When I was a little boy, my parents gave me a book called The Jew in American Sports. It was filled with sagas about Hank Greenberg and Sid Luckman and some low-weight boxing champs — big names, but from an era even before my youth.
I was part of that generation where our parents would point out significant Jews everywhere. "Jack Benny — Jewish," they might say when we were watching TV, or "George Burns. Abe Ribicoff, too." But aside from that book, they rarely mentioned Jewish athletes. Even Sandy Koufax, he of not-pitching-on-Yom-Kippur-even-during-the-World-Series, was not as hallowed a name in our house, say, as Kirk Douglas.
But with the JCC Maccabi Games, a national celebration of Jewish athletics, in Philadelphia this week, I would hope that the stigma of being Jewish and a jock has long since flown by.
It wasn't so long ago that being a Jewish athlete had to be justified in some way. Mark Spitz, who had the record for Olympic gold medals with seven in the 1972 Munich Games before Michael Phelps broke it in the last Olympics in 2008, was always held up as a pre-dental student.
Dentist, Seven Gold Medals. I don't know. Sounds rather tilted toward the "gold" in my book, but maybe not in the heads of post-World War II Jewish parents of baby boomers, who must have thought that sports were OK, if backed up by being at least a dentist. (Spitz, though, never did go to dental school and ended up in broadcasting and real estate.)
I've gotten to reflect on this a bit personally, as I was writing my new book, Daddy's Little Goalie, a funny/sentimental memoir about being the dad of girl athletes. One of the defining moments of my coaching career, such as it was, came in a summer basketball league that my daughters both played in.
With the regular coach away one night, I had to sub. Toward the end of the game, I managed to get both my girls, Ella and Sylvia, as well as Miriam Podheiser, in at the same time — reveling in the idea that it was probably the first time three Jews were on the court at the same time in Haddonfield history.
My girls, though, were not all that amused. They never viewed their Jewishness as an asset or a detriment in playing sports. Ella finds it insignificant that the center on the Davidson College men's team — where she goes to school — is Jewish, 6-foot-10 Jake Cohen, who went to Conestoga High.
On the other hand, lockout notwithstanding, there are only two current National Basketball Association players who are Jewish — Omri Casspi, who is Israeli, and Jordan Farmer, who is half-black (and has just signed on to play with Maccabi Tel Aviv as long as the NBA lockout continues.) My sardonic line is that there should be more Jewish players to compensate for the over-abundance of Jewish NBA owners.
I once did a profile of Ruben Amaro Jr. and traveled to Northeast Philadelphia to visit his mom, Judy. Amaro's parents met when his Latino ballplaying dad met his Jewish mom in the Reading Terminal, where she worked. When I visited her home, Mrs. Amaro, a lovely woman, had plastic slipcovers on the couch and praised her son most effusively for studying hard in high school and going to Stanford, a top university. He was a marginal major leaguer, but has wowed people as an executive. Amaro doesn't talk much about his Jewish roots, but we claim him.
Same with Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers — the two Jews who played in this summer's baseball All-Star Game. According to a story in the New Yorker this summer about another Jewish player, Sam Fuld, there are currently 10 Jewish Major League players. That means if you are Jewish and are in the majors, you have a 20 percent chance of being an All-Star. That's pretty impressive. We may not be ubiquitous, but when we get there, we're pretty good.
Still, that somewhat perpetuates the Mark Spitz/dentist conundrum. If you are Jewish and you can't be really good in the field, then maybe you should be prepared for the Amaro route of changing gears and going into business. Fuld, for instance, also went to Stanford; Scott Schoenweis, who is from Mount Laurel, N.J., went to Duke; Youkilis went to the University of Cincinnati, where his hero, Koufax, went — so that is maybe in a way Jewish Ivy.
And Craig Breslow, the Oakland reliever, has a B.A. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale.A Wall Street Journal commentary called him "the smartest man in baseball, if not the entire world."
I have never shied away from identifying with Jewish athletes and their teams, even in these days of political correctness. I have been a bit confused, for instance, why Native Americans have shied away from nicknames like "Braves" and "Indians" instead of embracing them. I had expressed that to a friend, who countered, "Well, how would you feel if there were a team called the New York Jews."
I answered him the only way I could: "I would root for them."