It’s no small secret that the Chosen tribe has had an enormous impact on the intellectual arena. Not to mention there is a disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Laureates and scientists who have changed (and continue to change) the face of medical history and made the world a safer, calmer, less painful place to be. Not to mention giving it better skin, hair, and nails. As my brother Daniel would say, “Known fact.” But the sports arena . . . maybe not so much.
While the field of nuclear physics became known as the Jewish science, Jewish team sports are pretty much relegated to the math, debate, and chess teams. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, such as boxing and college and professional basketball in the United States— both sports that started out as unregulated practices (such as usury) that were open to Jews. What’s more, both sports rose to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century because of—you guessed it—the Jews.
Since basketball evolved from urban areas often populated by Jewish immigrants, it became yet another ad hoc niche market (unlike college football) where a cerebral but scrappy Jew might thrive. According to basketball historian Ari Sclar, Jewish players such as Barney Sedran, Ira Streusand, and Harry Brill honed their skills at City College and then went on to play in the various professional leagues available to them in eastern cities. Meantime, Yale University got wicked vocal about ending discriminatory practices against Jewish basketball players so that the Bulldogs could win win win. Jew better believe that there was a point in time when sports (and not math) helped Jews find acceptance at schools where ye olde campus quotas kept many Jews out.
Point shaving scandals aside, the burbs were basically the downfall of Jews in semi-professional and professional basketball. As more and more jobs were opened to Jews, playing sports became less important and the point spread became the Sunday spread became the tuchus spread and the science club was won.
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My brothers and I together attended various Jewish day schools in France, then in Northern Virginia, and in Southern Maryland throughout our respective primary and secondary school years. The middle/high school we all attended, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (known as “JDS”), boasted a reasonably well-developed athletic program: They offered three seasons of sports, including soccer, basketball, track and cross-country, volleyball, softball, baseball, and briefly a lacrosse team. We competed against various other small schools, mostly parochial, in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference.
Our most heated rivalries (i.e., the ones wherein we’d actually have some spectators at the games) were against two other Jewish schools: Beth T’Filoh, in Baltimore, and Hebrew Academy, also in the Rockville/Silver Spring area. Whenever we played either of these teams, our gym would be plastered with signs saying, “Let the Jews win!” or “Jews are the best athletes!” The rivalries were traditional, but good humored, and lacking in ferocity. Losing a basketball game, even to one of our “rival” teams, was no biggie—everyone would be over it in a day. Getting a low grade in Talmud—then you had a problem!
Looking back, I recognize and very much appreciate our school’s healthy attitude towards athletics: It was implicitly understood that sports were fun, but not the be-all-end-all of existence. If you wanted to be on a really competitive team, you played outside of school. (A lot of kids were on teams outside of school, either to have access to a more challenging program and possible “scouting,” or because our school didn’t offer a particular sport, as was the case with my brothers and me, who all participated in a neighborhood swim team.)
Nevertheless, despite the lack an obsessive sports culture, students—even ones without natural athleticism—were very much encouraged to try new sports and join teams. “Try out for basketball! We need people, and you might like it,” one of our gym teachers once told me, after seeing me shoot baskets (poorly) in the gym during a free period. I was predictably awful; I have no eye-hand coordination, and spent most of my time during games warming the bench. But I learned a lot from basketball—not only about the sport, but about being part of a team, and the value of keeping in shape year-round. When spring track season came along, I was glad I’d been running laps of the gym all winter long.
Judaism has traditionally held an ambivalent view of sports, dating from Hellenic times, and the “heathen” worship of the body implied by building enormous gymnasiums and participating in nude Olympics. Up to the rise of Zionism and the Maccabiah games, which have gone far to legitimize athleticism within our ranks, Jews have been more comfortable identifying as brainy than brawny. I remain grateful to JDS for embracing a modern and enlightened approach to sports, both for girls and guys (which might have been an issue in some religious schools), and fostering—if not Olympic-level skills—an appreciation for exercising the body as well as the mind.
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.
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.”
What happens when the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av, which memorializes the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, coincides with you learning about the U.S. women’s victory at the 1996 Olympics, arguably the happiest gymnastics moment in my twenty-year relationship with the sport? Should I cry for the Temple? Or flip for the Magnificent Seven?
Unfortunately, the rabbis never bothered with these (and other) questions in their responsa. I was forced to answer them on my own (I flipped and then felt guilty about it, thus covering both my Jewish and gymnastics bases).
The text above is a snippet from the introduction to Heresy on the High Beam. In it, I allude to a story that I never ended up writing out (though I did tell it at my Leotard Optional book launch party, which was just like a “black tie” event except with a lot more spandex). Since I didn’t include the anecdote in any of the essays, I’m giving it away for free here.
During the summer of 1996, I was at sleepaway camp in upstate New York. This camp, a place I attended for nine summers, had strict rules about correspondence — letters only. You weren’t allowed to receive care packages nor were you allowed to make or take phone calls from your parents. This was only feasible in a pre-cellphone, pre-internet age. I know that I’m dating myself here but I don’t mind. I’ll even do the math for you — I’m 29. (Can someone tell me how it works at camps nowadays? Do kids check in on Foursquare when they arrive at the dining hall? And what does the mayor of the mess get? An extra cup of bug juice?)
Anyway, back then I was 13 and was quite sad to be missing the broadcast of theSummer Olympics from Atlanta. The 1996 Olympic Team was my Dream Team, comprised of athletes I had followed ever since I started doing gymnastics at age 8, including Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug. I demanded regular letter updates from my mother back in Brooklyn to know what was going on in the gymnastics competition. She also sent me information about the platform diving since it was similar enough to gymnastics to merit my attention.
