(Page 2 of 2)
Sam Lipsyte writes about his father, the sports writer Robert Lipsyte, and does so in a typically funny and awkward manner. Lipsyte articulates what it was like growing up the son of a guy who got to hang around Muhammad Ali, and he isn’t embarrassed to dissect the strange relationship he had with Lipsyte senior. “By fourteen I’d gotten pretty large and soft. All I did after school was come home and try to eat and masturbate my nervousness away,” he writes, to explain how his father decided that Lipsyte needed to join the shot put team.
Deborah Lipstadt, the prominent Holocaust historian whose July piece for Tablet Magazine, “Jewish Blood is Cheap,” called out the International Olympic Committee for not acknowledging the slain Israeli athletes of the 1972 Munich games, revisits the massacre with her contribution, “Martyrs of Munich.” Lipstadt tells the condensed story of the Munich Olympics massacre and its aftermath in just four pages, and her essay feels as though it has been forced into an otherwise clever and nuanced collection.
With contributors such as Foer’s brother Jonathan Safran Foer (he writes about the late chess genius and possible lunatic Bobby Fischer); New Yorker editor David Remnick (who amusingly describes Howard Cosell as “a jowly Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn with an alarming toupee and a grave, nasal voice that sounded like middle-period Dylan imitating Winston Churchill”), and Howard Jacobson (who gushes all over Marty Reisman, the man he calls “the best table tennis player America has produced and the sport’s greatest showman”), “Jewish Jocks” is the Murderers’ Row–era Yankees or 1985 Chicago Bears of Jewish sports books. Yes, there is very little competition. But like with any great sports team, it’s fun to watch how the players come together to decide the outcome. Baseball great Hank Greenberg, Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman and gangster Arnold Rothstein have each been written about dozens of times (Rothstein continues to provide inspiration as a character on “Boardwalk Empire”). But in “Jewish Jocks,” writers of the highest caliber take up the task of profiling them (Greenberg by Pulitzer Prize–winner Ira Berkow, Luckman by Rich Cohen and Rothstein by Ron Rosenbaum).
The book succeeds in balancing these veterans with plenty of younger and lesser-known writers. Tracy pulls double duty editing the book and writing about his phone conversations with basketball Hall of Fame inductee Dolph Schayes, while novelist and critic Joshua Cohen tells the fascinating story of the “naïve, opportunistic, ignorant” fencing champion Helene Mayer. Mayer, who left Germany because her father was Jewish, wanted so badly to compete for the country of her birth (even while two of her brothers were sent to labor camps) that she abandoned the country that took her in after her exile (the United States) to go on and give a Nazi salute as she accepted her silver medal at the 1936 Olympics for Hitler’s Germany.
Foer and Tracy have assembled just about the best roster of writers one could hope for, and “Jewish Jocks” functions not only as a fitting tribute to the subjects described throughout its pages, but also presents the antithesis to the Jewish caricature. Instead of simply trying to cram the book full of profiles on any Jewish athlete they could find, the editors of “Jewish Jocks” have crafted a testament to Jewish innovation in sports. Rather than repeating tired stereotypes or giving us 3,000-word essays on athletes descended from Abraham and Sarah, “Jewish Jocks” provides a smartly curated tribute to people who have helped to make sports great — and who just happen to be Jewish.
Jason Diamond lives in Brooklyn. The former editor of Jewcy, he has written for the New York Times, The Paris Review and The Believer, among other publications.