Books: Stand-outs in their field
Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy’s collection of thoughtful essays about the lives of 50 Jewish sports figures packs a hefty punch.
Franklin Foer (left) and Mark Tracy Photo: Len Small
IN his 1980 autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, 1960s American
Jewish counter-cultural revolutionary Abbie Hoffman – who participated in
wrestling at Brandeis University – neatly captured the growing sports phenomenon
unfolding among American Jews: “Brandeis had a football team which was about as
incongruous as nuns at a cockfight. The school had something to prove. Not only
did Jews have brains, but they could tough it out as real men on the
The new book Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame is a
marvelous collection of short essays edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy,
covering the lives of 50 Jewish sports figures who took the business of proving
themselves in (and out of) competitive fields very seriously. Jewish Jocks
crisscrosses the sports achievements of mainly American Jews, but also Israeli
and European athletes.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Foer, who
is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic magazine, explains his chapter on
Benny Leonard, widely considered one of the world’s greatest
Seated in his Washington office, Foer says Leonard is one of the
“three or four most important Jewish jocks simply because of the role he played
making sports a legitimate American activity and kind of assuaging the anxieties
of immigrant moms and dads.”
Foer is no stranger to intellectual sports
writing. His 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of
Globalization garnered critical acclaim. He says that in many ways, Leonard
merged a science of boxing with the raw physical determination associated with
“Benny Leonard was the archetype of the brainy boxer, and an
obsessive. He is in the gym for hours, even at the height of his fame, carefully
observing unknown fighters, searching for minute insights into strategy and
mechanics,” writes Foer in his essay on Leonard.
That helps to explain
why Leonard reigned as the lightweight champion between 1917 and
PERHAPS THE most colorful chapter is devoted to the wildly
adventurous Sidney Franklin (1903-1976) – the “Matador from Flatbush” – who ran
away from Brooklyn to Mexico and learned the art of bullfighting.
Rachman’s essay is packed full of lively anecdotes of Franklin’s escapades,
including his relationship to Ernest Hemingway, who drowned Franklin in praise
in his book Death in the Afternoon. Summing up his career decision, Franklin
declared: “Instead of selling insurance or filling someone’s teeth, I fought
The chapter also explores the closeted homosexuality of the
world’s best Jewish bullfighter.
Jeffrey Goldberg, meanwhile, tackles
“Hezbollah’s Favorite Wrestler,” Bill Goldberg, in his hilarious chapter on the
infatuation of a guard from the Lebanese terror group with the “professional”
Jeffrey Goldberg, a leading US writer on Israel and Jewish
affairs who is not related (except in the tribal sense) to Bill, encountered the
Hezbollah guard in southern Beirut.
“One day, at a Hezbollah headquarters
building (later to be flattened by the Israeli Air Force), a glowering guard
gave me an ostentatiously gropey patdown while another inspected my passport,”
he writes. “He looked up and said, in good-enough English, ‘Goldberg? Like the
Bill Goldberg, who played professional football in the early 1990s,
dominated the theatrical performance-based wresting (not to be confused with the
authentic collegiate and Olympic forms of the sport) in the late
In the headquarters of The Atlantic magazine in Washington, where
Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent, he tells the Post that Bill’s
success is a “uniquely Diasporic experience.”
His fans, he says, are
“yelling ‘Goldberg’ out of love and affection. That is
He adds that there is a “non-issue of being Jewish” playing out
in American society. The acculturation process of American Jewry into organized
sports has long been under way, and Goldberg on Goldberg captures the
crystallization of that process.
BASKETBALL STAR and coach Nancy
Lieberman embodies not only the normalcy of Jewish women reaching spectacular
athletic achievement (think of Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman, who won a gold medal
for her floor exercise at the 2012 Olympics in London), but the ability to carve
out new territory in professional male sports.
Kevin Arnovitz’s essay
“Lady Magic” spans Lieberman’s career as an adolescent traveling from Queens to
Harlem to compete with her male counterparts in playground games. She led Old
Dominion University’s women’s team to two national championships. After her
university career, she played professional basketball for the Dallas
Arnovitz, who reports on the NBA for sports news outlet ESPN, presents one of the book’s more memorable anecdotes
about Lieberman’s tryout with the Los Angeles Lakers.
arrived, Lakers trainer Jack Curran threw her a mesh bag that held her uniform
and told her without apology that there was no dedicated ladies’ room,” he
recounts. “After Nancy found a semiprivate spot to change, she returned in
uniform and flung the jockstrap at Curran. ‘Yo, Jack,’ she shouted. Curran, the
staff and the rest of the team turned around. ‘This thing’s too small. If you
want me to practice today, I’m going to need something bigger.’” She now coaches
the NBA D-League’s Texas Legends, which, according to Arnovitz, is viewed as the
farm club of the Dallas Mavericks.
THERE IS no shortage of dazzling
essays in Jewish Jocks. David Plotz’s chapter on Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug
details her vault performance for the 1996 US women’s team.
the laws of health (and physics) by executing a vault routine with torn
ligaments, thereby securing the squad’s gold medal.
Plotz describes the
feat as “that glorious sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, of
witnessing something transcendent.”
Historian Deborah Lipstadt devotes
her essay to the “Martyrs of Munich” and Israeli weightlifter Yossef Romano
(1940- 1972). The Palestinian “Black September” terrorist group murdered 11
Israeli athletes at the Munich Games in 1972.
Lipstadt notes that the
International Olympics Committee (IOC) refused to commemorate the athletes’
murder at the 2012 Games in London – the 40th anniversary of the terrorist
attack. Though she does not cite the likely reasons for the lack of
commemoration in her fine piece, it is worth noting that according to Ankie
Spitzer, the widow of slain Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, IOC president
Jacques Rogge capitulated to the 46-member bloc of Arab and Muslim countries
because of the threat that they would boycott the Games.
Rogge told her
that “his hands were tied” by the influence of those countries. Her response to
Rogge: “No, my husband’s hands were tied, not yours.”
Spitzer said the 21
Arab delegations threatened to leave the Games if a public commemoration event
“Let them leave if they can’t understand what the Olympics
are all about – a connection between people through sport,” commented
JEWISH JOCKS will surely breed inspiration and interest for
diverse groups of sports aficionados and non-sports buffs. It is not limited to
classic athletic competitors, but expands its perspective to include Jewish
sports announcers (Howard Cosell) and chess geniuses (Bobby Fischer), as well as
“Ping Pong Wizard” Marty Reisman. The book’s contributors include a running list
of heavyweight Jewish and non-Jewish writers.
With it, Foer and Tracy
have helped to debunk the oft-repeated joke from the 1980 comedy film Airplane,
which claimed the world’s shortest book was “Great Jewish Athletes.”
Coincidentally Hoffman released his memoir in the same year, and outlined some
nascent ideas on the emergence of organized sports and Jewish
The writer is a European affairs correspondent with The
Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.