Ralph Branca headlines TABC book festival
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Ralph Branca headlines TABC book festival

Innovative program has whole school talking

There are moments when a Major Leaguer’s behavior on the baseball diamond can translate into valuable life lessons.

So says baseball great Ralph Branca.

Branca, the Dodger pitcher who played with Jackie Robinson, recalls that the baseball legend faced intense discrimination (in 1947, he broke through baseball’s color barrier), but he played his best despite the opposition. “He performed admirably under extreme pressure,” said Branca, who befriended Robinson when others on the field gave him the cold shoulder.

Robinson handled his opponents well, even when he felt like exploding with rage. The repercussions of his acts extended beyond batting and pitching. Robinson’s integration of baseball was a blow to segregation and led the way for other racial barriers to fade away.

Branca will share such gem-like recollections with students as the keynote speaker of Torah Academy of Bergen County’s (TABC) Book Day on Feb. 15.

The interdisciplinary program, in which the high school’s staff and student body analyze the same book during a day of workshops and speakers, is the brainchild of Dr. Carol Master, the English Department chairman, and Librarian Leah Moskovits.

The fact that the entire staff and student body have read the same book and are discussing it together is very unifying, said Master. “Usually everyone is with their own grade and section,” added Moskovits. “This brings the whole school together.”

The students are enthusiastic about the program, which is in its second year, said Moskovits. “They stopped me in the hall from day one to ask which book we were reading this year.”

Akiva Marder, a TABC junior, said he enjoyed the book selections this year and last. “The book is something we want to read, as opposed to something we have to read,” said Marder, adding that each book selection has been vastly different.

The workshop sessions cover an array of topics spanning multiple disciplines – from relationship-building to texting in Yiddish to the Irish and Jewish immigration experience, to racial barriers for pro athletes in the 1940s and 1950s, boasted Moskovits.

The Book Day program, which will include workshops by TABC teachers and outside talent, will culminate in a performance by Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene.

TABC principal Rabbi Yosef Adler, who is a lifelong sports enthusiast, will deliver a session about racial barriers in sports in the 1940s and 1950s.

Such a variety of workshop topics appeals to students because they can explore new areas of learning that are not typically addressed during class, said Marder. “Since there is such a wide range of sessions to choose from during Book Day, students can choose what they feel passionate about and have a good experience,” he said.

Last year, the subject of Book Day was “Persepolis,” a graphic memoir about a girl living in Iran during the time of the revolution, and the featured speaker was a Jew who escaped after the revolution broke, said Master.

This year, the school will tackle “Snow in August” by Pete Hamill, which grapples with multiple themes, including a friendship that crops up between a Yiddish- speaking rabbi and an Irish Catholic boy, discrimination, anti-Semitism, baseball, Jackie Robinson, and the Golem.

Hamill’s book hit home with many of the students, said Doni Cohen, a TABC junior who serves on the Book Day Committee, because it touches on so many issues that are pertinent to their lives and to Jewish history.

The friendship of the rabbi and the Irish boy develops against the backdrop of anti-Semitic incidents in Brooklyn in the 1940s.

“Many of our grandparents lived in that exact setting when they immigrated to America after World War II in the 1940s, and that connects our Jewish history to the book, as well,” he said.

While Branca may praise Robinson’s heroism for his role as a civil rights pioneer, Cohen asserts that Branca, who is mentioned in Hamill’s book, is an inspiration for today’s young people.

“Mr. Branca was one of the few players who did not sign a petition circling the clubhouse in the 1947 season refusing to play with an African-American,” said Cohen admiringly.

“When many refused to line up on the field with Jackie Robinson before the game in which he broke the color barrier, Mr. Branca was courageous enough to be one of the only men to line up with Jackie as a sign of solidarity with him.

“He exhibited the bravery and courage to defend Jackie Robinson against racism,” said Cohen. “I greatly respect what he did.”

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