It has been almost six years since my father, Mitchell Merlis Z’L, left this world at the age of fifty. He valiantly battled cancer for five and a half years, mostly during my tenure in college. Last month, the Yeshiva Alumni Basketball Association honored my father’s athletic achievements at its annual dinner, and proceeds from the dinner have been used to build “Mitchell Merlis Court” in Tiberias, Israel.
At this event, I was given the opportunity to address the attendees and speak publicly about my father’s connection to athletics. In this piece, I would like to make a few brief points about the role that athletics played in my father’s life. Segments of the following text have been partially adapted from my speech.
Abba often told me that sports had taught him a lot about life, and how a person should conduct himself during his journey through existence. For my father, athletics held existential value. From participation in athletics, my father procured his mores and values; he learned the importance of teamwork, how to take and give instruction, how to succeed gracefully and how to handle disappointment. He was able to recognize that every respective member of a team has something substantive to contribute to a group endeavor. He placed great importance on the honor and gravity that came with representing his school, his community, his family and himself.
As a Jewish athlete, he took the same pride that many Jewish athletes derive from playing sports: smashing history’s mendacious caricature of the pusillanimous and feeble Jew. My father held his parents and older brothers in great esteem for imparting to him the concept of the Jew who is both hardy in form and adamantine in spirit; the Gibor. Abba was 6’2 and broad shouldered, and he was ruggedly handsome with dark, Levantine features. I had always thought that he resembled one of the noble warriors from the army of Yehuda HaMaccabee or Shimon Bar Kokhba.
However, my father also learned from his family the importance of knowledge and education. He was proud of both his athletic and academic accomplishments. In his law office, he proudly displayed an award from the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the E.C.A.C., which he had received for high athletic and scholastic achievement. There is a Latin phrase on this trophy, which reads “Virtute et Scientia”. This line translates into English as “Strength and Knowledge”. In my Abba’s mind, these were the attributes that comprise a real man. The phrase chosen for his high school yearbook profile was spoken by the 19th Century American poet and diplomat James Russel Lowell: “Stout muscles and a sinewy heart, a hardy frame, a hardier spirit”. This was Abba’s definition of masculinity.
The lessons that he imbibed during his high school and college years set the course for the rest of his celebrated life. After college, no longer a varsity athlete, my father channeled his competitive nature into softball in sundry leagues in the metro area. He began to take me to his softball games when I was a young child, and I continued to attend these events into my twenties. My father, who most certainly was not a wallflower, never once involved himself in an on-field fracas, he never argued with an official, and not once did he raise his voice in anger at a teammate or opponent. He never even so much as cursed; in fact I never once heard him swear in any setting, either public or private.
Though confident in his abilities, he never showed any hubris, and he was the most approachable and affable person that one could ever have the luck to meet, both on and off of the playing surface. Though my father was a fierce competitor, he was also mindful of the fact that, in categorical terms, there are more important things in life than sports. Abba taught me in words, and more often through deeds, that utilizing a balanced approach consisting of certitude in one’s self and purpose, matched with humility and humor, is the most productive way to navigate through life.
On July 3rd at Yeshivah Kfar Zeitim in Tiberias, Israel, the groundbreaking ceremony will be held for “Mitchell Merlis Court”. American-Israeli basketball legend Tal Brody will be in attendance. Occasions such as these serve as a reminder that my father is loved and venerated by so many people.
By Elly Merlis