Tennis With Gunther

by Rabbi Ira Youdovin

Gunther Plaut, z”l, was an amazing renaissance man who excelled in a dazzling array of areas from scholarship to athletics.  Like all of us who have been privileged to use his Torah Commentary, I’ve benefited from the former.   But I also had an encounter with the latter.

During one of the first CCAR conventions in Israel, Gunther and I found ourselves standing outside the Jerusalem Hilton’s lone tennis court, each looking for someone to hit with.  I was never more than a hacker, while he had played for Germany in at least one pre-Hitler Maccabiah.  When I noted this blatant  disparity, he assured me that all he wanted was a little exercise and, as no one else was available, I would certainly fill the bill.

But after a half hour or so, Gunther shouted across the net that actually playing a set would be even better exercise, and commanded me to serve.  Predictably, he took the first three games at love.  Then, as sometimes happens on a tennis court, the player with vastly superior skill loses interest, and begins losing points. The inferior player sees an opening and catches fire.  I swept the next six games to win 6-3.

For me, it was game, set, match…and let’s get off the court before a second set tarnishes my pristine, unbeaten record against the CCAR’s best tennis player.  But Gunther was having none of that, and commanded that we play on. Then, in a rare display of God’s benevolent caring for the fatally overmatched, two new players entered the court telling us that our time was up.

Gunther: “Same time tomorrow?!”  What could I say?

When we showed up the next day, the courts were closed for maintenance.  “Sorry, Gunther, same time next year?”  But no.  He piled us into a cab heading for the Hebrew University courts at Givat Ram.   These were locked.  So Gunther, racket and tennis balls in hand, climbed the fence, beckoning me to follow.   There we were, two North American Reform rabbis breaking into the Hebrew University tennis courts.  If the Rabbinut only knew….

We played not one, but two sets, so that Gunter would have the naches of winning what had morphed from an hour of exercise into a best-of-three set played over two days on two different venues.   Needless to say, he won both at love.   I could blame my poor play on fear of being shot by the campus police as trespassing terrorists.   But in fact, my game was no worse than it always was against players of Gunther’s caliber.   We shook hands, climbed the fence, hailed a cab…and a great, albeit brief,  tennis rivalry ended.   I’ve lost lots of tennis matches in my life.  But none was nearly so much fun as the one I lost in Jerusalem to Gunther Plaut.

Rabbi Ira Youdovin is executive vice president emeritus of Chicago Board of Rabbis, and was the first executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.  He lives in happy retirement in Santa Barbara, CA.

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