Where Have You Gone, Sandy Koufax

It’s not until after the game that Gabe Kapler’s tattoos can be seen. The Boston Red Sox outfielder stands in front of his locker in the guts of Fenway Park, peeled down to his shorts. A Star of David as big as a chocolate-chip cookie brands his bulging left calf. Bruise-blue Hebrew letters in a crescent around the star translate to “strong mind.” The tattoo on his right leg is in English: “Never Again, 1933-1945.”

Kapler, whose throw from the outfield fence helped seal a victory tonight, is touted as one of the most promising Jewish athletes in the world. “A Jewish rookie sensation,” the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix gushed in 1999. A “potential all-star,” effused Slate in a 2001 article called “Jews on First,” which pondered whether the day would soon be upon us when there would be a major-league minyan—10 Jewish players in the big leagues.
There isn’t one yet. There are currently eight Jewish players in Major League Baseball. There are also—as anyone can learn by reading one of the dozens of websites, magazines and books devoted to Jews in sports—five sons of Abraham in the National Hockey League, six in the National Football League, and about a dozen playing world-class soccer.

Muscular, intense-eyed Kapler, 28, is a big deal in the world that hungrily tracks such things, a gung-ho Semitic slugger whose four home runs in the 2003 season and 55 since his 1998 debut are chronicled as assiduously as Shylock tallied each ill-gotten ducat.

Nevertheless, word of Kapler’s stature in the hearts of Jews obsessed with Jews in sports has apparently not filtered down to the men he plays with every day, men who, in locker rooms and showers and weight rooms before and after their 162-games a year, have ample opportunity to see his giant Hebrew tattoos. When Pedro Martinez, the famous ace pitcher for the Red Sox, is asked if he thinks Kapler might be a symbol of pride to Jews just as Pedro is to people from his homeland of the Dominican Republic, the pitcher seems surprised and asks, “Kapler is Jewish? I didn’t know that. I thought Kapler was just American.”
Four decades after Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur during the World Series and ignited Jewish pride, the Jewish-athlete-obsession business is red hot. But times have changed since 1965. Now every Jew who lifts a dumbbell at a Muscle Beach competition or warms a bench as a third-string professional is benighted by fanatic sports fans as a mini-Koufax.

There are 18 Jewish Sports Halls of Fame in the United States, dozens of websites on Jewish athletes, a bear market in Jewish sports memorabilia ($535 for a baseball signed by 1940s Detroit Slugger Hank Greenberg), a newly issued set of Jewish Major Leaguers baseball cards covering the years 1870 to 2003 and a new Judaica Sports Collectibles Library from New York City-based S.p.i. Books, which includes the forthcoming title The Big Book of Jewish Athletes: Biographies & Anecdotes of Great Jews in Sports.

This is serious business to many people. Few things raise the ire of brissed-out ball fans more than jokes like the one in the 1980 movie Airplane:

“May I offer you anything to read, ma’am?”

“Do you have anything light?”

“How about this leaflet, Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”

There is nothing light about the Jewish Sports Review, a bi-monthly publication with 1,000 subscribers that seems to catalog every athletic feat by every Jew from junior high school through senior citizens’ leagues.

Readers of the $6, 24-page Sept/Oct issue can find among its hundreds of rapid-fire tidbits:

“DAVID MANSOUR (Eng) captured the foil event of the 2003 British Fencing Association Championships. He is the first Jew to win the senior foils since ALAN JAY in 1963.”

“We just learned that DEDE COHEN of Houston’s (TX) Memorial H.S. enjoyed an outstanding sophomore season as a shooting guard.”

“CAROLYN WARHAFTIG (P) (Soph) – Colgate – from Wyckoff, NJ. Carolyn fed for an assist for one point as she started 17/17 contests.” [This from the Women’s 2003 College Soccer Preview, a special section in the issue]

The (P) after a name means that only an athlete’s father is Jewish. If there’s no (M), meaning only the mother is, or (C), indicating a conversion, the athlete is 100-percent full-blooded Yid.

Manhattan-based Shel Wallman, 66, a retired high school dean, and his co-publisher, Ephraim Moxson, a 61-year-old parole agent administrator in Los Angeles, pore over the sports pages in newspapers from around the country, and every time a Stein, Rosenberg or Cohen appears, they play “is he a Jew?” with gusto, chalking up members of the tribe like a marlin fisherman notches his rod to count catches.

“Last year,” JSR notes, “we mentioned ANITA MARKS, QB for the Florida Stingrays of the Women’s Professional Football League. We can now include her teammates, DT ALISON KATZ, DE BONNIE LEVY and OL MELISSA GREEN.” (Marks, incidentally, posed for the September, 2002 issue of Playboy, wearing shoulder pads, a wrist guard and little else.)
Why do Wallman and Moxson do it?

“People were always asking, ‘Is this guy Jewish, is that guy Jewish?'” Wallman says. “We decided we would find out and that’s what we’ve done for five and a half years. We find out, and people who want to know, they subscribe to our magazine.”

