Alan Dershowitz on “Who is a Jew”

  • 0

(Photo via NY Times) Branca was disconsolate after giving up the home run that won a pennant in 1951.

The NY Times has been busy with a story about Ralph Branca and his heritage.

Who is Ralph Branca? He’s the guy who gave up the “shot heard ’round the word”.

What’s the “shot heard ’round the world”? The home run hit by Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants that was immediately followed by “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!”

Branca has a largely ignominious place in sports lore because he gave up that epic home run.

During an investigative report on his life by reporter Joshua Prager, it was discovered that Branca’s mother was a Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1901 from what was then Hungary. Branca was as shocked as anyone to learn that his mother was a Jew. Perhaps he was even more shocked to discover that he was a Jew as well. For in Jewish law, if one’s mother is Jewish, one is Jewish!

Branca was raised Catholic.

As a kid, Branca was a “Shabbos goy”, a term I despise for its less than glamorous connotations. He performed certain tasks forbidden for Jews on the Sabbath. (In all likelihood, it was equally impermissible for those Jews to ask young Ralphie to perform those tasks on their behalf, but I digress.) Branca is quoted at the end of the story in the Times as saying that he better remain a Catholic, otherwise he would have been liable for all his “helpfulness”. To save his soul, Branca, now 85, says he must remain Catholic.

His faulty logic notwithstanding, Branca is a Jew.

At least according to Jewish law he is a Jew.

Alan Dershowitz is of a different mind.

“Ralph Branca is not a Jew,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Brooklyn-born Dodgers fan, lawyer and Harvard professor. “Whatever the definition, it doesn’t include someone who willingly accepted a different religion. He didn’t stay home on Yom Kippur like Koufax.”

“Koufax altered strength and guile and knew that you pitch for six days and you rest on the seventh,” he said. “Branca was straight-on; you could see there was nothing Jewish about Ralph Branca.”

It’s unclear if Dershowitz made these comments before the revelation that Branca’s mother was Jewish. If it was before, the big reveal then I am not sure what the Times is using this quote for. It is was after the revelation that Branca’s mother was a Jew I am completely at lost at how someone’s non-choice, Branca was raised Catholic or someone pitching style can be the determining factor as to one’s Jewishness. What in the world is Dershowitz saying?

According to Jewish law Branca is a Jew. Whether he knew it or cared for or not, he is a Jew. In this respect, Judaism is a family. A long lost cousin who did not know he was related to you can’t be excluded from the family because he has a different style than the rest of the family (if that is even a reasonable assertion, which it is not).

I am disappointed in Dershowitz and I welcome Ralph Branca to the tribe. Even if he was always part of it and even if he doesn’t want to be…

Links: NY Times 1 and NY Times 2

Watch the “shot heard round the world”:


  • I’ve been around long enough to be able to say that dershowitz is a publicity hungry windbag.

  • Anonymous

    Two notes:
    “According to Jewish law Branca is a Jew.” That’s not strictly true, primarily because there is no single code called “Jewish law.” As, I’m sure you are aware, there isn’t even a single Orthodox Jewish Law. As it so happens, virtually every legal work that we would call Orthodox would obligate Branca in Jewish law (I’m not sure that many have a position on semantic arguments). Equally, most Reform authorities would say that, as a practicing Catholic who in no way identifies with Judaism, Branca is not Jewish.

    It’s also worth noting that Dershowitz wasn’t asking who is Jewish in the eyes of halacha but who would be called a “Jew” according to the general understanding of the term. Given that “Jewish” is primarily understood in the sense of “adherent of Judaism” (which Branca doesn’t fit at all), then in the ethnic sense (Branca partially fits) and finally in a cultural sense (I have no intuition on the matter, Dershowitz doesn’t seem to feel the Branca fits), Dershowitz’s position seems reasonable enough. 

    Whether a practicing Christian can be considered a “Jew” was actually the subject of an Israeli supreme court case, which ruled that for the purposes of the Law of Return he cannot be.’s+opinion,+there+are+other+authorities%22&source=bl&ots=5E4WuthYnl&sig=JgDzMODLGmgyVCWGb3kgrLkMDy4&hl=en&ei=LHFMTuu3KOjf0QGjp-mDBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=true

    • Solid points as always.

      What concerned me more than Dershowitz ignoring the more typical halachic perspective on who is a Jew is the criteria with which he subsitituted those traditions.

      I mean, “he didn’t pitch Jewishly”? Is he being serious?