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My Other Team, Part 1

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A long form paean to the Rapids Rabbi's other team, far away and deep down in Israel's second tier league, Ligat Leumit. Soccer is soccer, but in the Middle East, it's another world entirely.

Deep in the heart of Israeli second division soccer.
Deep in the heart of Israeli second division soccer.
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The journey to the game itself immediately reminds me: I am not in America. I am not going to a Rapids game. This is something entirely different.

I make my way to Jerusalem's Central Bus Station on foot from the three bedroom apartment of my wife's parents. We're here in Israel for the Passover vacation to bring the grand children to see their Saba and Savta. But while I'm here, I also get to ingest copious amounts of kosher meat from the many restaurants that are available to me. In Jerusalem alone, there are literally hundreds of restaurants I can go to and eat everything on the menu. In Denver Colorado, there is one kosher meat restaurant. It's in the back of a Supermarket. It is, how should I say this? Not exceptional. Unless the height of cuisine for you is putting grilled pastrami in between two potato pancakes. Or tasting fajitas in week-old tortillas with freezer burned meat.

And aside from ferrying the grandchildren over and scarfing down meat, I get to watch soccer.

The walk takes fifteen minutes, through the newer part of Jerusalem, the western part, built between 1900 and today. The older part, called ‘The Old City', is within the medieval ramparts of Suleiman the Magnificent, built in 1535 as a stronghold of the Ottoman Empire. It has buildings that go back to 1000 BCE. Nonetheless, the modern city took a hint from its ancient fore-bearers and made a rule: any building constructed anywhere must be composed mostly of Jerusalem stone. It gives the city its golden color in the late afternoon as I set out for the bus station. The walk takes me past half a dozen middle eastern restaurants, selling meats spinning slowly on a spit deeply seasoned with turmeric and hyssop. It goes past stores that sell religious articles like the fringed waist-shirt of the ultra-orthodox, called tzit-tzit. One store is ‘THE Watermelon Center'. They sell nothing but watermelons. Think about that as a business model in the US.

The bus station itself is a new-ish building, five stories high, with a blue-green glass clock face at the center. Outside, three orthodox men on keyboard, guitar and alto sax are playing a not-terrible but heavily accented rendition of Frank Sinatra's ‘I did it my way' across from where the light rail train drops off. Security - which, sometimes in Israel, can require wanding and bag checks of every patron to every location: supermarkets, movie theaters, the bus station, is somewhat relaxed. I walk into the central lobby with its long book stand and it's cellphone kiosk, overshadowed by a series of escalators rising above like scaffolding. Shops and fast food can be found on the first two floors, and buses on the third and fourth.

I find my bus, the 400 to the eastern suburbs of Tel Aviv known as Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan, the home of one of Israel's largest football stadiums, on the third floor, at the end of the hallway, by the bus card service center, where folks cue and complain about this or that. I ask the nineteen-year old female soldier next to me in my American-accented Hebrew how much the bus costs. She replies, ‘I don't know; its free for me.' I forget that for Israelis serving in the army, public transportation is free. And almost every Israeli; male or female; Jewish, Bedouin or Druze; seventh generation or fresh off a plane from Uzbekistan or Argentina; must serve in the Israeli army. It turns out that the 90 minute ride costs sixteen shekels, or roughly $4.25.

Israel's bus system is fantastic. Israel as a country is tiny: it would take nine Israels, laid side by side, to fill the state of Colorado. The country's length is nothing to sneer at: it'd take about six hours to drive top to bottom. On the other hand, at it's most narrow point, you can drive from it's eastern neighbor, Jordan, to the Mediterranean Sea in about 17 minutes. The bus system can get you anywhere, at almost anytime: Sabbath and Jewish holidays excepted. From the three main cities: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, buses leave around the clock from 5 AM to 12 midnight for every town and kibbutz and suburb and beach development and neighborhood in the country. Any place you can't get to directly by bus, you can almost assuredly catch a 'tramp' to- hitchhiking is still alive and well in Israel, especially in the rural stretches. The bus that I need leaves every 20 minutes. Normally, the 401 would take me non-stop to the foot of Tel Aviv University and, alongside it, Ramat Gan football stadium, but as the bus driver would tell me, it isn't running while the university is out on ‘Chofesh' (vacation) during the Passover holiday. That means I'll be taking a bus that makes nine stops in the city of Bnei Brak.

