Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame
Edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy
Twelve, 304 pages, $26.99
As long as people are reading the Bible, Jews will always be thought of as a stubborn people. You can thank God for that: In Deuteronomy 9:6, God tells Moses that the Israelites are “stiff-necked.” As long as there are rich people named Rothschild, there will always be people that are convinced Jews run the global financial markets. As long as there are copies of Frank Zappa’s 1979 album “Sheik Yerbouti” for sale, listeners will always have a lewd example of the stereotypical Jewish American Princess. Stereotypes have followed Jews all across the globe, no matter how inaccurate or insensitive they may be.
In their introduction to “Jewish Jocks,” New Republic editor Franklin Foer and former Tablet Magazine editor Marc Tracy, now a staff writer at the New Republic, don’t use the word “stereotype” to discuss the fact that there haven’t been that many truly great Jewish athletes. Instead, they refer to a “Jewish ambivalence” about sports, noting that swimming is mentioned in the Talmud for the sake of survival and that Maimonides espouses exercise for a healthy body, but never for the sake of competition.
But Jewish failure at sport is another stereotype that has been around for centuries, never mind the fact that the modern era has produced a handful of great Jewish boxing world champs; Jews who have raised the Stanley Cup over their heads; Jews who helped create the style of American football that millions watch every Sunday, and, of course, Sandy Koufax, who retired from baseball in 1966 and is still considered the quintessential American Jewish athlete of the last hundred years. An essay on Koufax, written by Jane Leavy, who already wrote extensively about him in her 2005 best-selling biography of the pitcher, appears in “Jewish Jocks.” Here her take is a bit more personal, as she discusses Koufax accepting an invitation to her daughter’s bat mitzvah.
“Jewish Jocks” is filled to the brim with impressive writers writing about impressive people. The assembled names constitute a who’s who of popular fiction writers, award-winning journalists and a few folks who have had films and television shows adapted from their work. But while the title implies that the collection could help chip away at the age-old stereotype by presenting tales of, well, Jewish jocks, a good portion of the book is dedicated to Jews known more for their brains than for their fast legs or great passing arms.