Short, Nasty, and Brutish
Sydney, Australia, 1994. I was in year nine (equivalent to American 10th grade) at Moriah College, Sydney’s biggest Jewish school, when our surly new sports coach gathered us in the auditorium to announce we would be fielding the first rugby … Read More
Sydney, Australia, 1994. I was in year nine (equivalent to American 10th grade) at Moriah College, Sydney’s biggest Jewish school, when our surly new sports coach gathered us in the auditorium to announce we would be fielding the first rugby team in the history of Sydney’s Jewish community. The auditorium filled with excited murmurs as we crowded around the coach to sign up. Visions of a scrum descending into bloody, out-and-out violence filled my mind. I could be fearless, brutal—and this was my chance to prove it.
An argument broke out the moment I got home from school.
“But Mum!” I shouted.
“You can’t play rugby. Jews don’t play rugby,” she said, punctuating each word with a forefinger.
“But why not?”
“They just don’t.”
“That’s not a reason.”
“It is in this house.”
“Because Jews are different. We are not brutes.”
“Yes we are!”
My overprotective mother wasn’t the only parent unhappy about the school’s new contact sport. The Parents and Friends Association made an official complaint to the principal. Rugby was a dangerous, violent game, they said, one that goyim played when they weren’t too busy drinking cocktails and reading biased reportage about Israel.
The most experience Moriah College had ever had with rugby was through our unofficial bookie, Moshe Ben-David, an enthusiastic Sephardic boy with sleek black hair and an excess of saliva. During the finals season of the Australian professional league, when he wasn’t horrifying the girls with an extracted pube he was impressing and confounding us with professional gambling talk: “I’ll give you four-to-one odds on a half-time five-point lead for the Tigers.” No one understood a word, but we handed him our lunch money and he wrote receipts on brown lunch bags. When word got around that he’d bought a new Game Boy that very week, we did what any group of vengeful adolescents would do: we went to the principal. The principal gave us a lecture and, instead of returning our embezzled funds, placed Moshe Ben-David’s crisp fifty-dollar bill in a blue tzedaka box.
I was about fifteen at the time, and not ready to accept that I was 105 pounds, 5 feet 1 inch tall, and pathetically uncoordinated. I couldn’t sleep at night, imagining the winning tries I’d score in the final moments of a game; I spent my hard-earned pocket money on cleats and a mouth guard and practiced sprints in the afternoons. I was determined to invalidate my mother’s shtetl rhetoric.
Tryouts began, and, while the sidelines oohed and aahed, Moshe Ben-David surreptitiously took bets on who would make the cut. The South Africans proved the outstanding faction, with their freckled noses, broad shoulders and effortless brutality. And Fatty “Babke” Feldman, a boy who was often teased for his girth, became something of a hero. No one could stop him once he got going, his big legs pumping like fattened pistons. We were invincible, and we knew it.
But when it came time for the coach to announce the team, my name wasn’t one of those mentioned. I was left to stand on the sidelines and talk about the game with the white-skinned Russians and hairy Sephardim. My dreams were shattered; I went home despondent, my pristine mouth guard rattling in its clear plastic case.
The team practiced every lunchtime; on the sidelines our discussions became increasingly Talmudic.
“You call that a kick? That’s not a kick. Goldberg can kick a hundred meters. You need to kick at least a hundred meters.”
“Fifty meters is plenty.”
“Hundred meters at least.”
“Skovron reckons forty meters is professional-selection standard.”
“What would Skovron know?”
“He knows as much from football as I do from seafood. Where do you get your information? Even thirty meters is enough.”
After I overcame my initial disappointment, I stubbornly refused to be excluded from the action and continued to show an embarrassing and arguably unhealthy interest in the team. I could often be spotted running off-field to retrieve an over-kicked ball, or sprinting on-field to massage the fullback’s cramping quadriceps.
The coach approached me one day after lunchtime.
“Listen, Nathan. It’s real helpful of you to take on the position as, sort of…team doctor and all—“
“Well, you know, my father is a neurosurgeon.”
“Really. That’s great. But it’s a bit difficult when you actually run on the field during play.”
“I just thought it would be good to be close by in case of an accident.”
“Look,” he sighed. “I think it’s better if you stay on the sidelines until I call you. You’re going to get hurt.”
“Okay coach.” I said, jogging on the spot, shadowboxing. “I want to keep fit, just in case someone gets injured.”
He shook his head and walked away.
Kids can be cruel, but my allegiance must have been so pitiable that none of the other players said a word. In fact, they encouraged me. When I ran a water bottle to a winded prop, everyone just nodded at me and said, “Good work.” If I jogged on-field with a little mound of soil for a goal kick, the players slapped my back: “Nice work, Besser.”
Practices were actually very pleasant. Every one was concluded with fruit and cheesecake and most of our training sessions were spent arguing over rules and regulations.
Before the first game, the team huddled into a grunting circle. I stood at a distance, busying myself with water bottles. Then I heard the coach shout “Wait. Where’s Besser? The water boy. Our masseuse. The Doc!” He held out one last jersey and I stepped proudly forward to receive my greatest high-school accolade. I was pulled into the circle, and Feldman’s grip gave me a big shoulder bruise.
Our first game was against Scots College, a private school in the rich hills of Sydney. We piled out of the bus enthusiastically, pouring into formations, passing balls, sprinting, running backwards, dodging each other. As I arranged the water bottles and quartered oranges, I saw our opposition in the distance. The enormous Scots College kids were fiercely tackling a thinly cushioned steel pole. They scored a try within the first five minutes of the game. We pretended it meant nothing. “Next time, boys,” the coach said, twitching.
During our second game, against St. Ignatius, we didn’t fare much better. Blond hair billowing and muscles rippling, they stomped — or rather, strolled — all over us. We had our high-flying South Africans, but the St. Ignatius scrums were heavier and faster. Two of our players got injured, and we lost by 26 points. We were knocked out of the league competition in three disastrous games, losing the third by a mortifying 48 points.
During our final game, Lukowitz, the athletic, ginger-haired winger, was subbed off by the coach. Somehow, I thought he was just thirsty, so I sprinted towards him with a drink bottle and, in the middle of the playing field, sprayed a long stream of water into his face. As it went up his nostrils and in his eyes, Lukowitz became furious, gasping for air and making a guttural gagging sound.
Then, with a quick, furious jab, he broke my nose.
We spent the bus trip home in a weighty silence, a team of gloomy Jewish rugby players and one pathetic water boy with tissues up his nose and blood all over his jersey. Lukowitz was quick to apologize, and I accepted his regrets — after all, it was my mistake. Moshe Ben-David said I could make a mint from litigation, but I thought it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
Mum almost fainted when she saw me and my mangled schnoz. I told her that I was hit during a tackle.
“You see, Nathan,” she said. “A Jew would never do such a thing.”
I was tempted to tell her the truth, but I just sniffed indifferently. The team had one last, somber cheesecake, our parents breathed a collective sigh of relief, and I never stepped onto the rugby field again.