Give me an "oy!"

Jewish athletes are on the rise -- mazel tov!


Lance Gould
October 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Mendy's, the real-life Murray Hill restaurant made famous on "Seinfeld,"
is about as authentic a kosher deli as you can get. It's got
excellent matzoh ball soup and it's closed on Friday nights for
Sabbath. Satisfied? So when a Semitic superstar is indoctrinated onto
Mendy's "Jewish Athletes Wall of Fame," you know he has received the
rubber stamp of an authority almost as high as the Big Guy himself.

Only problem is, there are very few fellas on the wall. Sure, you've got
your baseball heroes of old -- Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax -- and
All-American poster boy Mark Spitz. But the rest of the mural space is
taken up by significantly lesser figures; indeed almost a third of the
names belong not to athletes but to coaches and local sportscasters,
like Len Berman and Bill Mazer. (There's also a hilariously defaced Marv
Albert, whose name has been scratched out.)

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We Jews are not exactly renowned for our athletic prowess -- we're
usually better at the management side of things. The four major
professional sports leagues in North America know from what I'm talking
about, as three of them have Jewish commissioners (Major League
Baseball's Bud Selig, the NBA's David Stern and the NHL's Gary
Bettman).

But recent developments in the sports landscape indicate that Jews are
through wandering the athletic desert: Suddenly, bar-mitzvah boys are
kicking ass on the diamond, the hardwood and the ice and in the ring. Soon,
Mendy's might have to commission a new muralist.

Consider:

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  • There are currently nine Jews on Major League Baseball rosters --
    almost enough for a minyan. Detroit outfielder Gabe Kapler enjoyed a
    much-heralded rookie season and three other chosen people -- Toronto
    outfielder Shawn Green and catchers Mike Lieberthal of Philadelphia and
    Brad Ausmus of Detroit -- were chosen for their respective leagues'
    All-Star teams, a religious record of some sort.

  • Green is considered one of baseball's future superstars, and rumors
    have circulated in Gotham City that George Steinbrenner is eying Blue
    Jay Green in Yankee pinstripes, hoping to put Jewish fannies in his
    seats.

  • Baseball will unveil its All-Century team next week during the World
    Series, and three Jews are on the ballot. Pitcher Sandy Koufax is a
    lock to make the squad, and this summer Koufax was a Sports Illustrated
    cover boy as the magazine's all-time favorite athlete.

  • This summer, amusingly named Lenny Krayzelburg, a Ukrainian-born
    American, won the 100-meter backstroke at the Pan-Pacific Championships
    in Australia. He broke the world record and has his sites set on gold in
    Sydney 2000.

  • Much has also been made of the up-and-coming young Orthodox basketball
    phenom in Baltimore, Tamir Goodman. Dubbed "the Jewish Jordan" by the
    national press, he was offered a basketball scholarship to the highly
    competitive University of Maryland Terrapins basketball program in his
    junior year of high school. Just last month Goodman rejected the
    offer, as he said the Maryland coaching staff frowned upon his refusal
    to play on the Sabbath. (Interestingly enough, the high school senior
    just transferred from his Talmudic yeshiva to Takoma Academy, which
    plays a tougher hoops schedule. It's also a Seventh Day Adventist high
    school.)

Jews also seem to be making gains in sports that would never meet with a
rabbi's approval, let alone a mother's:

  • In the inexplicably popular world of wrestling, the WCW's No. 1-ranked grappler is Bill Goldberg, whose nom de ring is, remarkably,
    just Goldberg. He sports a startling physique and a gaudy record of
    161-0 -- impressive even for a faux sport.

  • Also dominant in the ring are two-time champion male boxer "Dangerous"
    Dana Rosenblatt and two-time champion female sweet-science sensation
    Jill Matthews. Rosenblatt fights with a Star of David on his trunks
    while Matthews, a rabbi's daughter-in-law, goes by the nickname the
    "Zion Lion."

  • Hockey star Mathieu Schneider, a defenseman on the NHL's New York
    Rangers, was a key member of hockey Team USA when it captured the
    inaugural World Cup in 1996, and was captain of the New York Islanders
    in 1995-96.

