YU Heading To The Big Hora


How do you say March Madness in Hebrew?

A snazzy translation of the popular name for the U.S. collegiate basketball championship was never something the Jewish community had to consider.

Until this week.

For the first time, the Yeshiva University Maccabees qualified for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) hoops playoffs, in Division III, with an 87-81 victory on Sunday over favored SUNY-Purchase in the championship game of the Skyline Conference.

The team’s first game in the NCAA playoffs, aka The Big Dance, will be 1 p.m. Friday, well before sundown, against York College of Pennsylvania (23-4) in York, Pa. If the Maccabees win that game, their next one will be Saturday at 8:30 p.m., well after Shabbat ends.

“It’s wonderful. The kids are extraordinary players. It’s a signal moment in our basketball history,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a Yeshiva University professor of American Jewish history and former Maccabees’ assistant coach.

The team is led by Simcha Halpert, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Los Angeles, and Bar Alluf, a 6-4 sophomore forward from Israel, both of whom ranked among the Skyline Conference’s leading 2017-18 scorers. Two other players on the roster are guards Justin and Tyler Hod, sons of Lior Hod, one of the leading career scorers in Maccabee history.

Gurock called the team “Joe Lieberman in sneakers,” a reference to the former senator from Connecticut who was Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 race, the first American Jew on a major party’s ticket.

The Maccabees’ appearance in the NCAA playoffs, representing an institution under Orthodox auspices, is a sign that one can remain committed to religious observance and “be successful in anything you do,” said Gurock.

He added that the NCAA’s scheduling of YU’s games that avoids a conflict with Shabbat “is another indication that you can be committed to your faith” and earn the respect of wider society.

The team’s best-ever record of 18-10 was achieved against small, often-Christian schools, which as fellow members of the NCAA’s Division III do not offer athletic scholarships.

“It’s significant that it’s happening this week, with Purim,” a holiday that celebrates Jews overcoming heavy odds, said David Kufeld, a star YU player in the late 1970s who was the only Maccabee ever drafted by a National Basketball Association team (Portland Trail Blazers, 1980).

Kufeld played for YU when the team did not have a home gym; the team played an abbreviated schedule, winning about a quarter of its games, with “barely enough players” to set up a scrimmage. The team’s current success “seemed very remote,” he said.

The Maccabees’ NCAA appearance “sends a message to every kid playing yeshiva [day school] ball that is where you should be,” Kufeld said. At YU, he continued, star players from Jewish high schools can play competitive basketball without worrying about the Shabbat conflicts that the schedule of other schools usually present.

With an all-sophomore starting lineup this season, “we should be good for a couple of years,” said coach Elliot Steinmetz, who played on the team in 1999-02, and coached the gold medal winning U.S. 18 and Under team in the 2013 Maccabiah Games. “The culture that we’re trying to create is a place where you can come to win.”

So how do you say March Madness in Hebrew?

A good translation would be Shiga’on shel Martz.

But the YU fans on Sunday chose alternative language.

In the final seconds of the Maccabees’ win, they started chanting “Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha” (When Adar comes, we increase in happiness), a traditional refrain in Adar, the current Hebrew month in which Purim, a joyous holiday, occurs.

Adar Madness, anyone?