Jew­ish Jocks: An Unortho­dox Hall of Fame

Franklin Foer and Marc Tra­cy, eds.
  • Review
By – April 27, 2012

At first, the title read to me like a line in Jack­ie Mason’s shtick:“Jewish Jocks? Well that’s an oxy­moron if I ever heard one!” What kind of self-respect­ing, dot­ing Jew­ish moth­er would ever let her spe­cial son or daugh­ter get involved in the prim­i­tive pur­suit of con­tact sports? Jews are great intel­lec­tu­als, men of let­ters, seri­ous schol­ars. We are not known for our dex­ter­i­ty, hand-eye coor­di­na­tion, or ath­let­ic acu­men. Well, I got it wrong. We have in Jew­ish Jocks: An Unortho­dox Hall of Fame a parade of Jew­ish ath­letes of whom we can be proud.

This breezy anthol­o­gy fea­tures many intrigu­ing sports essays pro­fil­ing Jew­ish ath­letes. High­lights include obscure fig­ures such as famous British pugilist Daniel Men­doza. Known as The Light of Israel,” Men­doza was a sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry folk hero and asso­ciate of King George famed for his furi­ous fists. Anoth­er stand­out sto­ry pro­files Nan­cy Lieber­man, a famous female bas­ket­ball play­er. Lieber­man, shock­ing­ly skilled and strate­gi­cal­ly sound, devel­oped her game as a street baller in New York City and lat­er became the first female NBA D‑League coach.

Edi­tors Franklin Foer and Marc Tra­cy cast a wide net in their pur­suit of Jew­ish ath­letes, sweep­ing in a sports agent, com­mis­sion­er, box­ing cut­men, and film pro­duc­er (Joel Sil­ver, a jock?). Although Jew­ish Jocks is uneven at times, the array of odd­ball tales and remark­able char­ac­ters makes Jew­ish Jocks a light and enter­tain­ing read. Foer’s fas­ci­na­tion with sports pre­dates this effort, hav­ing penned the stel­lar How Soc­cer Explains the World, in 2007. Tra­cy, now on staff at the New Repub­lic, has cov­ered the world of Jew­ish sports and cul­ture as edi­tor of Tablet Mag­a­zine’s blog, The Scroll. 

Read Marc Tra­cy’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Sports Is Like Hol­ly­wood: They’re Both Jew­ish!

We Missed These Jew­ish Jocks. Do You Know Them?

Semit­ic Squads


by Elise Coop­er

Jew­ish Jocks: An Unortho­dox Hall of Fame, which won a 2012 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, is a col­lec­tion of essays com­piled by Franklin Foer and Marc Tra­cy of The New Repub­lic. It’s a por­trait of fifty Jews in sports — ath­letes, exec­u­tives, and coach­es — from dif­fer­ent areas of the world and the roles they played in sports. I had the priv­i­lege of inter­view­ing Marc Tra­cy for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil.

Elise Coop­er: Why did you decide to put this book together?

Marc Tra­cy: Franklin Foer and I are big sports fans who iden­ti­fy with our Jew­ish­ness, and we’re also fans of good writ­ing. We real­ized that this book could be a way to gath­er great writ­ers, most of whom were Jew­ish. These are not pro­fes­sion­al sports writ­ers; yet, they love sports. I am talk­ing about big names such as David Rem­nick, the edi­tor of The New York­er; Simon Schama, a super­star Eng­lish his­to­ri­an who wrote about the box­er Daniel Men­doza; Mark Lei­bovich of The New York Times, and Lawrence Sum­mers, the for­mer Trea­sury Sec­re­tary, who wrote about Harold Solomon, the ten­nis player. 

EC: How were the ath­letes chosen?

