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The Cubbalist

Rabbi Byron Sherwin knows how to lift the Cubs' curse. But don't ask him to do it.



When you're one of the world's leading authorities on religious magic and mysticism, you get some odd requests. After the release of The Exorcist in 1973, reporters looking for a local expert deluged Rabbi Byron Sherwin with calls for interviews. Being a teacher as well as a scholar, he granted them. Soon after his name began appearing in the papers, Sherwin got a phone call from a distraught man who was convinced his ex-girlfriend had put a curse on him.

"What is the manifestation of this curse?" Sherwin asked.

"Penis shrinkage."

Taken aback, Sherwin inquired, "How severe is this condition?"

"It's getting worse all the time."

The man went on to say he was also suffering from rashes and headaches. Had he seen a doctor? Yes, but the rashes hadn't gone away and his penis was still shrinking incredibly, vanishing right before his eyes.

"What do you want me to do about it?" Sherwin asked.

"I want you to do something!"

Sherwin told the man to see him in his office at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies at eight in the morning later that week. Since the accursed man lived in Milwaukee and the meeting would take place on a workday, Sherwin figured he wouldn't come. At home that night, Sherwin's wife, Judith, thought she should accompany him to the office for protection, but Sherwin said it wouldn't be necessary. "I said, look, if he thinks I have the power to reverse his problem, he's not going to attack me."

At the hour of their appointment, a man with forearms like Popeye's entered his office. Sherwin declined an invitation to examine the problem area and offered a remedy.

"I had studied some stuff about spells and curses and reversing them," he recalls. "There's such a thing in the Babylonian Talmud as the use of oil for removing curses, so I told him I'm going to try this--I didn't know if it would work." Sherwin didn't tell the guy what to do with the oil. "He could rub it on himself or bathe in it. I didn't specify. A week later he calls me, he says, 'I'm back to normal.'"

The man called back a couple years later to say he had a new girlfriend and a good life. That was the last Sherwin heard from him. But he still gets requests to remove curses, perform exorcisms, or clear out poltergeists. In just the past few months he's been asked to do all three. He gives the inquirers advice, but that's all he'll admit to. "I don't discuss whether I do stuff like that myself," he says. "If I did I'd have a line of delusional maniacs at my door." He's an academic, he insists, not an exorcist. "I've studied philosophy, I studied literature, I studied law. Don't try to make me Merlin."

You can call him a novelist, though. Sherwin's written or edited 25 books on subjects such as ethics, philosophy, and kabbalah (his latest is Workers of Wonders: A Model for Effective Religious Leadership From Scripture to Today), but his first work of fiction, The Chicago Cubs and the Kabbalist, is due from West Oak Press this fall. It's about another curse he doesn't want to mess with--the hex on Chicago's north-side baseball team.

Sherwin grew up in Queens and the Bronx and rooted for the New York Giants until they moved to San Francisco. After that he turned his back on baseball until he came to Chicago to teach at Spertus in 1970. A couple years later he enrolled at the University of Chicago (where he got a PhD in the history of culture) and met his future wife, Judith, who took him to Wrigley Field.

"She had to take me, it was like her synagogue," he says. "I said, 'What is this? This is minor league baseball? It's so small.'" Sherwin waited in vain for a vendor to come around with kosher hot dogs and sauerkraut. "She said, 'You're not in New York anymore. We don't eat hot dogs with sauerkraut.' And then I noticed that this team never seems to win. I couldn't figure it out. So I stopped going. My wife, however, is still not cured. She is really a fanatic."

During a Passover dinner in 1999, Judith led several guests away from the table every few minutes to check on a Cubs game. Sherwin and his remaining guest, a physician, could hear yelling, objects banging and crashing. The doctor asked Sherwin, "Isn't there something you can do?"

"What do you mean?" asked Sherwin.

"Can't you do something to relieve the curse?" the doctor said. "Can't you do something to make them win?"

Sherwin refused, but the seed of an idea was planted. Early the next year, he was suddenly afflicted with a mysterious laryngitis (his doctors still don't know what was wrong, he says). Unable to speak for three months, he spent most of his time at a computer, trying his hand at fiction. "A story line started to develop about a guy like me, sort of, with a wife like mine, who's a lawyer and a fanatic Cubs fan, and she's destroying her whole life," he says. "He is desperate and needs to do something."

The protagonist, Jay Loeb, named after Judah Loew of Prague, the legendary creator of the golem, looks into the events surrounding the 1945 curse of the billy goat and becomes convinced it's not the cause of the Cubs' problems. "A curse that works is usually a curse that seeks to redress some violation of moral rules," Sherwin says. Because it's reasonable for a team to bar a goat from a stadium--"any team would"--the billy goat curse doesn't fit that criterion, nor does it explain why the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. There had to be some other type of mojo at work.