And legions do want to know. So many people visit the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame—literally a hallway inside the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit—that the 56 plaques are being moved from a back area near the inline hockey center to a more prominent renovated hallway near the health-club entrance. The new wall will also contain an interactive touch-screen where visitors can watch videos on the inductees. Among them: Julius Spielberg, who, when he was inducted in 1999 at age 98, was the premier Senior Olympics speed walker in his age class; Hank Greenberg (“the best,” says Steven Simmons, who runs the hall); and Benny Friedman, an all-American at Michigan in the 1920s who is also in the NFL Hall of Fame.

The Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, founded with a $100,000 donation from the Rose and Adolph Levis family, who continue to give about $10,000 a year, completed an expansion in 2003 from one room to two. The 5,000 annual visitors can now peruse 22 Plexiglas-sealed lockers displaying memorabilia such as a basketball uniform from the 1930s-era South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. New inductees include “Dynamite” Dave Smukler, a college and pro football player in the 1930s, and Ed Lerner, a college basketball player in the 1940s.

But those are the minor leagues. The Jewish sports hall of fame which claims to be the national Jewish Sports Hall of Fame is in Commack, Long Island. It was, until recently, also just a hallway filled with plaques leading from the gymnasium to the pool in a Jewish community center. By early 2004, the hall of fame will have moved to its own airy room, where visiting Hebrew school groups will be able to view illustrated timelines of the Jewish experience in the Olympics and other sporting events. The new room was designed by Frank Cirillo, who also created the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, New Jersey.

This effort is worth it, director Alan Freedman explains, because with so many Jewish kids pinning posters of Barry Bonds and LeBron James on their walls, we need to make sure they know that Jews can make it as big-time athletes, too.

“When it comes down to it,” he says, “we’re showing that maybe there isn’t as much difference between people as we all think, and all the jokes about Jewish athletes and Polish scientists and Italian war heroes aren’t true. I’m not making it out that Jews are better. All I’m trying to say is we’ve responded in sports just like everywhere else.”

Not all athletes whose faces are cast in bronze or whose names are uttered lovingly by the Freedmans and Wallmans of the world are playing along. When the spokesperson for Olympic ice skater Sasha Cohen, a gold medal favorite for 2006 who is profiled and pondered in nearly every publication devoted to Jewish athletes, is contacted for an interview request, the spokesperson declines with a polite e-mail explaining that Sasha “does not practice Judaism and would not want to lead people the wrong way.”

Right now, the best the tribe has got is Jay Fiedler, the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. He’s full-blooded—no (M), (P) or (C)—and took the time to show up in Commack, near his native Oceanside, for induction into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

Dolphins spokesman Neal Gulkis, however, doesn’t sound optimistic about setting up an interview with Fiedler, even after I explain that I don’t want to discuss his faith, but rather, how he feels about those preparing to engrave his image into some sort of Jewish Mt. Rushmore next to Koufax, Greenberg and swimmer Mark Spitz—if only Fiedler can win a Super Bowl.
Gulkis says he gets a lot of calls for interviews with Fiedler about being Jewish.

After two weeks of back and forth, Gulkis finally says, “At this point, he doesn’t have much of an interest. What with the season happening and everything ….”

When Freedman at the Commack Hall of Fame is told about Fiedler’s lack of interest, he quickly reminds me of Miami’s third-string quarterback, Sage Rosenfels, a 6’4″ blue-eyed buck from Iowa. “We lead the league in Jewish QBs,” a Dolphins fan wrote in the finheaven.com chat room.

Gulkis sounds tired when phoned two weeks after the Fielder rejection for an interview with Rosenfels. “He’s not Jewish,” Gulkis sighs. “His father is Jewish. [(P)] He acknowledges that he’s half-Jewish, but he’s raising his children …” Gulkis pauses. It sounds like he might have begun uttering a word that begins with “C,” which would make sense since Rosenfels’ wife’s name is Maria, but then Gulkis seems to remember his public relations training—saying less is always better than saying too much—and regathers himself, continuing without elaboration. “He’s not raising his family Jewish.”

Is this enough to disqualify the bench-warmer Sage—who has thrown 9 passes and rushed for negative 10 yards in his entire NFL career—as a symbol for a people he doesn’t even to want to be a part of? Not likely. The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inducted him in absentia in 2002.

Some Jewish athletes will never even know they’ve been drafted as eternal symbols into the Jewish sports canon. Boston publisher Martin Abramowitz earned some column inches in the Boston Globe and other papers for his set of Jewish Major Leaguers baseball cards, which purports to be as complete a compilation as possible of every Jew ever to play big-league ball. Working from his kitchen table, Abramowitz secured funding from the American Jewish Historical Society, arranged photo rights with the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Players Association, and convinced the venerable card company Fleer to print 15,000 sets of the 142-card collection at cost. Â
Forty of these players, most from the early 20th century, most dead, never before appeared on a baseball card. Jesse “Tiny” Baker, whose major-league career consisted of appearing at shortstop in one game in 1919, from which he was removed after being spiked by Ty Cobb. Baker’s name at birth was Michael Myron Silverman.

