Check out my book review for Ron Kaplan’s website, “Kaplan’s Korner.” I review Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, Edited by Franklin Foer and Mark Tracy
Twelve Books, 304 pages, $26.99.
By Dave Hollander
“It’s gotten thicker” said a colleague when I flashed him my review copy of Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He was, of course, referencing the old joke, told in some variation or another: Q “What’s the thinnest book ever written? “ A “Jewish sports heroes. “ There lies some historic truth in the jest. In 1948 (hard to believe the annum was coincidental) when Harold Ribalow convinced Bloch Publishing to print The Jew in American Sports, Hebraic boxing legend Barney Ross (included in Jewish Jocks) wrote in the book’s preface that he “wonder[ed] that any publisher should consider [the book] sufficiently salable to risk the publications costs.” Ribalow’s compendium provided glorious sketches of twenty-eight athletes. Sixty-four years, later Jewish Jocks offers fifty different writers on fifty different sports figures. I guess it has gotten thicker.
Or is pro-sports finally post-Semitic? When I grew up, it used to be that anytime anyone in our family noticed a potentially Jewish sounding name in a sports page – Cohen, Shapiro, Grossman or a last name suffixed with a -stein, -berg, -taub, etc. – we’d postulate with cautious optimism: “Is he Jewish?” But since then, haven’t enough sons and daughters of Abraham come along that it’s not a really a big deal any more if someone in the NFL, NBA or MLB is Jewish? To wit, I offer a tipping point. During an August 16, 2006 Red Sox telecast ( I urge you to YouTube this now) , actor/comedian Denis Leary joined the broadcast booth for some banter at which time he was informed that Kevin Youkilis, the Sox first baseman, was Jewish. On cue, Youkilis made a defensive gem; a diving stop of a hard ground ball in the hole on the second base side, then neatly tossing to Curt Schilling covering first base to complete the out. Leary erupted in a hilarious tirade against Mel Gibson, whose inebriated Jew-hate rant toward a California police officer only two weeks earlier conclusively bestowed the rank of anti-Semite upon the Aussie actor. “Where’s Mel Gibson now, huh?” crowed Leary, channeling a little Sam Kinison. “He’s in rehab, and Youkilis is at first base! Alright, Mel? You happy Braveheart? You see that grab, Mel?” It goes on for a good several minutes . The sight of the hulking , hyper-competent, World Series champion Youkilis set against the sounds of the honest, edgy, Irish Leary’s riff said clearly to me: it’s over. Jews in sports are no longer a surprise.