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A Pantheon of Jewish Boxers, Ballplayers, and even Bullfighters
by Mikhail Horowitz
Reviewed in this essay: Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. TWELVE Books, 2012, 285 pages.
True, the Book of Kings intimates that Jehu, the son of Jehoshaphat, was either a passionate golfer or NASCAR racer (“The driving is the driving of Jehu, for he driveth furiously”). True, the Book of Genesis, as so many have dryly noted, proposes that God created the heavens and the earth in the Big Inning. Notwithstanding these and other biblical citations — and the rich history of the Tribe in the annals of American sports — when non-Jews think of Jews they still tend to imagine bookkeepers rather than boxers, scholars rather than shortstops, comedians rather than cornerbacks.
Which is a pity, because, as the fifty contributors to Jewish Jocks make abundantly clear, excellence in all manner of athletics, on all sorts of playing fields, especially in the goldene medine of the 20th century, has been a hallmark of the Jewish experience. Nor has this excellence been confined to the playing field, or ring, or tennis court, but it has flourished on the sidelines and sports pages, in the boardrooms and broadcast booths as well. And nor has it manifested in entirely benevolent ways, as illustrated by Ron Rosenbaum’s essay on Arnold Rothstein, one of the ganefs in the fixing of the 1919 World Series, and Chad Millman’s profile of the extremely gifted, extremely crooked basketball star Jack Molinas.
The brainchild of two mainstays of the New Republic, staff writer Marc Tracy and editor Franklin Foer, Jewish Jocks contains the most literate sportswriting since John Updike (not a Jew) waxed eloquent over Ted Williams (ditto). The book has an all-star roster of novelists, historians, and journalists that includes Simon Schama, Ira Berkow, David Remnick, Jane Leavy, Judith Shulevitz, Todd Gitlin, Shalom Auslander, and Franklin’s brother, Jonathan Safran Foer. Their subjects are equally diverse, ranging from Hall of Famers (Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg) to the once famous, now nearly forgotten (Daniel Mendoza), to those whose promise, thanks to kismet or mazl, was never fulfilled — such as Tamir Goodman, the Baltimore Talmudic Academy student-hoopster who once was touted as the “Jewish [Michael] Jordan.”
Any book that considers Jews as jocks must also consider jocks as Jews, that is, the relationship, more often than not fraught, of these athletes to their Jewishness. For some, it is something to take pride in: Neither Koufax nor Greenberg was particularly observant, but when they refused to play on the High Holy Days, despite the importance of the games, they sent a message to kol yisrael that they valued something greater than baseball.
For others, their particular skills and competitive spirits are a way to show the world that Jews are not the Universal Victim — that they can, quite literally, beat the goyim at their own game. In Schama’s profile of Mendoza, one of the greatest pugilists of the 18th century, the young boxer imagines the rough-and-tumble gentiles of the era being disabused of any notions of Hebrew feebleness by a visit to a certain quarter of London: “Let them come to the Mile End Road and there would be no shortage of dark-haired lads ready to give the lie and pretty quick too to the commonplace that his race were nothing better than knuckle-cracking misers, wispy-bearded dotards, shuffling hawkers of oranges and rags with greasy ringlets falling down their faces.” Likewise you can feel the rage of Barney Ross, who bites back, in Buzz Bissinger’s hurtling prose (in which one sentence continues for nearly six pages), as a “furious teenager who beats the pulp out of the Irish and Italian and Polish kids swooping into his neighborhood like dive bombers with the cries of ‘dirty sheenies’ and Barnet despite often giving up forty pounds and four inches returns fire by saying he smells the stink of skunks.”
Still others in these pages have a relationship to their Jewishness that is tenuous at best, angrily denied at worst. Golfer Corey Pavin might have become the first Jew to win the U.S. Open were it not for the fact that four years previous to his 1995 victory he was baptized as a born-again Christian. Likewise, the story of Sidney Franklin (born Frumkin), a kid from an Orthodox household in Park Slope who improbably became a matador in the bullrings of Spain and Mexico, is one of “sadness and evasion,” according to Tom Rachman. Franklin justifies his wearing of a crucifix because “the bulls are Catholic”; in his autobiography, Bullfighter from Brooklyn, he “avoids references to his Jewishness, turning his parents into the white-bread ‘Pa’ and ‘Mom.’” Yet over and beyond his prowess (which was praised by Hemingway) and his undeniable cojones, one wonders if it was the very fact of Franklin’s Jewishness that guaranteed his fame as a torero, imbuing him with a singular mystique. (His ambivalence toward his Jewish roots was complemented by a vacillation over his sexual identity; Sidney, who had no qualms about entering the Plaza de Toros, could never summon the nerve to leave the closet.)
Then there was Bobby Fischer, chess player nonpareil and poster boy for anti-Semitic paranoids. Fischer’s mother was Jewish, and he hated her, along with “her politics, priorities, relationship to money, [and] religion,” as Jonathan Safran Foer informs us; Fischer also hated women, Russians, Israel, the U.S. government, and, for good measure, himself. The “profoundest student of chess who ever lived” was also the game’s most profoundly fucked-up champion — no small distinction, given the psychological case histories of so many of the great grandmasters. (Paul Morphy, the 19th-century American chess genius with whom Fischer is most often compared, famously descended into psychosis, convinced that people were trying to swindle or poison him, or, at the very least, mess with his clothes.)