MT: There were dif­fer­ent ways the writ­ers and the sub­jects were cho­sen. For exam­ple, you can­not write about Jew­ish jocks with­out includ­ing Sandy Koufax. We asked the great sports­writer Jane Leavy, who wrote a fab­u­lous biog­ra­phy of Koufax, to write an essay of new mate­r­i­al on Koufax. She told the sto­ry of how Koufax came to her daughter’s bat mitz­vah. Then there was Mark Oppen­heimer, who want­ed to write about Joel Sil­ver. I said Well, he is not real­ly a Jew­ish jock but a Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­er.’ He respond­ed that the same Joel Sil­ver who pro­duced the Bat­man movies and The Matrix” also invent­ed Ulti­mate Frisbee.

EC: Why did you include Bob­by Fis­ch­er and Corey Pavin and not include Moe Berg?

MT: For the fifty cho­sen there were fifty more whom we could have includ­ed, like Moe Berg, the Jew­ish major league catch­er who was a spy in World War II. We also decid­ed that any book about Jew­ish ath­letes had to include the good and the bad. The point of Wertheim’s essay about Pavin is that he was born and raised Jew­ish, yet con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. Bob­by Fis­ch­er was also born and raised Jew­ish and at the end of his life became a major anti-Semi­te. Ron Rosen­baum wrote a com­pelling essay on the gam­bler Arnold Roth­stein. I enjoyed how he start­ed it off by talk­ing about the fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, Mey­er Wolf­sheim, in The Great Gats­by, whose life was based on Roth­stein. Here is one of the most famous Amer­i­can nov­els ever writ­ten that has an anti-Semit­ic car­i­ca­ture based on a real life sports per­son who was also an unsa­vory gambler. 

EC: Do you con­sid­er the essay about the 1972 Munich Olympics one of the most powerful?

MT: I do. We asked Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt, a fore­most his­to­ri­an, to write about this hor­rif­ic inci­dent. I think there were sev­en or eight oth­er essays that men­tioned this event. Lip­stadt point­ed out how these ath­letes came to Ger­many to com­pete in peace and instead were mur­dered. The Munich mas­sacre illus­trat­ed what we point out in our intro­duc­tion, how Jew­ish ath­leti­cism orig­i­nal­ly comes out of the instinct for self-defense, and how Zion­ism sprung from the vio­lence against Jews. This is also empha­sized in the essay by Shalom Aus­lan­der, who wrote about an old­er Jew­ish man con­front­ed by two black kids on a New York sub­way: And he turned around and pushed them back — hard — and they fell back down in the seat…And he said, We’re Jews, we won this war, we beat our ene­mies, we don’t take this stuff anymore.’”

EC: What was one of the most inter­est­ing facts in the book?

MT: Rich Cohens essay on Sid Luck­man that includ­ed Ben­ny Fried­man, who was an All Amer­i­can quar­ter­back at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, and who pio­neered the pass­ing game when he played for the New York Giants. Fried­man, along with Luck­man, who played for the Chica­go Bears, invent­ed the quar­ter­back posi­tion as we know it today. They rev­o­lu­tion­ized foot­ball with the for­ward pass, and hav­ing the quar­ter­back as the super­star. As Cohen writes, It was the birth of the quar­ter­back as we know him: the gen­er­al who calm­ly leads his team down the field.”

EC: What do you want the read­ers to take from the book?

MT: How the sto­ry of the Jews in sports is a micro­cosm for the sto­ry of sports in Amer­i­ca. The sto­ry of Jews in sports is the sto­ry of sports. From Al Davis, who was a path break­er by inte­grat­ing the NFL for head coach­es, to Hank Green­berg who, as the gen­er­al man­ag­er of the Indi­ans, mis­treat­ed one of his play­ers, Al Rosen, sole­ly because he did not want to be seen as play­ing favorites to one of his own, anoth­er Jew­ish slugger. 

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

Justin Petril­lo hails from Chevy Chase, MD. The city is not named for the actor, so stop ask­ing. He resides in Brook­lyn and spends time play­ing ten­nis, read­ing books by Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish authors, and scream­ing at the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins through the tele­vi­sion. He is a grad­u­ate of Emory University.

Discussion Questions