Archive for the ‘Sports and religion’ Category


Blogger recaptures drama of Nazi era in Hank Greenberg fiction

Posted on: July 26th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

It was a bit disheartening to see the anti-Semitic screeds regarding Ryan Braun’s suspension. But compared with what players in Hank Greenberg’s era had to endure, the comments and Tweets about Braun are love letters.

Jeff Polman, a graphic designer from Culver City, California, posts several installments each week about Greenberg in “Dear Hank: A Fictional 1938 Season in Letters,” a blog about the original “Hammerin’ Hank” as he deals with anti-Semitism on the homefront and the incursion of Nazism in pre-WWII Europe.

Polman has used this method before with 1924 and You Are There!; Play That Funky Baseball; The Bragging Rights League; and Mystery Ball ’58, The stories are all fictitious, but based on seasons “played” via Strat-o-Matic (1924 was also published in book form.)

I spoke with Polman earlier this week. You can listen to our conversation here.



Posted on: July 10th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

Another attempt to clear out my mail box full of stories and links:

Hank Greenberg* Sports Illustrated published this dramatic excerpt from John Rosengren’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes in the July 8 issue.

* Burton Boxerman, co-author with his wife, Bonita, of the two-volume Jews and Baseball series published by McFarland a few years back, published this review of Larry Ruttman’s American Jews & America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball in a recent edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

* Rabbi Jeremy Fine writes about the difficulties finding kosher food at Dodger Stadium, despite Los Angeles’ large Jewish community. The issue is further complicated by just exactly what constitutes kashrut and who decides.

* Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer won her opening match against Xenia Knoll of Switzerland 6-2, 6-2 at the Budapest Open yesterday.

* As baseball heads to the unofficial midway point with the All-Star Game, get ready for more and more football stories, like this one on the Jets’ Antonio Garay and this one on Gabe Carimi, now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

* NHL free agent Eric Nystrom, who will serve as a coach for the USA hockey team at the Maccabiah games, signed  a four-year contract with the Nashville Predators.

* JML Ian Kinsler and Jice-man Jeff Halpern were among several athletes who shared their path to the pros with ESPN The Magazine.

* Finally, this hasidic “chorus” belted out the National Anthem when the Brooklyn Cyclones held their Jewish Heritage game recently, but not without a few little problems.


'Crossing' a line in baseball

Posted on: June 28th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

(Or “Sermon on the mound?”)

Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation posted this thoughtful essay, “On the display of divisive iconography in our ballparks.”

I wonder how Jason Marquis or Scott Feldman would react, pitching on a mound on which a Christian symbol was “stenciled” by a member of the grounds crew.

House cleaning

Posted on: May 24th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

In an attempt to clean out my Google Alerts, here is a “links dump” of accumulated knowledge:

And that’s it! All nice and empty.

So have a good holiday folks, see you next week.


Yogi Berra Museum hosts program on Hank Greenberg

Posted on: April 11th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

The Yogi Berra Museum, located on the campus of Montclair State University, will host a lunch program on Hank Greenberg on Friday, April 26, at noon.

Guests include John Rosengren, author of the new biography Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes; Aviva Kempner, producer/director/writer of The award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which has recently been re-released with additional material; and Steven Greenberg, son of the late Hall of Fame slugger and a former assistant to the Commissioner of  Baseball.

I spoke with Rosengren — who is not Jewish, by the way (not that there’s anything wrong with that when it comes to writing about perhaps the most famous Jewish athlete) — recently about his book. As Rosengren put it

I found it a fascinating story on several levels. One, yes, Greenberg was immensely important to the Jewish people. At the same time, he was immensely important to the non-Jewish people…because, as Rabbi [Michael] Paley says in my book, “He changed the way gentiles viewed Jews and, in turn, the way Jews viewed themselves.” But for someone like me, who comes at it from the outside, I learned about this person who faced adversity, rose above it, and, in doing so, brought hope to not just Jews, but to many people. To me, it’s a story of dignity and inspiration that transcends any ethnic affiliation….”

You can hear the rest of our conversation here:


Here’s a trailer for Kempner’s excellent documentary. There are places on-line to watch the entire film for free, but for me, the real pleasure is in the behind-the-scenes material that’s only available with the DVD itself.

I was curious about the song that plays in the video, so I did a little digging into “Goodbye, Mr. Ball, Goodbye.” In this version, it was sung by Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx (!), with a guest appearance by Greenberg himself. I wish there was a clip of that.

But as an official sports nit-picker, I feel compelled to point out a mistake in the lyrics.

Greenberg “sings” the following lines: “Wait a minute, when the count is 2-0 and I let that third one go/what happens then?” Crosby and Marx reply, “You’re out.”