Sherwin's research turned up three other events that involved breaches of ethics and morals:

Cubs fans heckled the Detroit Tigers' Hank Greenberg throughout the 1945 World Series, Greenberg's last, showering him with anti-Semitic invective and heaps of garbage. "He had just come back from serving in the army air corps, he was a war hero," says Sherwin. "They put that curse on themselves. You get cursed for doing immoral things."

Similar doings took place during the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, the site of Babe Ruth's "called shot." A rumor that Ruth was part black had been going around. When fans in the stands started yelling racial slurs, Sherwin says, Ruth pointed to center field, where he was about to hit the ball for a home run. "Why did he do the called shot? They were calling him all kinds of names, and he got pissed off and said, 'There it goes.'"

So, with the curses of the Babe and Hank Greenberg upon them, the Cubs haven't appeared in a World Series in nearly 60 years. But that doesn't explain why they haven't won a series since 1908, says Sherwin. What happened in 1908?

Every fan knows the story of Fred Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie brought into a crucial game by the New York Giants during the 1908 pennant race when their regular first baseman, Fred Tenney, was unable to play due to an attack of lumbago. With two outs and the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Merkle on first base and Moose McCormick on third, Al Bridwell singled to center. As McCormick crossed home and Giants fans rushed the field, Merkle turned off the base path and jogged toward the Giants clubhouse. Seeing this, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers produced a ball, touched second base and claimed Merkle out on a force play and the inning over, the game still tied. Umpire Hank O'Day, who hadn't seen the play, agreed. With all the fans celebrating on the field, the game couldn't go on. It was ruled a tie, and a replay was scheduled.

The Giants appealed to National League president Harry Pulliam but lost the appeal, the replay, and the pennant. Whether the ball produced by Evers was the game ball remains in dispute to this day (Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity of the Giants was seen throwing the ball into the stands), but Giants manager John McGraw thought it wasn't. Though it was common practice in 1908 to run off the field after the winning run had scored, Merkle, who died in 1956, went to his grave with his name having become a synonym for bonehead.

"All of the people involved in that incident ended their lives tragically," Sherwin says, "including the president of the National League, who went to the New York Athletic Club [in 1909] dressed in a smoking suit with a glass of sherry in his hand and a cigar in his mouth and lay down on a chair and blew his brains out."

Sherwin thinks the Cubs cheated and that John McGraw put a curse on them. The Merkle incident "is really beyond the pale. It's clear there was a deception," he says. "I mean, that's more than shaving inches, to produce a play to steal a pennant."

In the book, after Loeb discovers and removes these curses, he designs what Sherwin calls a "spiritual regimen" for the Cubs. Step three in helping them win a World Series is the creation on a beach in Wilmette of a golem named Sandy Greenberg (a combination of Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, "the greatest Jewish pitcher and the greatest Jewish hitter in the history of baseball," says Sherwin). At the novel's end, Loeb's wife is cured of her Cubs affliction.

Sherwin didn't try to sell the book to any of his previous publishers, all academic or nonfiction houses. He shopped it around through literary agents in New York and Chicago, but no one bit. He tried to sell the story to movie studios with no success. Then last summer he went out to lunch with a student, a personal-injury lawyer in Dallas named Howard Watt. Watt began studying with Sherwin six years ago, after a divorce led him to some soul-searching. "I was in my mid-30s," says Watt. "I had a really good friend who said to me, 'You're a nice person, a talented person. You have an opportunity now to rethink who you are and where you're going with your life.' I spent six months to a year thinking about what's important to me and I realized that my Jewish roots are very important. I lucked into finding Spertus."

Now Watt, who comes from a nonobservant family, is working on a master's degree in Jewish studies. He travels to Chicago twice a year to meet with Sherwin in person. Last year the rabbi told him about the novel. "I read the manuscript and just fell in love with it," says Watt. Though he had no experience in publishing, he decided to start his own house, West Oak Press. The Chicago Cubs and the Kabbalist will be its first title. "We're rolling it out in October," says Watt, "right after baseball season, and primed for Hannukah and Christmas."

When Sherwin finished the book two years ago, kabbalah wasn't the rage it is now. He thinks his timing might help it sell, but has only disdain for Madonna and other nouveau kabbalists. "They don't know anything about kabbalah," he says. "If you had a choice between going to a surgeon who went through medical school and residency and fellowship or a person who learned surgery from an ad on television or from a Web page, who would you go to for information?"

But perhaps one of those pretenders will step in where Sherwin still refuses to tread: on the grass at Wrigley. To lift the Cubs' curse, he says, "you'd have to do a lot of things that I'm not prepared to do. They're all described in the book." For one thing, "to do an exorcism in Wrigley Field, you have to get inside Wrigley Field when no one else is there. You'd have to get permission from the Cubs. They threw out the guy with the goat who wanted to bring them luck, so why would they let me in there?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis, Bettman/Corbis, Sporting News/Getty Images, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB.

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