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 ScribeSports Is Like Hollywood: They’re Both Jewish!
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 Cohen’s 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.