During the waning hours of the Ninth of Av, which for Jews is the saddest day on the calendar because it is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, I was summoned to the camp office. Weak from fasting, I trudged over. “You’ve got a phone call,” I was told. “It’s your mother. She said she needs to talk to you about your scoliosis.”
I took the phone, utterly confused. Though my scoliosis had already been diagnosed, my mother and I were both under the impression that it was minor. (In a few months, however, we’d discover that it was severe and would require spinal fusion surgery. But I digress.) Why would she be calling me about that, I wondered.
“Mom?” I said.
“They won!” my mother practically shouted into the phone.
“The Americans! They won the gold medal!” she yelled.
In the background, I could hear my older sister add her two cents. “Tell her about Kerri Strug on the vault!”
This, as many of you probably recall, was the famous vault on a sprained ankle that the squeaky-voiced (and Jewish) Strug did to the bellowing chants of “You can do it!” from her Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi. She vaulted, stuck it and then had to be carried off the podium, helping clinch the first ever team gold medal for the U.S. (Actually, it turned out that they didn’t need her score after all of the numbers were crunched. They would’ve defeated the Russians even if they needed to count a fall from Dominique Moceanu. But forget I mentioned that. Math ruins stories.)
“I wanted to tell you myself,” my mom said, explaining her deception in gettingme to the phone, which I obviously couldn’t openly signal in any way since a campadministrator was watching me carefully. I thanked her tonelessly and hung up.
There was still an hour left to the fast and I had been taught at camp that I should feel sad because the Temple was still burning, at least in a historical sense, and would be for several hours, even after we’d been given the OK to eat.
But as I walked along the path back to my bunk, I wasn’t remotely sad. I was happy, jubilant even. My earlier lethargy had been replaced by joy. I started to skip. Then I stopped. Then I started again. I couldn’t help it. My gymnastics idols had won the gold!
I tried a few more times to rein my feelings in and feel sad for something that happened over two thousand years prior but I couldn’t, not when something so wonderful happened less than 24 hours earlier. And I was so touched that my mother, who used to complain endlessly about driving me to and from gymnastics practice, had gone so far as to lie to tell me about the gold medal as soon as possible.That, I thought, is what family is all about.
And, two days later, the entire newspaper arrived in the mail.
When you tell someone that you used to do gymnastics, she frequently answers that she, too, did it. When she was seven. And hadn’t thought about it in years. The implication is clear — gymnastics is the sort of sport you’re supposed to outgrow. In most instances, you start doing it before you know how to sign your own name and it’s over by your first adolescent growth spurt, joining the childhood hobby trash heap, which in my case includes rollerblading and playing with Barbie dolls.
But in my case, I couldn’t seem to shake the sport unlike the rest of my practice peers, who ended their involvement with gymnastics by the end of high school. There I was, about to start grad school in Creative Nonfiction at twenty-three, still checking the online message boards devoted to the sport daily in order to learn which Romanian gymnast had a new vault or who was injured and or who quit and so on. (The gymnastics community, both online and in real life, is especially tight knit for the same reasons that Jews tend to cluster together — there are so few of us who give a damn.)
As I was trying to figure out the topic for the first essay I wanted to write for my workshop, my mind drifted to the sport, which I hadn’t really written about much (even if I talked about it ad nauseum and watched YouTube videos of competitions from two decades prior merely to admire the way a particular Soviet pointed her toes). Hey, I said to myself, I’m still as obsessed with gymnastics in my 20s as I was at seven. In a very Seinfeldian way, I wondered — What’s that about?
So I wrote my first essay exploring the role of the sport in my life. Like Genesis, I started at the beginning, or at least what I thought was the beginning — my seemingly coming-out-of-nowhere obsession with gymnastics. In those earliest examinations, it seemed like I had woken up one day and decided that I must learn how to flip over my hands. It was a pretty unsophisticated piece, both in writing and insight, and thankfully none of it made its way into any formally published work.
But even in those early efforts, what was becoming very clear was the role that my family’s strict observance of Orthodox Jewish rules was playing in my participation in the sport and how it added fuel to the fire of my obsession. There was the fact that I couldn’t go to a real competitive gym because their afterschool classes started too early for someone with the longer hours of a yeshiva student. Or that leotards posed a religious problem to someone who wore only skirts and longer sleeved skirts outside of the gym. And nearly all competitions took place on Shabbos. When it came to the lower level ones, I simply wasn’t allowed to compete. As for the elite, televised ones—I had to learn how to program the VCR so I could eventually watch them after the stars came out on Saturday night. All of these limitations imposed by Judaism simply made me want to do and think about the sport even more. I like to imagine that if I had been totally unfettered by religious doctrine, I probably would’ve left the sport behind when it became apparent that I simply wasn’t any
good at it.
During one after class drinking sessions at a local bar, my workshop professor, who had been subjected to a semester-long barrage of gymnastics, tipsily looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got this whole Potok thing going on. Except with a weird thing about gymnastics.”
While my personal essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, bears little resemblance to Potok’s novels—fiction vs. nonfiction, male vs. female protagonists, different eras—I’d like to think that perhaps had Potok been enamored with gymnastics instead of the national pastime then maybe Reuven Malter, the main character in The Chosen, would’ve hit his head on the balance beam instead of getting nailed in the eye by a baseball. That would’ve been cool.