Foer goes further, asking whether chess is “an inherently paranoid game.” He wonders if Fischer’s omnipotent sway over 64 squares was inextricable from the obsessive fury that led him to declare, “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews,” and “The Jews want to drive the elephant to extinction because the trunk of an elephant reminds them of an uncircumcised penis,” and, as Foer puts it, other “talking points [that] wouldn’t have worked well around the Seder table.” Foer is hardly the first to consider the relationship of insanity to mastery of chess, but he does so with more compassion, perhaps, than Fischer deserves. He finishes his essay by asking, “What do we do with the unnatural mind? Praise it when it’s beautiful, excuse it when it’s ugly? . . . Or should we write off the unnatural mind in all cases? Should we put it on a pedestal to observe, in a cage to protect ourselves from it—put it in a book?”
Finally, there are a couple of profiles in which the subject’s Jewishness barely figures. Kevin Arnovitz’s excellent and inspirational portrait of the basketball Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lieberman does not take her heritage into account at all, aside from one passing reference to “the Jewish girl” (who was recently reported to have become a born-again Christian). Similarly, Lawrence Summers offers no reflection on his subject, the “moon-balling” tennis player Harold Solomon, as a Jew, except for one allusion to the doubles-playing “Bagel Twins” (as Solomon and Eddie Dibbs, a Christian Lebanese, were nicknamed). So? By me it’s okay. It’s actually a relief to read an essay that simply considers these athletes as athletes and asks us to acknowledge that as the principal thing that makes them worth reading about.
But other motifs keep popping up from essay to essay, including the question of what, exactly, constitutes a Jewish “trait” to begin with? One recurrent answer, at least in the sphere of sports, seems to be the application of brains over brawn. “They could beat you with their fakes and their slipperiness; they played with finesse rather than physicality,” the editors write in their introduction, adding that this was the standard perception of Jewish athletes in goyish press accounts, which could be read either as “flattering testaments to the intelligence of the Jewish people” or as a veiled way of saying that Jews were deceitful, subversive, and unmanly. But while the brawny Jewish athlete is not exactly rara avis (the wrestler Bill Goldberg, the offensive lineman Ron Mix, the martial arts master Harvey Sober), it is true that one of the Tribe’s greatest gifts to the wide world of sports has been innovation and creative thinking. As the coach of the Boston Celtics in their glory days, Red Auerbach was the first to employ a “sixth man” off the bench on a regular basis; Sid Luckman’s ability to navigate the complexities of the T formation established him as the NFL’s “first modern quarterback”; the late Marvin Miller, the toughest negotiator this side of Yahweh, was the driving force behind the liberation of professional baseball players from indentured servitude — the list goes on.
The profiles in Jewish Jocks range in length from three to ten pages, and most of them feel exactly right, well-wrought miniatures that pack in a wealth of details, ruminations, historical context and human interest. If I had to kvetch (and why not—it’s the one sport I excel at), I’d note that a few of the pieces do feel slight (e.g., the profile of Art Shamsky, which tells us a good deal more about the Miracle Mets of 1969 than about its subject), and that here and there, a ball slips under the glove of the editors, as when Ira Berkow writes of an inside-the-park home run that Hank Greenberg hit against the Cleveland Browns—quite the trick, considering that those Browns, as opposed to the ones in St. Louis, were a football team.
I’d be remiss to skip mention of the black-and-white portraits by Mark Ulriksen that accompany eighteen of these essays. Each illustration is a perfect complement to the essay it’s paired with and illuminates something essential about its subject. The torment to which Bobby Fischer subjected his opponents is captured by his fixed, pitiless glare across the chessboard; but his own torment is also suggested by the way he presses his hands to his head, as if to keep it from exploding. Sidney Franklin towers over a tiny bull, as if to emphasize not only his skill in the corrida, but his tendency to inflate his own reputation. And the German-born fencer Helene Mayer — a woman of “mixed blood” who, as an American citizen, competed for the Fatherland at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — is depicted with her right hand raised in a Nazi salute and her left hand giving the fencer’s salute, the raised foil bisecting her face in a way that suggests her divided loyalties.
Let’s conclude with a statement by Ron Mix, not taken from the book but from his 2008 induction into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum: “To some people I guess I represent some kind of hero. Sure, it would be best if people would say, ‘That’s Ron Mix, a human being who made good.’ But until that time in history comes around, I’m proud when they say, ‘There’s Ron Mix, a Jewish football player who made good.’” Whether the athletic Maccabees, mentshn, and occasional mamzers profiled in Jewish Jocks are jocks who happen to be Jews or Jews who happen to be jocks, the quality of the writing and the richness of the lives chronicled make this book a kosher addition to any serious sports library.
Mikhail Horowitz, a contributing writer to our magazine, is a performance artist, poet, and actor whose works include the CDs Live, Jive & Over 45 (2000) and Poor, On Tour, & Over 54 (2007, both with Gilles Malkine), as well as the book Rafting Into the Afterlife (2007) and the DVD, Too Small To Fail (2011, also with Gilles Malkine), available at CDBaby.