Bnei Brak is famous in Israel as the country's center of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Close your eyes and picture your stereotypical Jew. Go ahead. I'm giving you permission. Here's what you came up with:

  • A black hat, black slacks and jacket, and white shirt
  • Curly sidelocks
  • Glasses so thick they could be windows on the space shuttle
  • A scraggly beard

Add to that women covered head to toe in something modest and a wig or head covering, and somewhere between five and fourteen children per family, and then extrapolate out for a population of 178,300, and you've got Bnei Brak. A significant portion of the population never did compulsory army service, like most Israelis, since they qualify for a historically enacted religious exemption. A significant portion of the men hold no employment, and instead spend their day studying the vast and complex corpus of Jewish legal philosophy known as the Talmud. They do this study, in pairs, in an institute known as a ‘yeshiva', which has existed continuously in Jewish life in every city around the world for the past 2100 years. Men in yeshiva are supported on private charity and public welfare. As are their wives and seven to twelve children. Not surprisingly, Bnei Brak is densely populated and overwhelmingly poor.

Of the 47 seats on the bus, I count only four people who cannot be readily identified as religious Jews. None of them, except for me, is going to a soccer game.

The bus slowly fills with passengers and glides out of the dark garage onto the street that takes it to the edge of Jerusalem, five minutes away. The main road to and from the city from the coastal plain has been essentially the same for over a thousand years. It winds through the narrow valley that snakes down from the high point of Jerusalem, past the Arab town of Abu Gosh, famous for it's hummus; past the Crusader and Ottoman stronghold of Latrun, site of a fierce battle in Israel's War of Independence against the Arab Legion; and by Lod, once the Roman city of Lydda, and now home to the airport. Dusty hills lined with pine and cyprus, occasionally terraced in ancient grey stones that support hillside grape arbors and olive trees give way to flat stretches of green crops shining in the healthy glow of the spring rains.

Also, we hit a lot of traffic. Every Israeli in the country is on vacation this week, and almost every one of them has a crappy aluminum charcoal grill and five pounds of ground beef, spices, pine nuts and parsley rolled into kebab to make ‘mangal', the quintessential Israeli barbecue. They will find five meters of open park, sandy beach, or parking lot alongside a national forest, to grill, and litter, and let their kids run around and hit each other a lot. I plug in my iphone and listen to a podcast interview of Thomas Rongen, spinning stories to Grant Wahl about Johan Cruyff.

After almost an hour, the bus dumps off of the main highway onto the streets of Bnei Brak. Orthodox families crowd the streets, filling the playgrounds. Most stores are closed. I get a special treat, as the Haredim - as they are properly called - celebrate the Passover holiday by wearing the special fur hat their forefathers wore in Eastern Europe: the ‘shtreimel'. The hats are hand made of mink, and each different rival sect wears its own distinct hat. It is 80 degrees in the middle eastern heat, and by mid summer the mercury will regularly hit 100 F. Those hats - which can cost upwards of $1000, look totally and completely badass. And it also must be hotter than hell underneath them.

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Shortly after entering Bnei Brak, the interview on my podcasts ends, and I switch over to listen to some music. My high school students had recommended the new Kanye album, ‘The Life of Pablo'. I‘d been resisting it, since I didn't care for ‘Yeezus', but I give it a try. The spitfire beats lit by Kanye's prurient lyrics focused primarily on which attractive females he had, would have, or would refuse to have sex with was not in step with the window views of haredi families of 12 shuttling between festive meals and evening prayers. But I enjoyed the disparity of that reality enough that I made it work. What exactly would the correct music be for cruising through a fundamentalist neighborhood on your way to soccer game?

The thicket of row after row of six story 1960's concrete apartments in Bnei Brak give way to a few skyscrapers, and my bus reaches it's last stop, about 400 meters from my final destination, Ramat Gan Stadium.

