jersey this year.

"We play baseball in a field that is nowhere near as nice as what you play on in the USA," Israeli third-grader — and shortstop — Gabi Arnovitz wrote to CCJDS students.

"Since we had a lot of rain this winter, there is grass on the field now. After Pesach, when it stops raining, the grass goes away, and we play in the dirt. There are lots of rocks on the field…We are very happy to be playing baseball, and we are happy that you are helping us. Maybe if you come to Israel, we could play a game together. That would be fun."

Arnovitz's field isn't just poorly kept, however. From time to time, locals see fit to light it ablaze.

The morning after an Israeli holiday celebrated with impromptu bonfires, Felson's youth baseball team found its field in worse condition than Max Yasgur's dairy farm the day after Woodstock.

"The day after, there must have been a dozen fire pits around the field. We had to clean up the mess," said a laughing Felson, 49, an East Bay native currently studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva and, in his spare time, coaching a youth baseball team.

Minus anecdotes about bands of pyromaniacs sparking a conflagration on the baseball diamond, Contra Costa students wrote back nevertheless.

"My name is Garret and I'm in second grade and I play shortstop like you do. I finished my season too. My team was the Dodgers. When I turn nine, I might come to Israel so I can watch you play baseball," wrote Garret Candau, Paul's son.

"It would be fun if we were on the same team."

Next year, the elder Candau hopes to send along some equipment, particularly catching equipment, which is in scarce supply in Israel (as a point of reference, try buying an Australian Rules football or jai alai pelota here).

Many Israeli teams are using chest protectors that don't or masks older than Yogi Berra.

"Most teams have to share the catcher's equipment," Candau said.

"Next year we hope to do some fund-raising and fully outfit a couple of teams."

Maybe one day they'll send some more.

"What we would like to do in the future is for kids to e-mail and exchange pictures," said Mira Pilosof, the school's director of Hebrew and Judaic studies.

In addition to continuing their pen-pal relationship, CCJDS plans to connect American and Israeli baseball players anytime its students travel to Israel.

A word to the wise, then: If there's a bonfire on the field, avoid it and play the ball on the bounce.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.