For those of you with teams in the tournament, or whose brackets are still alive, enjoy the weekend. I’ve been sitting shiva for my team of choice, the Kansas Jayhawks, but thought it would be good to get a basketball-related post out while I had the chance.
In honor of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, which takes place this weekend in Atlanta, I want to commemorate the years when Jewish players were an important part of collegiate basketball. As basketball grew in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century, it became especially popular with working class kids in urban areas where cold winters and a scarcity of sports fields made other sports less accessible. Of course, Jewish boys were no less enamored of the sport than anyone else. In the 1930s, young Jewish talent coming out of New York City established area schools like NYU, CCNY and Long Island University as early powerhouses in the history of the college game, which attracted large audiences well before professional leagues took shape. By the 1950s, Jewish players—some from northern cities and some homegrown—regularly played for universities across the South.
A quick perusal of Vanderbilt rosters from the 1950s, for example, yields Al Weiss, Thomas Grossman and Ralph Schulman. While I don’t know much about Weiss or Grossman and cannot guarantee that they are Jewish, Ralph Schulman is a different story. In an oral history from 2010, Nashville’s Betsy Chernau recalled going to a ZBT dance with Schulman, who she knew from high school. In fact, she met her eventual husband, Stan Chernau, at that party. Stan had grown up in Chicago and played for the freshman basketball team at the time.
The most famous Jewish players at southern schools were probably Lennie Rosenbluth, who led the University of North Carolina to its first national championship in 1957, and Art Heyman, who played for Duke and starred on the school’s first Final Four team in 1963.
By that time, though, the era of Jewish basketball was coming to a close. Both racial integration and the growing popularity of the sport made college basketball more competitive, and Jewish players were soon represented in numbers that better reflect our actual population. While basketball is no longer a niche sport for Jewish athletes, we still see the occasional Danny Schayes, Jake Cohen or Jordan Farmar, and it is good to remember the Jewishness of these players would have been less exceptional in earlier decades.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on oral history techniques at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. While there, I met Ruth Frenkel, who has lived in Conway since 1958. (Full disclosure: her daughter, Ellen Kirsch, heads up Hendrix’s Crain-Maling Center of Jewish Culture and had coordinated my visit). When Ruth told me that her family had escaped from Germany in 1937 and settled in McGehee, Arkansas, I had to hear more. Fortunately, I had my equipment with me on the trip.
So, the next morning, I went over to Ruth’s house and conducted a short oral history interview.
Here is an excerpt:
Ruth’s uncle Adolph was not only in contact with his family, but he managed to visit Germany in advance of the coming war. According to Ruth’s telling, he already knew enough about conditions there to secure visas for the family before his trip.
Even with years of experience in the culture and history of Southern Jews, I have trouble shaking the assumption that rural Jewish communities were cut off from international news and the families they had left in the Old Country, whatever it might be. Stories like Ruth’s constantly remind me that many Jews in the American South, even in the years before television, were keenly aware of the challenges that Jews faced in Europe. While Jewish life in McGehee and other southern towns was marked by geographical isolation, the families who settled there participated in transnational Jewish networks, whether through international aid organizations, the Jewish press or, in this case, family connections.
Last week, we added the final (for now) video clip to the Oklahoma section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The interview excerpt comes from a great conversation I had with Paula and Malcolm Milsten last summer at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. Malcolm, a Tulsa native, and Paula, who moved there before marrying Malcolm in 1959, have both served as temple president. In the clip below, Paula and Malcolm recall a 1984 flood that seriously damaged Temple Israel, as well as the outpouring of support from the entire city in the aftermath of the disaster.
Malcolm, like many people who have contributed their stories to the ISJL Oral History Project, remarks on his congregation’s positive relationship with other local synagogues as well as the general community. These themes—inclusion and cooperation—are common in our interviews. Where someone from outside the South might expect to find stories of isolation, I find, more often than not, exactly the opposite.