A new era of Jewish sports heroes
It’s gotten thicker,” said a colleague when I flashed him my review copy of Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He was, of course, referencing the old joke, told in some variation or another: Question: “What’s the thinnest book ever written?” Answer: “Jewish sports heroes.” There lies some historic truth in the jest. In 1948 when Harold Ribalow convinced Bloch Publishing to print The Jew in American Sports, Hebraic boxing legend Barney Ross (included in Jewish Jocks) wrote in the book’s preface that he “wonder[ed] that any publisher should consider [the book] sufficiently salable to risk the publications costs.”
Ribalow’s compendium provided glorious sketches of 28 athletes. Sixty-four years later Jewish Jocks offers 50 different writers on 50 different sports figures. I guess it has gotten thicker.
Or is pro-sports finally post-Semitic? When I grew up, it used to be that anytime anyone in our family noticed a potentially Jewish-sounding name in a sports page — Cohen, Shapiro, Grossman, or a last name suffixed with a -stein, -berg, -taub, etc. — we’d postulate with cautious optimism: “Is he Jewish?” But since then, haven’t enough sons and daughters of Abraham come along that it’s not a really a big deal any more if someone in the NFL, NBA, or MLB is Jewish?
To wit, I offer a tipping point. During an Aug. 16, 2006, Red Sox telecast (I urge you to YouTube this now), actor/comedian Denis Leary joined the broadcast booth for some banter at which time he was informed that Kevin Youkilis, the Sox first baseman, was Jewish. On cue, Youkilis made a defensive gem, a diving stop of a hard ground ball in the hole on the second base side, then neatly tossing to Curt Schilling covering first base to complete the out. Leary erupted in a hilarious tirade against Mel Gibson, whose inebriated Jew-hate rant toward a California police officer only two weeks earlier conclusively bestowed the rank of anti-Semite upon the Aussie actor. “Where’s Mel Gibson now, huh?” crowed Leary, channeling a little Sam Kinison. “He’s in rehab, and Youkilis is at first base! Alright, Mel? You happy, Braveheart? You see that grab, Mel?” It goes on for a good several minutes.
The sight of the hulking, hyper-competent, World Series champion Youkilis set against the sounds of the honest, edgy, Irish Leary’s riff said clearly to me: it’s over. Jews in sports are no longer a surprise
So when I heard about Jewish Jocks, I hoped for a book that took us beyond retributive footnotes like the Leary-Youkilis-Gibson incident, or the mournful athletic-less linkage to the Munich Games, or the lame taunting canard that Jews don’t play sports. For this, Jewish Jocks gets my bracha. The editors — Franklin Foer (the once former, now current editor of The New Republic) and Marc Tracy (staff writer for The New Republic, formerly at Tablet) — do an admirable job, earning automatic inclusion in any Judaic collection and a respectable place in any sports bibliography.
Jewish Jocks delivers hall of fame writers and writing. It’s a staggering collection of awards winners; Pulitzers, Mann Bookers, bestsellers, editors-in-chief. Behold household literati like Buzz Bissinger, Stephen Dubner, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jane Leavy, and David Remnick, to name-drop a few; each members of the tribe reflecting on their own. Really, for sheer literary and journalistic power in 2013, it doesn’t get much better.
If I had to choose a personal favorite, it’s Kevin Arnovitz’s short, sharp, vivid tale of Nancy Lieberman, the pioneering women’s basketball player, who took the A train from Far Rockaway to Rucker Park on a regular basis, accompanied by boys you don’t meet in Hebrew school — boys who became lifelong friends — who were welcomed, kind of, by Nancy’s mother for some kitchen table hospitality knowing that these guys assured her daughter’s safe passage. I wonder if that house in the Rockaways still stands, after Sandy.
What’s compelling about a book like this is that ultimately it’s a book about us. Sports marketers call it “basking in reflected glory.” Now that that book of Jewish sports heroes has indeed gotten thicker, maybe in sports we should take more credit more often. Like Linsanity did for Asian-Americans, we could use a little more Jew-sanity. Let’s do it not only when gymnast Aly Raisman chooses “Hava Nagila” for her floor exercise in proud defiance at the 2012 Summer Olympics. That was beautiful. But see it everywhere in sports. See it like Michael Phelps does; he knows that there’s no way he gets his record eight gold medals in the 2008 games, passing Mark Spitz, if not for the super-mensch effort in the anchor leg of 4x100m freestyle relay from Jason Lezak, a Jew.