On Monday, Doug Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team ever. His new book, The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available.
Writing a book about a Jewish basketball team that had not played a meaningful game in nearly seventy years posed some challenges. The Philadelphia SPHAS were a great basketball team, but by the end of World War II, their best days were behind them. They were no longer significant players in the basketball world. So, I asked myself some questions. How do you find information about a team that no longer exists? Are any of the players still alive? Does anyone still remember them?
As I began working on this book, I realized that I needed to assemble a research plan. I figured newspapers would be a good start. Philadelphia had several papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Record and I felt both would be helpful. But I wanted to see what was written in the cities of their opponents. How was the team covered on the road? What was press coverage like in opposing cities? I then began tracking down newspapers in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington and many cities in the Midwest where they traveled. In addition to the mainstream press, I also targeted the Jewish press to see if the team was covered.
Over the course of several years, I spent many long and lonely hours in front of microfilm machines finding articles and scores. Unfortunately, none of the newspapers I needed were digitized, so I was manually cranking the microfilm reader.
Throughout the course of using the newspapers I learned a few things. The SPHAS and professional basketball were covered by the mainstream press. Some cities did it better than others, but basketball was covered. At that time, basketball was not the most predominant sport but it did receive coverage.
Philadelphia newspapers covered the SPHAS extremely well. That was partially due to team manager Eddie Gottlieb and his relationship with the newspapers and local reporters. When the SPHAS played at home, the Philadelphia newspapers gave ample coverage, often with a good-size article and the box score. When the SPHAS played on the road, the wire service would provide a brief write-up, maybe a few paragraphs. A box score was usually included.
Unlike today, however, the articles had no quotes. They were simply write-ups of the games. They were extremely descriptive, and in some cases would go play-by-play or point-by-point. The writing style was different and reporters embellished the action and gave you a sense of what was happening. The lack of quotes did not give any first-hand accounts of the games and drama unfolding.
I also learned that the Jewish press did not cover basketball too much. Baseball with Hank Greenberg, boxing with Barney Ross, and basketball with Nat Holman received the only sports press. Surprisingly,the SPHAS were not covered by Jewish newspapers.
Despite some of the challenges and omissions, the newspapers proved to be a great source of information about the SPHAS and professional basketball during the 1920s to 1940s.
Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
When I told friends and colleagues that I was researching and writing a book about a Jewish basketball team, I was often met with a hesitation or a stunned look. Why are you writing a book? Well, many people write books, I would often answer, and I wanted to take a crack at it myself.
No, the most common questions were the following: Did Jews play basketball? Was it a professional team? Was the team good? The answer is yes, yes, and most definitely yes.
Most sports fans today, whether they are serious or casual, hardly see any Jews participating at the highest level. But, Jews were an important part of the early history of sports in America, particularly basketball. Invented in 1891, basketball spread quickly and was soon played in YMCAs and gyms throughout the country. One place where basketball caught on immediately was urban areas.
At the turn of the twentieth century, cities in the Northeast were dominated by immigrants, particularly Jews. Jews left a difficult life in Eastern Europe and immigrated to the United States where they settled in cities. Their lives were often difficult in this new country and many parents worked all the time to provide for their children. Conversely, these children were interested in becoming American and one way to do so was through sports.
Living in urban areas and tenements did not leave many options for sports. Neighborhoods and apartments were crowded. There were no ball fields to play baseball. But there was this new game of basketball. It did not require much, a ball and a peach basket. It was easy to improvise. One could roll up rags or newspapers to substitute for a ball. A post with a basket or the fire escape ladder could serve as a basket.
With that, basketball began in urban areas. Before long, Jews were participating and basketball was quickly becoming a Jewish game. Soon the game spread to Philadelphia, and in 1918, a group of high school friends wanted to keep playing after graduation. So they formed a team, which was named the SPHAS, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, after the association gave them uniforms in exchange for publicity. Little did they know, but their team would still be playing four decades later before ceasing operations in 1959.
Of all the Jewish basketball players and teams, none could match the SPHAS. They were simply the best Jewish basketball team. The team’s heyday was from 1933-1946 which coincided with a Depression, rise of anti-Semitism, and a World War. They played at the same time that Hank Greenberg was one of baseball’s best players, and Barney Ross was boxing’s top draw.
The SPHAS won 7 titles in thirteen years in the American Basketball League (1933-1946), which was the top professional basketball league in the country. They traveled across the East, South and Midwest, and the players challenged racial stereotypes of weakness and inferiority as they boosted the game’s popularity. In the 1950s, the team traveled with the famed Harlem Globetrotters. Their legacy was tremendous as they helped grow the game to what we know today.
When I reflect on those questions I received from friends five years ago, I could not have imagined the journey it took to write the book. And I can say with confidence, that Jews played basketball and the SPHAS were the greatest Jewish basketball team ever.