You’re out after taking a 2-0 pitch (baseballspeak for two balls and no strikes)??? Obviously it should be 0-2 (no balls and two strikes), but that didn’t fit the rhyme scheme. I wonder if Greenberg put up any kind of fuss about that, or he didn’t want to seem ungracious, since the tune was a tribute to him.


Tickets to the Greenberg event are $20 and include lunch. To RSVP or for more information, call 973-655-2378. See you there.


Now hear this: Larry Ruttman

Posted on: March 31st, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

I usually don’t post on a weekend, but I just found out that Larry Rutman, author of American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball, will be speaking tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble at 86th and Lexington in Manhattan, which used to be my favorite lunchtime haunt when I was working at the American Jewish Congress, way back when. So I wanted to post this and maybe get some of you local folks to get out there and say hi. The program follows a discussion format with Marty Appel, author of Pinstripe Empire and very involved in Jewish baseball topics.

Larry Ruttman, center, flanked by Dr. Martin Abramowitz, who wrote the intro to 'American Jews and America's Game,' and yours truly at the 2012 'Jews and Baseball' retreat.

I met Larry last year at the Jewish Baseball Retreat at the Isabella Freedman Center in Falls Village, Connecticut and learned that among many things we shared was a publisher. His book will also be officially released tomorrow by the University of Nebraska Press, just like my 501 project.

Larry was nice enough to spend some quality time talking about his new project. Enjoy.



People of the book: Jewish Jocks wins award

Posted on: February 8th, 2013 by Ron Kaplan

Franklin Foer, left, and Marc Tracy.

Congratulations to Franklin Foer, Marc Tracy, and all the contributors to Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, which is among the award-winners as selected by the Jewish Book Council.

The book, a collection of appreciations for Jewish athletes by an eclectic group of writers, won as best anthology.

The JBC will hold an award ceremony on Thursday, March 14 at 8 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th Street, in Manhattan. The event is open to the public.

For more information, visit JewishBookCouncil.org.

Explaining the ‘Maccabees’ Moniker for Jewish Athletics?

Posted on: December 11th, 2012 by Ron Kaplan

by Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Jewish athletes from around the world gather every four years in Israel for the Olympic-style Maccabiah Games, not to mention the annual JCC Maccabi Youth Games in America. Most Israeli professional basketball and soccer teams preface their names with “Maccabi” (perhaps most notably the hoopsters of Maccabi Tel Aviv), and the athletic teams from Yeshiva University are dubbed—you guessed it—the Maccabees.

Does all of this mean Judah the Maccabee was a superstar athlete back in the day?

Actually, history suggests just the opposite. The story of Hanukkah was one in which the Jews—seeking to “Hellenize”—started to adopt Greek sports, only to have the anti-assimilationist Maccabees buck that trend as well as others that blended Jewish and secular lifestyles.

“Calling Jewish sports teams Maccabees is a contradiction in terms because the historic Maccabees were anti-sports,” Yeshiva University professor of Jewish History Jeffrey Gurock told JNS.org. He explained that the Maccabees’ goal was to “return back [to tradition], go away from these outside influences.”

Instead, Gurock said, the modern usage of the Maccabee moniker can be traced to 1898, when social Darwinist Max Nordau—founder of the Jewish athletic movement—coined the term “muscular Judaism” (muskel-Judenthum) at the Second Zionist Congress. Nordau believed the existence of strong and physically fit Jews could defeat the classic stereotype that Jews are physically weak and instead depend solely on their wit.

The great rabbinic figures of the Middle Ages were concerned with physical fitness, but sports remained “something foreign to Jewish culture” at the time, Gurock said. Nordau was looking to emulate Jews who fought against the world and were successful, and historically speaking, that was found most prominently in the story of Hanukkah.

“The only examples we have of Jews who were strong and successful were really the Maccabees,” said Gurock, who is also the author of Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports (2005).

From that point on, Gurock said the name Maccabees became a “badge of honor” for Jews pursuing sports. The same year as the Second Zionist Congress, Jews in Berlin founded the Bar Kochba athletics association, after which Jews in Eastern Europe (Galicia, Bulgaria) followed suit, according to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Russia’s Maccabi society joined the fray in 1913, and in the 1930s Poland’s Maccabi federation included 30,000 Jewish athletes in 250 clubs, YIVO said. Before World War II, “probably every European country from Poland on east had some sort of Maccabee team, or Maccabea Club,” Gurock said, representing “an expression of Zionist pride.”

The trend continues today, with numerous Jewish sports teams calling themselves Maccabees or something similar—including the teams at Yeshiva University (YU). That led Gurock to another question: Since YU is an Orthodox institution, shouldn’t it call its teams the “non-Maccabees,” to accurately represent the anti-assimilationist protagonists of the Hanukkah story? Not quite, he answered.

“What we like in modern times [about the historic Maccabees] are not so much their religious values, but their success in competing against the world,” Gurock said.