Within a few days of the Globe article, the AJHS, which is offering the cards as a premium for those who donate at least $100, had received orders for 1,000 sets. Within a month, the JML sets were being sold on eBay next to such items as a Koufax-autographed limited-edition oil painting listed for $1,200, and a muddy postcard photo of boxer Sammy Dorfman, who went undefeated in 1925 and 1926, going for 40 bucks.

This current wave of Jews-in-sports mania isn’t the first. In 1965, The Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports was published, and in 1983, perhaps as a direct answer to the Airplane “light reading” joke of three years earlier, Robert Slater and Red Auerbach’s 352-page tome Great Jews in Sports first appeared. An expanded and updated version hit shelves in November, 2003.

But there’s no longer a need to rely solely on arcane history books. Peruse the stunningly thorough jewsinsports.org—which recently posted a feature on Sasha Cohen—and there, listed alphabetically in the football section between Hal Seidenberg, an all-Ivy League fullback at Cornell in the late 1940s who later became a lawyer, and Robert Seigal, a player with the 11th-place Canton Bulldogs in 1925, is Mike Seidman, the current starting tight end for the Carolina Panthers. His bio informs readers that he was raised in Westlake, California and that in 2003, Mike “was the highest Jewish player selected in the NFL draft.”

The Panthers are happy to put their rookie on the phone. So how does it feel to be a Jewish sports hero? “If it makes people happy, then good for me, I guess,” Seidman (M), 22, says cheerfully. Asked if he might marry a Jewish woman, even though he wasn’t really raised in the faith, he replies, “My girlfriend is half-Arab. From Westlake. I didn’t even think anything of it. People would tell me, ‘She’s half-Arab. They don’t like Jewish people.’ I met her dad. He’s cool.”

Muscles bulging as he grabs his duffle bag on his way out of Fenway Park, Gabe Kapler tells me, “I’ve always been intrigued by the stronger, more powerful Jewish role models versus—not that these guys aren’t interesting people—role models like Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal.”

A month later, on the phone from his off-season home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, he continues, “The portrayal of Jews is as weak, and that fires me up. It’s our own fault. It’s kept up by the parents of Jews because they stress education so hard rather than letting a person develop into whatever they are.”
He says that if he were a big star, he’d make an even bigger deal about being Jewish, trumpeting it from every magazine cover and TV show he could.

Before he gets off the phone to spend time with his wife Lisa and their two young children (P), Kapler gives his bottom line: “I don’t like our stereotypes. I think our stereotypes are bullshit.” He says some Jews don’t like the histrionic professional wrestler Goldberg, but to him the loudmouth is a modern Koufax. “He’s charismatic and interesting and he’s a stud. We need a stud.”

More strident studs do seem to be stepping forward and volunteering for duty—but those obsessed with Jews in sports aren’t necessarily welcoming these new arrivals into the fold. In 1999, German tennis great Boris Becker told Inside Tennis magazine that his mother has a “Jewish background,” and had fled Czechoslovakia in her youth. Then in 2003, international soccer superstar (and Posh Spice husband) David Beckham revealed to OK! magazine that his mother’s father is Jewish.
“Beckham is a quarter Jewish, but doesn’t practice Judaism,” scoffs Ephraim Moxson of the Jewish Sports Review. “Becker’s a crock. I don’t think there’s anything to that at all. It’s like that Buffy Sainte-Marie song from the ’60s where everyone claims to have Indian blood. Now everyone’s claiming to have Jewish blood.” Moxson also sniffs at claims by Russian ice skater Oksana Baiul that she is Jewish. “At best, one-eighth,” he says. For the JSR, only one-half or better, or a convert who actively practices the faith, will do.

But there is hope on the horizon—the next Koufax may arrive in the guise of a basketball player.

“Not like this guy from Maryland a few years ago, who Sports Illustrated called ‘the Jewish Jordan.'” Moxson says. “We knew from the beginning he wasn’t good. Now he’s playing B-level ball in Israel.” Moxson can’t even remember that player’s name anymore. (It is Tamir Goodman.) But you can hear the raw excitement in his voice when Moxson talks about his great hope: Jordan Farmar, a senior basketball player at Taft High School (Kapler’s alma mater) in the San Fernando Valley, who has already committed to attend UCLA in fall 2004.

“He’s half-Jewish, half-black. Bar mitzvahed. Not only is he good, but he’s the number one high-school shooting guard in the nation, according to two national ratings guides. Two!” he exclaims, underlining the veracity of his claim. “He is the real deal.”

What do you think?

About The Author

4 Responses

  1. marv935

    I agree with the author that there is great interest in Jewish athletes. I think that as more Israeli athletes become world class, there will be more recognition and acclaim. An Israeli basketball player from Maccabi Tel Aviv was selected in 2009 to join the NBA Sacramento Kings. The Israeli Davis Cup team is currently in the semi-final round for the first time in history- a significant victory since the Israeli team has finished ahead of the USA, Australia, France and Britian.
    The decision a few months ago of the Dubai tennis tournament to discriminate against Shahar Peer of Israel led to a pouring of support and acclaim for her.
    The Israeli athletes, by the way, are all very proud to be both Israelis and Jews. I think the interest in Jewish athletes will continue to grow.

    Reply

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