“But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.”
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Earlier this week, Michael Levy wrote about Jews and Chinese food and what Chinese people think about Jews. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Central China is a strange place. Unlike the globalized, westernized cities on the coast, the land-locked, impoverished provinces of the interior rarely get foreign visitors. These provinces are home to the laobaixing, or “old hundred names,” a euphemism for the billion-or-so Zhou Six Packs I got to know while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Among the laobaixing, foreigners are assumed to be missionaries. This is because most of them are missionaries: Mormon, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, you name it. There’s not much reason to visit places like Guizhou, so most people go only if God tells them to.
The result is a blanket assumption among the locals that white folks are all Christian. “Do you love Jesus?” was often the first thing a new friend would ask me. This would be followed by “can you use chopsticks?”
I can use chopsticks. But I do not love Jesus. “Nope,” I would always reply when asked if I was Christian. “I’m Jewish.”
This would always result in stunned silence. The legend of the Jews has penetrated all parts of China. “Ah!” I would hear. “A Jew! Just like Comrade Karl Marx!” I would nod, and wait for the line that would always follow. “And Einstein.”
So it was that I was imbued with a patina of Communist purity and mathematical genius.
These stereotypes earned me a lot of respect in China. They earned nothing but a look of disgust when I mentioned them to my waiter in Buddha Bodai on Mott Street in the Manhattan Chinatown. “Marx was as bad as Hitler,” he told me before heading off to place my order. Buddha Boddai has a Kosher certification hung proudly in their window, and they do a surprisingly good job combining Jewish and Chinese traditions. My Marx-hating waited brought me a delicious General Tsao’s “chicken,” a passable “shrimp” dumpling, and a wonderfully spicy “veg steak with Chinese broccoli.”
When I finished eating, my waiter offered some parting words: “Marx really hurt China, but I don’t blame Jews. Actually, you guys are my biggest tippers.” He smiled and headed back towards the kitchen.
So keep tipping well, my Jewish brothers and sisters. It will save us all a lot oftsuris.
Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion is now available.
On Monday, Michael Levy wrote about Jews and Chinese Food. He is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.
My last post began with a list of stereotypes about Jews. We tell jokes; we like Chinese food; etc. While living and teaching in central China a few years ago, I ran into a few stereotypes that were new to me. I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guizhou Province teaching English at a university WAY off the beaten path. I was one of a small handful of foreigners –- and the only Jew — in a province of 40 million people. My students could be forgiven for a few strange ideas about their guests.
Thus, when one of my students handed in a paper with the title “GREAT JEW” I knew I was in for a few surprises. The letter summarized the status of world Jewry:
Jew in the world:
There are 14 million Jews in the world, 5 million of them are in the Israel, and 6 million in the USA. They have done so many great things for people in the world. They good at jokes, doing business and managing money so that there are a large number of Jewish tycoon in the world…. In the Wall Street which is the controlling financial interests of the United States, it is the world of Jews who dominate the “street.” Jews deserve careful study though their history is pitiful.
The student also included a bullet-point list of facts she had gleaned from her textbooks and from local newspapers:
* Einstein is the greatest scientist in the world
*Every Jew has received high education for their family tradition
* Phelps, a swimming Jew, will win many gold medals in the Beijing Olympic Games
Chinese in rural Guizhou Province have some interesting ideas about Jews. What about Chinese in the slightly less bucolic neighborhoods of Manhattan? I decided to test the Jewish knowledge of the staff at Eden Wok on 34th Street, the self-proclaimed “finest Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant and sushi bar.”
First, a word on the food: meh. I really wanted to like the food more, if for no other reason than out of respect for the effort. Truly kosher Chinese food is as strange an idea as Phelps the swimming Jew.
Pork, after all, is to Chinese food what cheese is to Italian food. You take it away, and you’re left with nothing but starch. Still, Eden Wok makes a solid lo mein.
Next, a word on the staff: friendly and — happily — quite knowledgeable about Judaism. Vicky, my waitress, was from Guangdong province. She never met a Jew in China, but “loves Jewish customers.” I showed her my student’s letter and she giggled. “I hope you went easy on her,” she told me. She also gave me a free egg roll.
Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
My therapist once told me a joke: “Chinese culture is old, perhaps 4000 years. But Jewish culture is 1000 years older! The only question is: how did we survive for 1000 years without Chinese food?”
He’s a great therapist, but a lousy comedian. Nevertheless, our interaction—like a Chinese box—was layered. We were knee-deep in stereotypes, each containing a grain of truth. Jews are either stand-up comedians or failed stand-up comedians. Jews are either in therapy, therapists themselves, or both. Jews love Chinese food.
