In the great disaster-film farce Airplane!, a passenger asks a flight attendant if she has anything "light" to read.
“How ‘bout this leaflet, Famous Jewish Sports Legends?” she replies.
It's a longstanding joke, and maybe something of a frustration amongst the Jews; history has bestowed us with a rep for excelling much more at say, baseball-card collecting, than actually going outside and playing catch.
Yet the universal religion, love of sports, takes root early. One rite of passage for the Bar Mitzvah set was the poring-through of Robert Slater's fascinating Great Jews in Sports, which is actually quite thicker than a leaflet. The enduring joke about this tome, however, is that its weightiness is the result of the inclusion of various "greats" from schlocky, second-tier sports like table tennis and duckpin bowling.
Riffing on both the self-defeating image of Jew-as-schmendrick, and the unintentional hilarity of panegyrics like Slater's, Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame is a new anthology of Jews in sports, with a 21st century wink.
The book, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, offers brief essays by dozens of noted Jewish writers (Simon Schama, Todd Gitlin, David Brooks, Rebecca Goldstein, et alia) in tribute to the folks we expect, like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, but also to quasi-athletes, shit disturbers, owners, and even degenerate, game-fixing gamblers. When the writers manage to add in a ladle of humor, the tributes offer a satisfaction you don't get from the standard jock-sniffery for adolescent sports obsessives.
Take for instance, Don “Moses” Lerman, a competitive eater who expanded his belly by chowing down unholy quantities, in the manner of a dutiful Hebrew, at Chinese buffets. Tamir Goodman, “the Jewish Jordan,” wound up washing out of basketball and inventing “a kind of sweat-absorbent tzitzit" for devout Jews who want to remain Torah-observant while balling.
A remembrance of D.C. sportswriter Shirley Povich (father of Maury) recalls that he once chastised the lily-white Washington Redkins (note the irony there) with this bit of deliciously caustic reportage: “[Cleveland’s] Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”
Contributor and novelist Howard Jacobson imagines that table tennis has a “consolatory, introspective melancholy.” I guess he wasn't going for humor there, but it worked for me.
Biographical sketches of basketball point-shaver Jack Molinas, noted Jewish anti-Semite and chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, the strangely repellent Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, and repentant, transgendered women’s tennis pro Renee Richards (formerly known as Dick Raskind) are good stuff. I hadn't realized basketball legend Nancy Lieberman honed her skills balling with dudes at what’s considered the most intense crucible of playground basketball in the land, Harlem’s Rucker Park. She also briefly made some dough as a basketball hustler. Lieberman ran with a group of teenage boys who’d wander into a different borough, challenge the local hoopsters to a game, suggest a bet, and then offer that they would even play with the white girl they’d just happened to notice hanging out near the court. The wager was irresistible, and quickly lost by the gobsmacked boys’ team to the crafty, intergender, interracial squad.
The journey of some of these Jews, from obscurity to a cult status unknown to most, makes for a charming read. Sidney Franklin, the “Matador from Flatbush,” wound up a mentor to Hemingway. Harold Solomon became tennis’ infuriating master of the lob shot. Daniel Okrent started a nerd frenzy when his "rotisserie baseball" league became the fantasy-sport craze. 5’4” Barney Sedran, active early in the 20th century, became the shortest player enshrined in the NBA Hall of Fame. Hollywood producer Joel “Die Hard” Silver, you almost certainly did not know, was an early devotee of ultimate Frisbee and allegedly gave the sport its name.
Big names are often handled with freshness. One writer recalls a confrontation with Hank Greenberg over whether the league conspired to prevent a Jew from eclipsing Babe Ruth's single-season home-run total of 60 (Greenberg hit 58 in '38). Greenberg allows that some umps cut him some slack, while others did just the opposite.
Sandy Koufax, invited to the Bar Mitzvah of every Jewish boy in America from 1957 to 1970, actually shows up at one of them, a Bat Mitzvah, as described in the book.
Tales of the viciousness encouraged by Raiders owner Al Davis have been recounted before, but they always offer a lurid fun. For instance, shortly after the Raiders clubbed the Jets in an ugly match-up one Sunday, Davis hung a photo of Joe Namath’s busted, bloodied face in his office. One gets the sense that Davis would not have run from the Cossacks, but instead encouraged his fellow Jews to kill them, much as he used to exhort Lester Hayes and John Matuszak to relieve the other squad of the ability to walk.
The remembrances in Jewish Jocks rarely run to more than five pages apiece; it's a breezy read, but not an insignificant one. Assimilation is the subtext in every one of these sketches. Jews trying to fit in, and then to excel; Jews afraid of excelling too much, sometimes; Jews conscious of "acting like Gentiles," i.e., serving as worship-objects in the cult of the body; Jews refusing to pitch or throw spirals on Yom Kippur, even when they eat ham the Sunday after, because that's just what we do these days; Jews kicking ass in a stereotypically Jewish way (i.e. finesse over force); Jews being murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympics, during an island in time when religion isn't supposed to matter, but of course, it never doesn't matter for Jews.
Assimilation is perhaps no more apparent when a Jew changes his or her name. Offensive lineman Ron Mix was once Ron Rabinowitz, the book informs. At some point in the 20th century, Mark Cuban’s lineage changed their surname from Chabenisky.
Some sins are venial, and some cut deeper. It seems that somehow, the misdeeds of Arnold Rothstein, blamed for fixing the 1919 World Series, pale in comparison to those of pro golfer Corey Pavin. Born a Jew, Pavin essentially became a Jew-for-Jesus, and a Christian evangelist.
You can cheat, shave points, and order your boys to stomp on Joe Namath's face, but a line is crossed when you abandon the fold. Becoming a star basketball player, like 6'8" Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, may not seem terribly Jewish. But denying your roots entirely, from lox to chollent, from Shaker Heights to Entebbe, and then repairing to the golf course? I'm sure pretty much every Jew would agree, that's just... goyish.
Jewish Jocks: A reading & signing with co-author Franklin Foer and chapter-subject Art Shamsky of the ’69 “Miracle Mets," Thursday, February 28, 7:30 p.m. JCC Staenberg Family Complex, Mirowitz Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus, 314-442-3299 stljewishbookfestival.org.