Each of our 50 essays focuses on an individual figure. (The closest there is to an exception is Deborah Lipstadt‘s moving piece, which is a memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich; it focuses on the wrestler Yossef Romano.) Which got me thinking: if we were going to write a book called Jewish Teams—or, to keep the alliteration, Semitic Squads—which would make the cut?
Baseball: This one seems more difficult than it is. The Chicago Cubs’ perennial underdog status seems to reflect the Jewish ethos; the Boston Red Sox’ almost messianic redemption seems to reflect the Jewish story (unless it too closely reflects the Christian one!). The Detroit Tigers had Hank Greenberg, the Milwaukee Brewers have Ryan Braun. The San Francisco Giants trace their route back to New York City, and the New York Mets have claimed the mantle of New York teams departed. Which is to say nothing of the Yankees. However, talk of New York of course leads us to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Had this merely been the franchise that hosted Sandy Koufax, dayenu. But, of course, this was the last professional franchise to call Brooklyn home until the Brooklyn Nets debuted a couple of weeks ago. (In fact, for the first couple years of his career, Koufax played home games at Ebbets Field, about five miles from the Bensonhurst neighborhood where he’d grown up.) So, Dodgers it is.
Basketball: After New York, Philadelphia was the hotbed of Jewish basketball: Eddie Gottlieb managed the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association squad (the SPHAs) before becoming coach and then owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors. After they skipped town for San Francisco (they now play in Oakland and are known as the Golden State Warriors), the great Dolph Schayes’ Syracuse Nationals moved down to become the 76ers. Of course, the key phrase here is “after New York.” It was New York Jews who developed the game; Ossie Schechtman who scored the first basket in NBA history while playing for the New York Knickerbockers; and Red Holzman, profiled in our book by Todd Gitlin, who coached the Knicks to two championships 25 years later. Also, Woody Allen is a Knicks fan. This one isn’t even close.
Football: It would be simple to give this to the New York (football) Giants. They won the second-ever NFL championship when five-foot equipment manager Abe Cohen secured them special shoes to play on the iced-over Polo Grounds. They were quarterback Benny Friedman’s team. Even today, they are half-owned by film producer Steve Tisch. But enough with New York, right? Let’s give this to Al Davis’ team, the Oakland Raiders, now owned by his son. The real question is: are the Raiders a point of pride, or a shanda fur de goyim?
Hockey: In Jewish Jocks, Grantland writer Jonah Keri—whose professional focus is baseball—makes a case for his hometown Montreal Canadiens in the course of profiling defender Mathieu Schneider, and it’s a convincing one. The Canadiens have won more championships than any team in any other major sport except for the Yankees—but have not done so for nearly two decades, and these days (especially as a cancelled NHL season looms), they are as much an exercise in nostalgia as anything else. Sound familiar? Besides, hockey is like smoked meat to basketball’s pastrami, right?
Soccer: If we were restricting ourselves to the English Premier League, this would be the Tottenham Hotspurs, whose fans call them “Yids”—in a good way—in part due to their North London environs. But as Simon Kuper makes clear in his Jewish Jocks essay on Bennie Muller, it’s the Dutch squad Ajax that is undeniably the world’s most Jewish soccer club. It’s so Jewish that even non-Jewish players like superstar Johan Cruijff were assumed to be of the Tribe.
Olympics: On the one hand, there is a more or less official Jewish country. (More or less: I don’t mean to start any arguments here.) On the other hand, a different country has, by far, sent the most Jewish medal-winners to various Games. Our pick? The United States of America.
In the movie Airplane, a passenger asks for some “light” reading and is offered “this leaflet, ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends.’” But actually, we have 50 essays and could have easily assigned that many more. (Well, maybe not easily, but they’re out there.)
How well do you know Jewish Jocks? Below is a list of ten of them, none of whom made it into our volume, along with brief descriptions of who they were and are. Can you match the names and the descriptions? Let this quiz serve as proof that there is more than a leaflet to this subject.
1. Amy Alcott
2. Ryan Braun
3. Rod Carew
4. Sid Gilman
5. Fred Lebow
6. Red Klotz
7. Lip Pike
8. Steve Sabol
9. Abe Saperstein
10. Dara Torres
a. As head coach of the San Diego Chargers, developed a pass-heavy offense that serves as the template for contemporary football’s downfield attack.
b. Winner of five golf majors.
c. The impresario behind the Harlem Globetrotters, from its beginnings as a team that genuinely played to compete to the lovable bunch of pranksters you know today.
d. The only non-Jew on this list.
e. A 12-time Olympic gold-medalist swimmer.
f. Longtime head of NFL Films, whose gridiron documentaries shaped the mythological lens through which many see professional football.
g. The first professional baseball player–that is, the first person who was ever compensated for services rendered on the diamond.
h. To this day, the coach of the Washington Generals, the basketball team that ritualistically gets defeated by the Harlem Globetrotters.
i. Founder of the New York City Marathon.
j. Last season’s National League Most Valuable Player.
Answers can be found here. No Googling!
The radio was playing ‘Easter Parade’ and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.
It is old hat to point out that the story of America is of the melting pot, and that the tension is between the assimilators and those who cling to their old identities. But as Roth describes above, the Jewish story in America has represented a distinctive twist on that. Yes, there has been plenty of overcompensating gestures toward Americanness, as all of those Jewish babies named Norman, Lionel, and indeed Irving testify. But just as frequently, and more prominently, Jews have stepped in and changed the culture—have moved the mountain to themselves rather than moving to the mountain—and did so in such exciting and obviously appealing ways that everyone else followed their lead.
In music, Berlin de-Christed Christmas; George Gershwin jazzed up the joint; and the musical was practically invented by Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein, and brought to glorious fruition in the work of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Many non-Jews have made astounding contributions to American popular music, too, of course, but they worked in a rubric devised by these Jews.
Hollywood, famously, was “An Empire of Their Own,” to quote the title of Neil Gabler’s book, a dream-factory created by German Jewish moguls and nurtured into an art form by a group of emigre auteurs who fused Weimar-era seriousness with Yiddish humor. It is amazing to think that 1920s filmgoers who rushed to see The Jazz Singer, the first sound picture ever, saw Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) singing “Kol Nidre” at the climax.
In literature, Saul Bellow created the template for a brash new voice, with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth close behind. Roth himself once identified the swaggering tone of Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March with “the same sort of assertive gusto that the musical sons of immigrant Jews—Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein—brought to America’s radios, theatres, and concert halls by staking their claim to America (as subject, as inspiration, as audience).” When John Updike—a great novelist who is as not-Jewish as they come—wanted to create a sort of alter ego for himself, he created Henry Bech, because obviously his fictional Great American Novelist would have to be a Jew.
What Franklin Foer and I learned in the course of editing Jewish Jocks is that sports, too, is a realm in which Jewish innovations ended up influencing everyone else. The no-look passes and backdoor cuts of basketball trace their lineage to turn-of-the-century New York City, where smaller Jews devised ingenious strategems to defeat squads representing more physically endowed ethnicities; as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein notes in her essay on Barney Sedran (the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame), Coach Harry Baum imported some of those commonplace concepts from lacrosse. In football, Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman (profiled by Rich Cohen in our book) invented the modern quarterback position as we know it; Howard Cosell (whom David Remnick wrote about) was the reason many fans tuned into Monday Night Football, which helped make that sport the massive spectacle it is today; and as Jonathan Mahler notes in our book, Daniel Okrent, by inventing fantasy sports, turned us into a nation of number-crunching Jewish sports fans. Cue the closing strains of “Rhapsody in Blue.”