I fit all these stereotypes. The last one is particularly true, in large part because I lived in China for three years, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guizhou Province (drop a finger on the dead-center of China, and you’ll likely hit this remote location).
It was a surreal experience. I was one of the only foreigners my students had ever seen, and they reacted to me the way I would react to Chewbacca walking into a classroom. I was stared at. I was feared. I was recruited to play on a university basketball team (the only Jew to ever truly earn the nickname Shaq). I was told I must play Santa Claus in a Walmart.
When things settled down and I was a bit more integrated into the community, I got down to my actual job. I taught grammar and vocabulary to hundreds of kids from tiny farming villages. They, in turn, taught me how to eat everything from millipede to chicken talon. . . and beyond.
Unlike David Sedaris—possibly the worst traveller on earth—I fell in love with the food in China. Notice I did not write “Chinese food.” This is deliberate. “Chinese food” is what I eat every Christmas Eve in America. It is lo mein, wonton soup, and moo shu. It is General Tsao. “Food in China” is not remotely like this. Not remotely.
I love food in China. I also love Chinese food. I also try to keep kosher. Can these three statements co-exist? Over the next week, I will be blogging about my attempt to find the restaurant in New York that best fits all three criteria. As Karl Marx—the most beloved Jew in all of China— once wrote, “Working people of the world unite and find good Kosher Chinese food!”
Check back all week for more posts from Michael Levy, author of the recently published Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.
“And I want to say something to you on this day, the Ninth of Av: Those who will succeed in escaping this catastrophe will live to experience a festive moment of great Jewish joy: the rebirth and establishment of the Jewish state. I do not know whether I myself will live to see it–but my son will. I am certain of this, just as I am certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.”
–Ze’ev Jabotinsky, August 10, 1938
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Earlier this week, Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia, and telling jokes at church. Her new book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, is now available.
My husband and I are white people. We shop at R.E.I. for the clothes. We have cousins on both sides who are vegans and have attended more than one bean-filled wedding reception. We could move to Dubuque, Iowa, or Bangor, Maine, if we wanted to, without anyone wondering what on earth we were thinking. If pulled over by a traffic cop for a moving violation, we await him at our driver’s side window with the wide-eyed innocent-looking expectation that the exchange will proceed cordially and without undue suspicion. We are well-acquainted with the many bonuses of what is known on the street as White Skin Privilege.
We were born just this side of the mid-20th-century, to Jewish parents, when ethnicity was on the verge of being accepted as an acceptable American lifestyle. Jerry Lewis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Danny Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were major Jews of our childhood. We weren’t told about the Holocaust.
In 1980, my husband Don Samuel and I, newlyweds, moved to Rome, a northwest Georgia hill-town that hadn’t gotten the news yet that ethnic people were just regular folks. “Where y’all from?” everyone asked us. Our new neighbors asked us, the landlord asked us, the Big Boy’s waitress asked us, the filling station man asked us. The people down the street whose car had a bumper sticker reading, “Oil Yes, Jews No,” did not ask us.
We’d moved to Rome, Georgia, from Athens, Georgia, after Donny graduated from the UGA School of Law, but our Rome questioners — “Where y’all from?” — felt perplexed rather than satisfied when we replied, “Athens.” “Athens?” said the Big Boy’s waitress, squinting at us. “Y’all Greeks?”
A variation on “Where y’all from?” was offered by citizens who had once accidentally seen a Woody Allen movie. Those people knowingly asked, “Y’all from New York?” It made us not want to confess that Donny was from New York.
No matter how we hedged, saying we were from Athens, mentioning that I was born in Macon and that Donny used to work in Brunswick and that we’d gotten married in Savannah, everyone had a sure-fire follow-up question. “Well, what church do y’all go to?”
Then we had to say it: “We’re Jewish.”
On Monday, Melissa Fay Greene shared the story behind the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Twenty years ago, as I set out upon my very first book tour, for Praying for Sheetrock—my 1991 work of nonfiction about the heyday of a corrupt ‘courthouse gang’ on the flowery coast of Georgia and the belated rise of civil rights there—I discovered I had a line in my book-talk that only Jews laughed at.
It was unintentional on my part. I thought it was funny; I didn’t realize until I criss-crossed the country with it, like a stand-up comic, that it wasn’t funny to non-Jews.
The scene: “the blazing summer nights of 1975, as darkness dropped…” when the rural black citizens of McIntosh County, enraged by the police shooting of an unarmed man and by the deliberate neglect of the all-black public school system by the all-white school board, stormed across the sand parking lot, illuminated by bare light-bulbs dangling from wires strung through the live-oak trees, and crowded into the weather-beaten Shorters Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I read aloud from my book: “Every pew in the church was packed; well-dressed people lined the walls and crowded into the rear of the church; and a choir in royal-blue satin robes led the congregation in rich and heartfelt music. The choir held hymnals without looking into them and swayed heavily back and forth in unison, stamping once as they leaned left, stamping again as they leaned right, and the congregation in full voice joined in.”
