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.
When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!
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.