It is my second trip to Ramat Gan Stadium. In my college year-abroad in Israel, some friends and I went in 1997 to see a World Cup qualifier for the 1998 World Cup, Israel vs. Russia. The game was held at Ramat Gan, Israel's National Stadium, which sits a short drive into an eastern suburb from Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv. The match I attended between Russia and Israel in the UEFA Group C World Cup Qualifiers ended 1-1. Israel would not go on to qualify for the Copa Mundial that year, or any year, in my lifetime - they last qualified for the tournament in 1970. Although most of its citizens are third or fourth generation Europeans, Israel rightfully has no business being in UEFA for World Cup qualifiers: its neighbors to the north and east all play in the Asian Football Confederation, and its southern neighbor, Egypt, is in the African Confederation. But since many Arab countries refuse to play Israel, or allow Israeli citizens admittance in their nations, or acknowledge its existence, and since some regularly fund terrorist insurgencies on its borders, or send those same terrorist insurgencies rockets and Kalashnikovs and Jihadists bent on destroying Israel, it became futile to have Israel stay in the Asian federation only to have half their games cancelled or forfeited. Israel departed the AFC in 1974 and wandered in the desert without any soccer federation for the next twenty years, until UEFA admitted them in 1994 as a member nation. For a brief period in the 1980s, however, Israel entered World Cup qualifiers in the Oceania region, if you can believe that.

Ramat Gan was once a decent, if plain and utilitarian, stadium. It was built in 1950 and seats 41,000: a pastiche of now-faded orange and yellow and blue low-backed chairs atop a standard concrete bowl, surrounded with a seldom-used track. The chairs are the epitome of 1960's; kinda funky, kinda dated. Its cousins that used to dot the country at local universities and bus stops have all been replaced. These chairs, though, live on; only at the stadium in Ramat Gan.

In 2000, the top club in Israel, Maccabi Tel Aviv, decamped Ramat Gan Stadium for a smaller, renovated complex across town called Bloomfield. Maccabi Tel Aviv is Israel's glamour club; the original home of stars like Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun and former Chelsea manager Avrum Grant. In 2014, one of Israel's top clubs, Maccabi Haifa, opened a gorgeous modern stadium with luxury boxes and wifi and a bevy of food options, and the Israel national team moved its national games there. That makes Ramat Gan Israel's version of the LA Colosseum, or New York's Polo Grounds - a faded former jewel, left to host swap meets and monster truck shows. Or in Israel's case, a second tier football club.

This is the home of Hapoel Ramat Gan*. There are 62 teams in the top three tiers of Israeli football. There are at least 30 teams in the immediate vicinity of Ramat Gan Stadium. Only Hapoel Ramat Gan plays here, a stadium far too large for it to fill, and far too expensive for it to maintain. The storied home of fifty years of top-flight football and nail-biting national team games is slowly rotting in year after year of hot Mediterranean summers and crumbling concrete. Weeds peak through cracks in the stands. Rusted, leaking pipes have permanently stained the underside of the second deck. It smells funny, too.

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The cauldron on the south end. When this was still the national stadium, the quadrennial Maccabi games, the World Jewish Olympics, were held here. Today, the cauldron stands idle, a symbol of better days for Ramat Gan Stadium.

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These seats have seen better days.

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Away fans for Hapoel Katamon, some sporting last years 'Alufim' - champions - shirts from the 2015 championship of Ligat Aleph that saw Katamon promoted to the second division.

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I didn't come to support Hapoel Ramat Gan, though, or to revel in a fancy stadium with craft beers or a Dippin' Dots stand; I came to support my team - my other team, besides my beloved Colorado Rapids.The away team; Hapoel Katamon.

Hapoel Katamon, properly called by it is full name, Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem Football Club, or HKJFC for short, was only founded in 2007. That second word, Katamon, is a neighborhood on the south side of Jerusalem, a city I lived in for two years of my life, and the home-city of my wife's parents, which we visit each year. The first word, Hapoel, takes a little more explaining.

First you might be wondering - Hapoel Ramat Gan, Hapoel Katamon - what's with all the Hapoels? And second, you might wonder how an American Jew that lives in Colorado came to love a second tier team in middle class neighborhood in a city 10,000 miles away.

Hapoel means ‘The Workers'. Look at that crest.

