“Coming Home: the Tale of Team Israel” – Premiere Screening on May 29, 2018 at the JCC (Seth Shire)
Baseball, Jews in sports, “Mensch on a Bench,” yarmulkas, yeshiva students, cheer leaders, rabbis, pre-game Purim services at a stadium, anti-semitism, Israel and the Middle East conflict, all come together in “Heading Home: the Tale of Team Israel.” Ironbound Films, a stellar documentary production company, hits a home run again (sorry, I couldn’t resist) with its latest documentary – a joyous, funny, heartfelt and compelling portrait with a host of great characters. Even a documentary has to have great characters, and “Heading Home” delivers.
I will admit that despite being part of a Jewish, baseball loving family, I never developed an interest in baseball, or sports in general for that matter. My thing is film. Now, having said this, I think that there must be some genetic, Jewish/sports influence as I have always liked movies (narratives and documentaries) about sports and about Jewish issues. To this end, “Heading Home: the Tale of Team Israel” fired for me, on all pistons, as I know it will for audiences of many different backgrounds. This documentary’s themes of pride, culture and, most of all, identity, will cut across cultures and resonate with people of all ethnicities.
When it comes to baseball, the State of Israel may not be the first name to come to mind. After all, there is the stereotype about Jews not being good at sports and, as we learn in this documentary, Israel has only one baseball field…in the entire country!
“Heading Home” is the story of 10 Jewish American baseball players (former big leaguers) who join a team to play for Israel in the World Baseball Classic (which consists of 16 baseball teams, each representing a different country) held every four years. To play in the WBC, a player has to be a citizen of the country for which he is playing. To be a citizen of Israel, one has to be Jewish, which means having, at a bare minimum, one Jewish grandparent. As long as each of these players can provide the proof, they are within WBC rules. A picture of a grandfather’s grave stone, marriage contracts in Hebrew and a father’s World War II dog tag, with the word “Jewish” embossed on it, come pouring in as evidence. Despite this, the issue of whether this is just an American team supporting Israel is raised, at one point.
What the film is really about, though, is what happens to these Jewish American players as a result of playing for Israel. Some of them are religious, others not so much. However, Margo Sugarman, the team’s Assistant General Manager, explains that the emotional aspect of coming to Israel is “a whole new ball game.” The documentary also explores how Jews playing baseball might positively affect how people view Jews and, as a result, break down anti-semitism.
Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger have created a meticulous documentary that follows the team from its qualifying game (to get into the WBC) up to Team Israel’s final game (no spoilers here). Their cameras are always in the right places at the right times. Kramer, who also edited the film, keeps the story consistently interesting by balancing interviews with the players, managers and coaches intercut with game footage, media coverage, press conferences, background information, fan reactions and great “off the cuff” moments. As pitcher Josh Zeid puts it, “No better stage. No better team. It’s my favorite game in the world. Why not play?”