  • Just last week, tennis superstar Pete Sampras, following in the
    footsteps of Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Tom Stoppard and
    Harrison Ford, came out of the Jewish closet.

  • Then just last Sunday, two things transpired to evoke shouts of "Mazel
    tov!" from Jewish sports fans. Aaron Feinberg captured the 1999
    Aggressive Skaters Association Pro Tour World Championship (an X-Games
    style daredevil skating competition) and, for the first time ever, the
    Israeli men's soccer team advanced to the European Cup championship
    round of 16. And they're not even in Europe!

Why is this year unlike all other years? Is there a special prayer to
say over the Gatorade?

"Becoming a professional -- a doctor or lawyer, not athlete -- was novel
for Jews a generation or two ago because of the discrimination they
faced," said a Jewish communal service professional who asked not to be
identified. "That's why today you have so many Jews as professionals --
a totally disproportionate number, in fact. And now that things have
normalized for American Jewry -- there are very few people who believe
there is still career discrimination against Jews in America -- we have
become like most other ethnic groups. So it is only natural that those
who can or want to focus on sports will now do so. We're certainly not
overrepresented in sports, but things do seem to be changing. And I can
almost guarantee you that the parents of most of these modern Jewish
athletes are professionals of one sort or another."

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While that is difficult to confirm, it is true that Goldberg's father,
Jed, is a retired gynecologist. Anyone parsing bitter-herb leaves in this
phenomenon will learn one thing: Near-full assimilation of the Jewish
community has clearly arrived. Though it's not nearly as alarming as Jewish
intermarriage statistics, I imagine the Orthodox community would claim
that there is a downside to the story, which is that tradition
(observing holidays and the Sabbath, putting education before athletic achievement, not eschewing yeshivas for Seventh-Day Adventist high schools) is
losing out to homogeneity. But how truly remarkable it is, in this
age of high-profile hate crimes, to see wrestling fans in the heartland
bearing placards of support for Goldberg, adorned with Stars of David. A
generation ago, the Jewish idea of sports was memorizing stats.

Still curious about why things have evolved this way, I called -- who
else? -- my Jewish grandmother, Alice, an 87-year-old macher born and bred in
Brooklyn.

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Grandma, have you ever heard of Michael Jordan?

The name is familiar -- I see it in the newspaper. I
think he plays basketball.

That's right. How about the Jewish Jordan?

What, the country?

Never mind. Anyway, Grandma, why are there so many more Jewish
athletes now than at any other time?

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Jews were a nomadic group -- we never had time to settle
down and play other people's games. We never had time to absorb the
culture and games of a particular area. We were always on the run so
that they should not persecute us. We became a sporadic nation. We were
glad that we were not being kidnapped and held for ransom.

And now this proliferation of Jews in sports?

(Something really off topic about Polish Cossacks and
then something about how whales communicate.)

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Grandma, the sports thing?

Jews started going away to college, and instead of being
in their own shtetl, they were meeting different cultures, like the guy
from Idaho who does the sports thing. They intertwined education with
advancing themselves in practically everything. The taste of education
led to higher realms and they went out of town and experienced other
infrastructures.

You had me, then you lost me.

You meet different people and look how many years are
involved in going to law school or medical school. You think, "I can
make money right away in sports. If I'm going to college, should I put
another four years into medical school, plus an internship and a
residency?" The bottom line -- you need money. This is a shortcut.

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Oh, I see. Do you like sports?

Not particularly. I can watch them, but I can turn them
off easily. I don't need to see Moshe Pipik [Michael Jordan], or whatever
his name is, trying to make a basket.

Any sport in particular you do like?

I like handball.

And why is that?

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It was always a poor man's sport -- all you needed was a
ball and a wall.

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When that Mendy's muralist remodels his wall to fit in the superstars of
the next "millennium," maybe he can leave room for the unsung handball
players from Brooklyn.


Lance Gould

Lance Gould is a deputy features editor at the New York Daily News. He is also the author of "Shagadelicaaly Speaking: The Words and World of Austin Powers."

MORE FROM Lance Gould


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George Steinbrenner Hillary Rodham Clinton Seinfeld

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