That's a worker. Surfing on a hammer. And sickle. And not, like, subtly.

Israel's sports clubs and youth leagues were oriented pretty starkly down an ideological axis that reflects the country itself and its various factions and divides. There are religious and secular youth and sports groups; groups comprised originally of Eastern European or Middle Eastern Jews; and of course, sports and youth clubs that are politically oriented. Early Zionists in Europe founded the Maccabi sports clubs. Israel's national labor federation and its political organizations created their own local sports clubs, with a more pronounced socialist bent, and called them ‘Hapoel'. The color of choice for most local Hapoel teams was, not surprisingly, red. Sixteen of Israel's top thirty clubs have ‘Hapoel' in their name. Meanwhile, MLS thinks having more than two teams called ‘United' at the same time is unfathomable.

Second; why do I root for this team? A proper explanation of how I got to loving this team, Hapoel Katamon, deserves a long form read of it's own, but for another time. The short version is this: I mentored an Israeli teen, Re'em, when I lived here in 2004 and 2005. Re'em was a kid from a poor Moroccan immigrant family. His oldest sister was killed in a terrorist attack in the mid 90's. His middle sister had been blown up , twice, by different suicide bombers at her guard post between Israel and the West Bank in 2004 . She survived both attacks. Sort of. She functioned day-to-day by sleeping 18 hours at a stretch, and tripping on sedatives that made her a zombie for the scant hours she stayed awake during the day, staring at the television. Apparently, without the meds, she would mostly just scream and cry. So, home life sucked for Re'em. The least I could do was take him out once a week.

He liked the big local Jerusalem team, Beitar Jerusalem. So I liked Beitar. So we went together to a couple of games. The year I lived there, they won the exceedingly rare treble in Israeli soccer- the State Cup, Toto Cup, and the Israeli Premier League. They have long been one of Israel's most glamorous clubs, alongside Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv, and Maccabi Haifa. Since 1923, Maccabi Tel Aviv have won the Israeli league 21 times. Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa have won 13 and 12 times, respectively, and Beitar have won 6 times. Those clubs are sometimes called Israel's 'Big Four'.

Beitar have become famous in world football for another reason, though. Their ultras. Beitar's ultras, known as La Familigia, began in 2005 and are widely know for their racism - particularly anti-Arab racism. Most Beitar fans I've met hate La Familigia, and they don't like the racism. But I've also met a fair number of Israelis in the past few years who've told me, "Yeah, I used to be a Beitar fan, but... I can't handle the racism anymore."

Mostly, Beitar's ultras were known before 2005 for chanting vile things on occasion at Arab players. Starting in 2007, it got worse. They made banana chants at a black player; they graffitied the stadium and bus of a team from an Arab-Israeli city. In 2012, it got much worse. They rioted in the mall nearby to the stadium, attacking Arabs and yelling slurs. In 2013, the team added two Chechen players - Muslims. One scored in his first appearance for the club. The home fans booed him. The next week, a few members of La Famiglia went to the club's headquarters - the headquarters of their own club - and burned the offices to the ground. With all the clubs photos and trophies. Every trophy since the team began in 1936. Gone. The Guardian made a fantastic short film about it, if you're interested.

At one point, after the team received multiple point deductions and closed-door matches, the fans went to the headquarters of the Israeli federation and lit them on fire too. The owner was so disgusted, he put the team for sale. For a while, nobody wanted to buy it.

So in 2012, I quit being a Beitar fan. I would have liked to have said ‘A lot of Beitar fans are awful, but I'm going to stick to my team, and be one of a faction of non-racist fans.' But it wasn't worth it. I was too appauled and ashamed. I'd been following Israeli football for a decade. I wasn't going to quit the whole league cold-turkey. I needed a new team.

And then one day, I read about Hapoel Katamon. It would soon become my new team.

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Part two of 'My Other Team' comes out tomorrow... stay tuned.

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* (Update) - Technically, it's not even Hapoel Ramat Gan's home. It's even worse than that. They're only renting the stadium temporarily because their former stadium partners, Hakoach Ramat Gan, refuse to share. When the season ends, they're likely homeless. What becomes of a tenant-less Ramat Gan Stadium is yet to be decided.