Then I told a story that was not in the book. “Whenever I attended one of these political prayer meetings,” I told my audience, “I was always seated up front, an honored guest, the only white person in the room. It was a disadvantage because I couldn’t really see what was going on, without constantly looking over my shoulder. One night the minister, to be especially welcoming to me, invited me to come up and lead a hymn. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t,’ I stammered, ‘for two reasons: first, I can’t sing like THAT, like these incredible voices. And secondly, I’m Jewish and I don’t know the words.’
“’Welcome to you!’ cried the tall skinny perspiring coal-black reverend, dressed in a tight-fitting coal-black suit like a mortician. ‘The black and the white, the Greek and the Jew, we’re all children of Christ.”
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November 2001, I pulled up to the gates of the compound of the Beta Israel people (disparagingly known as Falashas [strangers]), hoping to be admitted, along with my brand-new daughter, to Shabbat morning services.
Arriving among these religiously-observant and destitute people, of rural origin, by taxi rather than on foot was likely to make a poor impression. But I’d known no one in the area to ask for Shabbat hospitality and my hotel stood half a city away from this dusty ramshackle neighborhood of mud huts and corrugated tin roofs. It was my first trip to Ethiopia. I’d flown seven thousand miles to report for the New York Times Magazine on conditions among some of Africa’s orphans of HIV/AIDS (which eventually gave rise to my book, There Is No Me Without You (Bloomsbury, 2007) and to meet a five-year-old girl named Helen, whom my family was adopting.
We were an American-Jewish family of seven, living in Atlanta; we had four children by birth and one by adoption from Bulgaria. The year the children were 6, 9, 13, 17, and 20, I lingered at the sunny kitchen table one morning and read in the newspaper that the United Nations was calling Africa “a continent of orphans.” Fourteen to twenty-five million children had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. I read those pages not only as a concerned world citizen, but as a journalist, and as a mother aware that a perfectly good twin bed upstairs was going unused. “Could I write about this?” I wondered. I’d only stepped foot in Africa once, in Morocco, in my 20s. “Can you adopt from Africa?” I also wondered. “Can you adopt one of the fourteen to twenty-five million orphaned children?”
Aware of Israel’s airlift of 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 in Operation Moses (Mivtzah Moshe) and another 15,000 in Operation Solomon (Mitzvah Shlomo) in 1991, I located online an organization called the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry [NACOEJ], which helped support Jewish organizations in Addis. I phoned their New York office and asked, “Are any of the Jewish children orphans in need of adoption?”
The answer was yes, there were orphans, but no, they were not available for adoption. NACOEJ’s mission was to bring the people to Israel. They told me of an American orphanage in Addis, and I phoned there next, asking the same question in reverse: “Are any of the orphans Jewish?”
“They may be,” I was told, “but many don’t know what they are. We have a quarter-of-a-million orphans here. Is that your only criteria?”
By November I was on a plane to Addis: the New York Times had commissioned a story; and my family had been matched with Helen, a tiny, bright, and darling (non-Jewish) girl who’d lost her father when she was two, and her doting mother just a few months earlier.
Our first afternoon together in Addis Ababa, I took Helen shopping for new clothes, including shul clothes, and watched as she stepped out of her dusty orphanage jean overalls and into a complicated plaid wool jumper, a white blouse with a lace collar, and a royal blue corduroy jacket with brass buttons. Curly yarn sheep were affixed to the jumper and jacket. The ensemble seemed designed to be worn in Scotland at Christmastime rather than on a dry African plateau in 90-plus-degree heat to a jerry-rigged local synagogue. While I paid for the outfit and a new pair of sandals, she hopped beside me in excitement.
Helen wore her new clothes that Saturday morning as our taxi parked outside the Jewish compound. Half a dozen young men—guards—surrounded our car and looked through the windows. Helen scooted under my arm in shyness. Our driver got out of the car to explain that I was an American Jew hoping to attend services. Arguments seemed to follow, with a lot of gesticulating, while more young men jockeyed for a closer look at us through the windows. I rolled down the window to greet them with my paltry number of Hebrew words. I displayed my Chai necklace, but they turned away. The discussion grew heated outside the car, until the taxi driver got back in to report that the guards did not think I looked Jewish. The child looked Jewish, but I did not. If only I’d brought a letter from a rabbi or from the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, they would have welcomed me happily; but, without anyone vouching for me, they were obliged to turn me away.
In America, I look Jewish. In Ethiopia, I did not look Jewish. In Ethiopia, Helen looked Jewish. But, in America, Helen does not look Jewish. She has borne this bravely, while embracing Judaism with a full heart.