Though the original Maccabees were against the concept of organized athletics, Gurock noted that they were still the first Jewish group to raise the question of “How can you be Jewish and engage in a foreign cultural activity called sports?” He explained that in ancient times, sports were associated with pagan culture and ritual rites, but in modern times, “the great challenge is to integrate that foreign cultural phenomenon called sports into Jewish culture, so that the two can live side by side, which is often a difficult task.” The Maccabees ultimately decided that mixing sports with their Jewish lifestyle would be too inconsistent, Gurock said.

At YU, the athletic teams themselves—not the school’s administration—decided how they should be named. Originally the “Blue and Whites,” YU’s teams were the “Mighty Mites” from the 1940s-1960s, when they struggled against athletically superior squads, according to Gurock. In the 1970s, the teams adopted their currents monikers: the Maccabees and Lady Maccabees.

“It’s not today a defiance of tradition, it’s appropriating the idea of struggle, of success and virility, and power, which is emblematic of sports,” Gurock said.

The name Maccabees fits, Gurock explained, because the university is particularly proud of its Zionist orientation.

“It’s the only place outside of Israel where before every game both the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah are played,” he said. “So what more can you say?”

Max Nordau, founder of the Jewish athletic movement, coined the phrase “muscular Judaism” at the 1898 Word Zionist Congress, a precursor to Maccabea Clubs in Europe and the eventual adoption of the name “Maccabees” for Jewish sports teams.

It's Times for Jewish Jocks

Posted on: November 30th, 2012 by Ron Kaplan

A review in The New York Times practically guarantees increased sales, so kudos to co-editors Tracy and Foer  and all the contributors to this fine collection.

Book Review: Jewish Jocks

Posted on: November 26th, 2012 by Ron Kaplan

A Unorthodox Hall of Fame, Edited by Franklin Foer and Mark Tracy
Twelve Books, 304 pages, $26.99.

By Dave Hollander

“It’s gotten thicker” said a colleague when I flashed him my review copy of Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He was, of course, referencing the old joke, told in some variation or another:  Q “What’s the thinnest book ever written? “ A “Jewish sports heroes. “ There lies some historic truth in the jest.  In 1948 (hard to believe the annum was coincidental) when Harold Ribalow convinced Bloch Publishing to print  The Jew in American Sports, Hebraic boxing legend Barney Ross (included in Jewish Jocks) wrote in the book’s preface  that he “wonder[ed] that any publisher should consider [the book] sufficiently salable to risk the publications costs.” Ribalow’s compendium provided glorious sketches of twenty-eight athletes. Sixty-four years,  later Jewish Jocks offers fifty different writers on fifty  different sports figures.  I guess it has gotten thicker.

Or is pro-sports finally post-Semitic? When I grew up, it used to be that anytime anyone in our family noticed a potentially Jewish sounding name in a sports page – Cohen, Shapiro, Grossman or a last name suffixed  with a -stein, -berg, -taub, etc.  —  we’d postulate with cautious optimism:  “Is he Jewish?” But since then, haven’t enough sons and daughters of Abraham come along that it’s not a really a big deal any more if someone in the NFL, NBA or MLB is Jewish?   To wit, I offer a tipping point.  During an August 16, 2006 Red Sox telecast  ( I urge you to YouTube this now) , actor/comedian  Denis Leary joined the broadcast booth for some banter at which time he was informed that Kevin Youkilis, the Sox first baseman, was Jewish.  On cue, Youkilis made a defensive gem; a diving stop of a hard ground ball in the hole on the second base side, then neatly tossing  to Curt Schilling covering first base to complete the out.  Leary erupted in a hilarious tirade against Mel Gibson, whose inebriated Jew-hate  rant toward a California police officer only two weeks earlier conclusively  bestowed the rank of anti-Semite upon the Aussie actor.  “Where’s Mel Gibson now, huh?” crowed Leary, channeling a little Sam Kinison.  “He’s in rehab, and Youkilis is at first base! Alright, Mel?  You happy Braveheart? You see that grab, Mel?”  It goes on for a good several minutes .  The sight of the hulking , hyper-competent, World Series champion Youkilis set against the sounds of the honest, edgy, Irish Leary’s riff said clearly to me:  it’s over.  Jews in sports are no longer a surprise

So when I heard about Jewish Jocks, I hoped for a book that took us beyond retributive footnotes like the Leary-Youkilis-Gibson incident, or the mournful athletic-less linkage to the Munich Games, or the lame taunting canard that Jews don’t play sports.  For this, Jewish Jocks gets my brucha.  Editors Franklin Foer and Mark Tracy do an admirable job, earning automatic inclusion in any Judaic collection and a respectable place in any sports bibliography.

