*Featured Image: Young Men’s Hebrew Association barbell class, San Francisco, 1902. (Magnes Collection of Jewish Art, University of California, Berkeley)
When I was 10, I learned a shocking truth. Joe Namath was not Jewish. Not that I thought of Joe Namath as particularly Jewish. I just assumed most people were Jewish and that assumption extended to all athletes who were not Asian or African American.
I grew up in the Jewish version of The Wonder Years, an alternative universe where just about every person I interacted with was a Jew.
My elementary school had exactly one non-Jewish kid. In 1967–the year I learned that I was part of a tiny minority not especially well-known for its dominance of American professional sports—my entire school, a public school, paused for 6 days to watch news reports about a war in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, I was the kid who always had a ball in his hands. I dribbled a basketball to school every day. I shoveled my driveway on below-freezing-January days to take my 200 shots. I threw footballs through tires my father strung up in our backyard. I threw rubber baseballs against brick walls on which I’d painted strike zones. And I threw fits when I had to go to Hebrew school. My father told me that Sandy Koufax had missed a playoff game rather than play on Yom Kippur. Nice try, Dad. I wasn’t impressed. I just figured Sandy Koufax was more religious than the other Jewish ballplayers.
And then I got the book.
The Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports. (I will pause now to give you time to make a joke about the use of the word “Encyclopedia.”) One person I told about the book years later said, “Shouldn’t it be called The Pamphlet of Jews in Sports?”
It would be a pamphlet if it were a book about Jews in American sports. But this 500-page volume, jam-packed with pictures, is the history of Jews in every sport, in every country. The sports range from table tennis to yacht racing and include American collegiate athletes. But this is not a book review. This is the story of how a book put a fist through the window of my world.
I opened the Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports, which I’m pretty sure my parents bought me to make me proud of being a Jewish athlete, to the introduction. This was the first thing I read: “One of the oldest myths about the Jew was the curious belief that he was a physical weakling and therefore unfit for . . . athletics.”
And then, a few paragraphs later, I read with horror:
“This created a picture of the Jew as a man with bent body, narrow chest, feeble muscles, and pale complexion.”
So many panes of my reality shattering at once, starting with the fact an encyclopedia like this one existed at all. Why did Jews need to be called out separately if just about everyone was Jewish? Then the stereotypes, which were the first anti-semitic words I’d ever encountered. And they were not abstract like the word “kike.” This was a personal attack on the thing that mattered most to me: athleticism, the body as an expression of power and masculinity.
Next came the longest chapter in the book, the one on baseball. Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, and Sandy Koufax. Only three names identifiable to me in the history of American baseball? I’m sorry but I’d never heard of Barney Pelty (“The Yiddish Curver”) despite his reputation as one of the best fielding pitchers of the early part of the 20th century. He played for the St. Louis Browns, a team I’d never heard of.
The Cooperstown Hall of Fame was home to exactly one Jewish ballplayer. At the time of the book’s publication in 1965, Sandy Koufax was still playing and so Hank Greenberg was all alone, nine Tribesmen short of a minyan (the requirement that there be 10 Jewish males present to hold a prayer service).
By the time I got to the chapter on basketball, the world as I had known it ceased to exist. I ran downstairs and asked my mother how many Americans were actually Jews. She said, “About 2%. You’d never know it, though—there are so many of us in the arts and sciences, so many lawyers and physicians.”
And only one pitcher anyone had ever heard of. I returned to my room.
Within months my childhood officially ended. In my religious school class, they showed us “Night and Fog,” a movie no 10-year old should see. I was still digesting my newfound minority status and now I began the lifelong job of trying to comprehend how my people could be the object of such genocidal and historic hatred.
And just in case I thought we lived in an enlightened country and the danger was in the past, my father told me this story: He was in the army in 1943, stationed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for basic training. One of the soldiers in his troop kept staring at a scar my father had on the left side of his forehead just above his temple. Finally, the solider asked him, “Is that where they removed the horns?” My father was the first Jewish person this soldier, a kid from the swamps of Louisiana, had ever met. My father tried to set him straight. But still. It was hard to comprehend how stories like this could be told to people growing up in America in the 20th century.
Several years later, a much less innocent version of me opened the book again. By now, I had begun to see how much irony and pain was contained in the moniker “The Chosen People.” I was inspired by my people’s underdoggedness, proud of my outsider status. It turned out to be a much better fit for a full-grown 5’ 8” high school basketball player. I never stopped looking for Jewish sports heroes, though. The ones who slipped through the gates of DNA and culture and made it to the Promised Land. And neither have my sons. Zack, the oldest, now 32, texted me during the World Series: “Alex Bregman is Jewish.”
A few years ago, we were both watching a 30 for 30 documentary about Julian Edelman. Jewish father. Add him to the list. During the U.S. Open, I discovered Denis Shopavalov, a young blond-haired tennis savant—maybe the next Federer—a lefty from Canada by way of Israel by way of Russia. Jewish mother. We added him to our list, which also included a big bear of a guy you’d never mistake for a Jew on the street: Kevin Youklis. And so it goes.
There are so many awesome themes in this brief story. And underlying it all is, the one simple powerful force at the heart of most (or is it all?) memoirs -the quest for dignity. Being a Jew placed you in a position of needing to prove your worth. I love the historical notion (not that long ago) how we had to band together in ethnic communities- if we couldn’t get that respect from the wider world, at least we could get it from those of our own kind. Of course the danger of only getting it from our own kind is that the larger world, for Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 40s, or Blacks in the US from around 1600 to now, powerful people do not always agree with our right to dignity. But still we fight for it, and write memoirs about it, and strive to understand and respect each other’s need for it.
Author of Memoir Revolution