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 370 (photo credit: Len Small)
Franklin Foer (left) and Mark Tracy 370
(photo credit: 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 gridiron.”
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 boxers.
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 the sport.
“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 1925.
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.
Tom 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 bulls.”
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” grappler.
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 wrestler?”’
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 1990s.
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 America.”
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 Diamonds.
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.
“When Nancy 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.
She defied 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 took place.
“Let them leave if they can’t understand what the Olympics are all about – a connection between people through sport,” commented Spitzer.
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 athletes.
The writer is a European affairs correspondent with The Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.