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.
I’d like to preface today’s post by saying that while I *wish* this were some sort of April Fool’s Day joke, it is not.
A friend just sent me this article about a controversial art installation in Germany. In this installation, now informally dubbed “Jew in a Box,” visitors can see, encased in glass, a living person of Jewish descent. They can ask that person questions about what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany, about Jewish beliefs – anything they have ever wanted to ask a Jewish person, they can pose the question to a Jew in a box.
When my friend (who is not Jewish) sent me this article, her email asked me just one question: “How do you feel about this?”
My immediate response to her, after reading the article, was “SO FREAKING WEIRD.”
There is something deeply unsettling to me about this exhibit – this stark presentation of “us” and “them”; a venue where people are literally put in boxes. I read the curator’s rationale, about how this will catch folks’ attention, and be in their face, and give Germans a chance to interact with a real, live Jew.
But is this the sort of interaction we want?
Why not actual interaction? Something more organic, and less disparate? Jewish docents, perhaps? Moderated conversations? An exchange, even if it’s still in-your-face? As an educator, it seems counter-intuitive to me to humanize someone, or some group, by putting an actual wall between people. It seems to me that this does not emphasize unique-ness, but other-ness. And isn’t that the problem Germany is still painfully recovering from, decades later?
I also had to wonder why on earth someone would get in the box. Who would volunteer? Luckily, the article covers this, with a volunteer Jew-in-a-box describing why he is participating in the installation:
“With so few of us, you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece,” volunteer Leeor Englander said. “Once you’ve been `outed’ as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust and so on.”
I considered this. After all, I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I have been several people’s FJF (First Jewish Friend, y’all). I’ve had to answer questions about Jewish culture and religion, although I’m quick to point out that I can’t speak for all Jews. In other words, yes. I do understand what it’s like to feel ‘outed’ as a Jew in a place where we are so few. I do understand what it means to “feel inevitably like an exhibition piece,” as the installation volunteer puts it – but that doesn’t mean I would want to actually be an exhibition piece.
Still – this exhibition is resonating with some folks, even as it irks others. And here’s the real kicker, in case you didn’t already click on the link and read the whole article already – what museum is hosting this exhibit?
The Jewish Museum. And the curator, Miriam Goldmann, is Jewish.
By the way, the actual name of the exhibit is “The Whole Truth: Everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” and in addition to live people in boxes, it includes installation such as a wall posing the question How Can You Recognize a Jew?, with hats and yarmulkes and “traditional Jewish garb” on display in front of the wall.
The whole truth? How can you recognize a Jew? It reminds me of the last time I went to a zoo, and the various species of birds and monkeys were being described. The more I read about it and the more I thought about it, the more my initial reaction seems to sum it up: SO. FREAKING. WEIRD.
And more than that – a little frightening.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…
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!