At first, the Introduction by the editors (Foer, the once former now current editor of The New Republic and Tracy, staff writer for The New Republic, formerly at Tablet) put me off.  “Our pantheon includes people who in some cases, couldn’t even run the bases.”  In fact, almost one third of the fifty entries are not “jocks” but sports “figures” who did not distinguish on any fields of play.  “So,” Foer and Tracy further disclaim  “we went ahead and made Howard Cosell a Jewish Jock.  If you want to blast that out of the park, be warned: it’s our curveball, the only kind we know how to throw — in part because , when we were kids, we never did learn the traditional kind.”  They sound like a stereotype of the stereotype. It recalls to mind an August 2005 piece in Slate by Neal Pollack (a Jew) “The Cult of the General Manager” where Pollack lamented that we are living in a time where “sports fans” idolize non-athletes instead of athletes.  “We’re in a sports age in which Executive of the Year is an award on par with the MVP. “ he declared. “Heroes don’t analyze spreadsheets. Really, who would you rather be, Tom Brady or the guy who signed Tom Brady to a long-term deal? This may be the age of the general manager. But the quarterback still has more fun. “  I’m in Pollock’s camp, but alas this is the world we live in and if you don’t let the non-jocks get in the way, you’ll enjoy Jewish Jocks a lot more.

It’s not easy to put together a book like this. When one creates any “hall of fame” — particularly sports related —  debate follows. As you read Jewish Jocks, you may quibble with omissions. Is it too early for Ryan Braun? Why include Bud Selig and not David Stern?  Care to make an argument for Sue Bird?  I would.  And speaking of arguments, Rod Carew due to the technical absence of a formal religious conversion has been kept out of every Jewish sports hall of fame, despite the fact that he has been living more Jewishly than most Jews in this book and elsewhere.  Such sports talk fodder aside, there can be no arguing that Jewish Jocks delivers hall of fame writers and writing. It’s a staggering collection of awards winners; Pulitzers, Mann Bookers, bestsellers, Editors in Chief.   Behold household literati like Buzz Bissinger, David Brooks, Stephen Dubner, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jane Leavy, Deborah Lisptadt, George Packer, David Remnick, and Lawrence Summers, to name-drop a few; each members of the tribe reflecting on their own.  Some wax with love, some with skepticism, some with awe, some with derision, and all with ample research . Really, for sheer literary and journalistic power in 2013, it doesn’t get much better.

The very first essay by Simon Schama on the 16th century British pugilists Daniel Mendoza reads lyrically  like an elegiac ballad.  Timothy Snyder educates us on Max Nordau’s “muscular Judaism” of the late 1800’s.  Rebecca Newberger Goldstein meditates humorously on “heightism” while recalling the diminutive basketball star from the Lower East Side, Barney Sedran. We stunningly learn in “Fencing for Hitler,”  Joshua Cohen’s section on Helen Mayer, the “strange and inexplicable fact that more Jewish Fencers were murdered in Nazi camps, then were accomplished athletes of any other sport.”  Judith Shulevitz writes insightfully but none too kindly of Olympic swimming icon Mark Spitz.  I was a little weirded out by Sam Lipstyte’s onanistic focus in the chapter he handed in on his father, sports writer Robert.  And I laughed out loud reading  Jeffrey Goldberg’s line regarding wrestler Bill Goldberg’s crossover appeal:  “In addition to believing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Hezbollah gunmen believe that professional wrestling isn’t staged.”  If I had to choose a personal favorite, it’s  Kevin Arnovitz’s short, sharp, vivid tale of Nancy Lieberman , the pioneering women’s basketball player, who took the A train from Far Rockaway to Rucker Park on a regular basis, accompanied by boys you don’t meet in Hebrew School — boys who became lifelong friends — who were welcomed, kind of, by Nancy’s mother for some kitchen table hospitality knowing that these guys assured her daughter’s safe passage.  I wonder if that house in the Rockaways still stands, after Sandy.

What’s compelling  about a book like this is that ultimately it’s a book about us.   Sports marketers call it “basking in reflected glory.” (see:  Cialdini, Robert, et. al., “Basking in Reflected Glory: Three (Football) Field Studies”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1976. )  By publicly identifying with the accomplishments of others, particularly others like us in some way, we feel better about ourselves and hope everyone else does too.   Now that that book of Jewish sports heroes has indeed gotten thicker, maybe in sports we should take more credit more often.   Like Linsanity did for Asian-Americans, we could use a little more Jew-sanity.  Let’s do it not only when gymnast Aly Raisman chooses Hava Nagila for her floor exercise in proud defiance at the 2012 Summer Olympics. That was beautiful.  But see it everywhere in sports.  See it like Michael Phelps does.  He knows that there’s no way he gets his record eight gold medals in the 2008 games, passing  Mark Spitz, if not for the super-mensch effort in the anchor leg of 4x100m freestyle relay from  Jason Lezak, a Jew.

Dave Hollander is a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s SCPS Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management.  He is the author of three books and currently working on his fourth.


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