BY ALLEN RABINOWITZ / AJT //
It’s an old, old Borscht Belt joke, so let’s get it out of the way:
Q: What’s the thinnest book in the library?
A: “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Sports Stars”!
As the drummer hits a rim shot on his snare to accentuate the punch line, the audience groans. But thanks to a new book edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, that ancient chestnut might be dropped from comics’ repertoires.
“Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” collects essays on Jewish athletes ranging from 18th-century British pugilist Daniel Mendoza through baseball front office wunderkind Theo Epstein and illuminates figures revered and reviled from quarterback Sid Luckman to chess wizard-turned-madman Bobby Fischer.
The 50-plus stars profiled include such well-known names as Red Auerbach, Howard Cosell, Hank Greenberg, Mark Spitz and Sandy Koufax; as well as obscure figures like boxing cut-man Whitey Bimstein, Brooklyn-born matador Sidney Franklin, ping-pong guru Marty Reisman and martial arts sensei Harvey “Sifu” Sober.
The dark side of Jewish involvement in sports is not left out, either, with essays on college basketball point shaver Jack Molinas and gambler Arnold Rothstein, whom F. Scott Fitzgerald portrayed as the “man who fixed the World Series,” in “The Great Gatsby.”
Says Foer on the genesis of the project:
“It’s about the most fun thing I can think of to do in the world.”
The editor of the political journal the New Republic, he has had a life-long love of sports.
“Like many Jewish men, it was a passion of mine,” he explained. “It felt good to indulge the obsession with this book.”
The essays in “Jewish Jocks” were contributed by an all-star team of journalists and authors. Foer first recruited Tracy – a colleague on the New Republic – and the two rounded up such literary talent as New Yorker editor David Remnick, “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen J. Dubner, New York Times columnist David Brooks, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, Koufax biographer Jane Leavy and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger.
Foer says getting the contributors was an easy task.
“I believed it was the kind of thing if you asked authors to participate, they couldn’t resist,” he said. “As it turns out, that was the case. We talked about it with a few people in advance, and a lot of them we cold-called, and it wasn’t very hard to get people to join up. We had very few people that we asked to join who rejected us.
“For everyone involved, the project was a huge combination of fun and pleasure.”
The essayists by a wide margin chose the athletes they wanted to write about.
“Part of the pleasure of the project came when we called writers,” Foer said. “A lot of them had athletes they were interested in that we had never heard of before. That’s how we got a lot of obscure characters in the book. Like bullfighter Sidney Franklin – I had never heard of him until [author Tom Rachman] suggested him.
[And] I didn’t know [Hollywood producer] Joel Silver was the inventor of ultimate Frisbee until Mark Oppenheimer proposed that project. Part of the reason the book had the range of subject that it had is that our writers had their own obsessions they had an opportunity to pursue.”
Despite the breadth of its subjects, there were a few people Foer regrets leaving out.
“Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, was a fairly important figure, and I regret not having him,” he said. “There were also some women – like figure skaters and lady golfer Amy Alcott, as well as some contemporary baseball players like Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler – but it’s hard to write about people whose careers are in progress.”
Many Atlantans might notice another notable omission: local product Ron Blomberg, baseball’s first designated hitter.
“He is worthy of inclusion, and we were trying to get someone to write about him,” said Foer. “We tried to interest writers in him early on, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t materialize. The writers had other subjects they were more interested in writing about.”
A native of Washington, D.C., where he still resides, Foer claims his own athletic experience is not especially distinguished.
“I grew up playing soccer, and my parents later told me they would turn away when the ball came in my direction so they would not have to stare at the impending catastrophe,” he smiled. “Like many Jewish kids, I tried to master with my mind the thing I could not master with my body, and so I’ve always had an intellectual interest in sports.”
Of all the subjects profiled, Foer claims that Sandy Koufax was the most influential Jewish athlete of the 20th century. When Koufax chose not to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the action was applauded nationwide by Jews and gentiles alike.
“What he did on that Yom Kippur was essentially validate Jewish existence in America,” Foer explained. “He begged off the assignment to start a crucial game, and instead of being met with jeers, he was applauded for placing his Jewishness over his team. The fact that this moment has gone down in history in a sort of mythological way sums up in a way why this country is different than any other country.
“It’s the one place where Jews have been able to exist as themselves and have had genuine acceptance from the rest of the population.”
On the other side of the coin, Foer thinks that Bobby Fischer was the most controversial inclusion. A one-time child prodigy who grew up to dominate his sport, Fischer later repudiated Judaism and fell into madness.
Admitting that it’s a “kind of a stretch to call chess a sport,” Foer said Fischer was included because he’s mentioned in older books about Jewish sports.
“Sports clubs were always very active in Eastern Europe, and chess was one of the activities they had. By some historic definition, chess is a Jewish sport,” Foer said.
Taking things to a grander scale, he thinks that the basic ethos of the American Jewish sports experience has to do with innovation.
“You have some athletes who make it big on natural gifts like [Hank] Greenberg, Sandy [Koufax] and Mark Spitz and then you have others who are shorter or slower, less physically gifted and compensate for that fact by using their brain,” Foer said. “When you add it up, you can see Jews have been great innovators in sports.”
As for whether or not Jewish interest in the world of sports been an important factor in Jews’ integration into the general society, Foer says that although he’s not sure of its importance, he thinks sports definitely something Jews care about.
“The reason Jews care about it is very interesting,” he explained. “On the one hand, there’s a long fascinating history about Jews and their relationship to the body. On the other hand, games were often looked on with ambivalence by Jews because they were played by gentiles, and participation seemed like a form of assimilation. And there are also anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews – that they’re bookish, that they’re unmanly.
“[But] Zionism changed that by saying Jews should do strenuous things, that Jews should develop their bodies, form Jewish sports clubs. When you’re talking about sports, you’re talking about issues that dwell in very deep places in the Jewish psyche.”
“Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” (published by Twelve) is available via amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.