Last August, at the annual Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish retreat in Copake, N.Y., a bearded father pitched a softball to his developmentally disabled 8-year-old son, accompanying each toss with Yiddish words of encouragement. A young man with spiky hair approached the child and asked, “Vilst ikh zol dir vayzn?” (Do you want me to show you how?) The child nodded. The new coach positioned the child’s small fists on the bat and his body on the mound, as the father continued pitching. When the child finally hit the ball, the coach congratulated him with a high-five and continued on his way.
The Yiddish-speaking impromptu coach was Max Kellerman, known to boxing fans from his work on “Friday Night Fights” on ESPN2 and to sports fans everywhere as the moderator of the new ESPN sports talking-head show, “Around the Horn,” which premiered in November. On “Around the Horn,” Kellerman interacts via high-fiber technology with sports columnists in newsrooms at The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post and Dallas Morning News, awarding points as the columnists argue a variety of sports topics and answer trivia questions. The teasing and bickering often gets heated and funny, since all of them, including the irrepressible 29-year-old Kellerman, are witty, quick-tongued and unabashedly stubborn about their opinions.
Although Kellerman’s pride in being a born-and-bred New Yorker and a diehard Yankee fan are well-known to his viewers, what’s less well known is his strong emotional attachment to the history of the Jewish immigrant experience in New York and the secular Yiddish culture that thrived in those years.
He and his three brothers were raised in Manhattan and attended public school, but on Saturdays they were students at the Khayke Klebonsky Yiddish school, where they took classes in Yiddish, Jewish history and a heavy dose of Marxist dogma. “What can I say?” Kellerman remarked in an interview with the Yiddish Forward. “Their hearts were in the right place, but they were completely misguided.” At Camp Kinderland, a summer camp founded by the Yiddish Communist movement where Kellerman spent his summers, “every game, in the name of fairness, ended in a tie, so you could never win. It was tyrannical by nature.” Kinderland was hardly a bastion of Zionism. “When we had the Olympics at camp, every country was represented, except Israel. It was ridiculous. But it’s hard to criticize that generation; after all, this was their life’s work.”
Kellerman’s favorite sport, perhaps unusual for a Jewish boy of his generation, was boxing. “I was a scrappy kid,” he said. “I was always getting into fights. So my dad took me to a gym where I saw people boxing for the first time in my life. I was amazed. Imagine! A sport where you’re allowed to fight! To top it off, it’s always a fair fight because I’d be boxing with a kid my size.”
Not long afterward, however, in 1982, the Korean boxer Kim Deuk-gu, was killed in the ring after a fight against lightweight champion Ray Mancini, which resulted in a flood of negative publicity about boxing. From that day on, Kellerman’s mother forbade him to participate in the sport, so, as Kellerman put it, “I sublimated all that energy into following boxing.”
When Kellerman hit age 16, his father helped him launch a public-access cable television show called “Max on Boxing.” For a half-hour each week, he took questions from callers, and his reputation grew among hard-core boxing fans, Dustin Hoffman the actor included. One of David Letterman’s producers who watched the show was impressed with a 16-year-old talking knowledgeably about old-time fighters and arranged an appearance on “The Late Show.”
Years later, as Kellerman approached his graduation from Columbia University, he put together a demo tape and press kit of highlights from his show, made 25 copies and sent them off to various networks. ESPN called and immediately hired Kellerman as co-host of the two-and-a-half-hour-long “Friday Night Fights.”
Although Kellerman didn’t learn much mameloshn in the Yiddishschool (“How well could I learn it in just one hour a week?” he asked), he longed to know the language his grandparents had spoken to each other. “I was very close to Bobe. We used to go to the park and feed the birds. She would take me along on her visits to the Yiddish writer Ber Green in the nursing home. I used to listen to them talk about the good old days when everyone spoke, read, wrote and argued in Yiddish. It fascinated me. It was like living a ‘Star Wars’ movie. Luke Skywalker finds out about this lost Golden Age and sets out to learn the language, but has to learn it secondhand.”
“My brother Sam once said: ‘Hitler failed in wiping out the Jews, but he may have succeeded in wiping out Yiddish. That’s why we have to ensure the future of the language. Every Yiddish word we learn is another blow to Hitler.’” Four years ago, Kellerman, Sam and his other two brothers, Harry and Jack, took the summer Yiddish program at Oxford, and attended the “Yidish-Vokh,” the annual week-long Yiddish retreat sponsored by Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish. To this day, Kellerman attends the “Yidish-Vokh” every summer, for the Yiddish immersion experience, and he recently subscribed to the Yiddish Forward.
“When I have kids someday, I will definitely raise them in Yiddish,” Kellerman said. “I told my girlfriend that if we get married, she’s going to have to learn to speak it.” When asked whether she wants to, Kellerman chuckled and replied: “Do you mean, does she want to, or is she willing to learn? Big difference, you know….”
Apparently, she won’t have much choice. Kellerman probably means what he says. After all, there’s no telling what a fighting spirit can accomplish, when he puts his mind to it.
Rukhl Schaechter is news editor of the Yiddish Forward, where a version of this article originally appeared.