day 43: “bernie”

Today is 43 days, which is one day and six weeks of the omer: hesed she’b’malchut.

First, go read the guest post for today by Rabbi Justin David. It moved me to tears. (And then come back!)

Here we are at the final week of the Omer, the week of malchut. When I started this project, Daniel and I spoke with Rabbi Or Rose about the sefirot, and at the time we both felt least clear about yesod. Or was very helpful, and over the last six weeks, I’ve realized that malchut is now the quality that feels most elusive. Maybe this week will clear that up.

Umpire Bernice Gera is an unconventional choice for Day 43, but since 1) Justin has made us yotzei on jersey #43; 2) I got some tochecha for not including any women in this project; and 3) I need to learn more about women’s involvement in professional baseball anyway — I thought today might be a good opportunity to do something a little different. And Gera is a great choice for today’s sefirot.

This should really not be surprising, but I was nevertheless surprised to find that learning about her (OK, from the admittedly imperfect tool of my computer while sitting in my apartment) was not easy. Some of the best reporting is from, I kid you not, the third edition of the “Insider’s Guide to Indiana County Parks & Trails” — which inexplicably cannot be downloaded (and something I assume is authored by Leslie Knope). Even something as basic as Gera’s name is a matter of confusion: In the Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball, she’s listed as “Thomas (Gera), Bernice,” even though she was born Bernice Mary Shiner. (Louis Thomas, Jr., was her first husband; freelance photographer Stephen Gera, her second.)

Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 8.46.49 PMGera was the first lady umpire in professional baseball. As a lady rabbi, I appreciate this nomenclature. You see, just as there are rabbis, and then lady rabbis, so too is there umpire, and then lady umpire. Indeed, Gera’s tombstone apparently reads “Pro-Baseball’s First Lady Umpire.” (I really wish I could have found a picture!)

Reports also vary as to Gera’s path to the umpirate (if that’s not a word it should be). At least a couple of outlets say that the idea “just suddenly it to her one night,” but, if you’ll permit me, that seems unlikely. She pitched and hit on various teams at the four high schools in three different states that she attended. As an adult, she participated in home run derbies for charity and coached little leaguers. Quitting her secretarial job in her mid-thirties to go to the Florida Baseball Umpire School for six weeks in 1967 was perhaps unconventional but not surprising. (Some sources say she was only accepted initially because the school misread her handwriting and thought her name was “Bernie.”)

In umpire school she got a perfect score on the midterm exam, the first such score in school history. When she couldn’t get a job, she filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act with the New York State Human Rights Commission; five years later, she won her case against the National Association of Baseball Leagues. On June 24, 1972, she called the first game of a Class A minor league doubleheader between the Geneva Senators and Auburn Twins. But Gera had already had enough and had planned to resign after the game.

“Umpires must work as a team,” she told reporters after the game. “But I went on the field alone. I had no partner.” Her husband later said that she would often quip, “I could beat them in the courts, but I can’t beat them on the field.”

bernice-gera-50128729-fa61-4927-b245-cea15630e7c-resize-750Personally, Gera’s story resonates with me deeply. Her story — my story — is one of demonstrating deep commitment to something by pushing (hard) for it to be better. It’s what I do with Judaism, and I hope that you’ve seen these past six weeks how I do it with baseball. Gera said of her dream to be a part of the sport she yearned to be a part of her whole life, “I would have done anything. I would have shined the ballplayers’ shoes. That’s how much I love baseball.”

The sefirah of malchut, nobility or kingship, is also known as shekhinah, the presence of Gd, which, Rabbi Art Green notes, “is the ground on which the ladder stands; it is she who sends the angels upward.”

The Indiana County guide says: “Through her efforts arbitrary restrictions that prevented others from being a professional umpire were lifted — this was Bernice’s greatest legacy.” The few lady umpires who came later were the angels she sent upward — and only possible because of her fight.

Let’s count Day 43 in honor of this great lady whose nobility of purpose demonstrated her deep love of her sport.

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