It is not uncommon to see a gaggle of NFL cheerleaders — covered up, of course, in unusually modest turtleneck sweaters and long skirts — lunching at one of the many kosher restaurants in Los Angeles.
These former Los Angeles Raiders cheerleaders — Raiderettes, as they are called — are there to see one of their own: Elianah Rochel Mendlowitz, Raiderette turned rebbetzin.
Mendlowitz, who was a football cheerleader for five years, recently wrote an article about her life on the Web site of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach organization: “I danced and moon-walked in high-heel go-go boots for four hours straight in front of 60,000 adoring fans,” she wrote. She traveled with the Raiders to the Super Bowl and to exhibition games in Barcelona, Spain, before the team moved from Los Angeles back to Oakland in 1995.
“I was good” at cheerleading, Mendlowitz told the Forward. “It was good for self-esteem; doing the drill-type movements, I used to get so excited [doing everything] all in unison. If it wasn’t for the outfits…”
Mendlowitz’s life today is a little less racy, and her outfits are less revealing. She limits her professional career to writing and directing plays at Jewish girls’ high schools and running an Orthodox dating service for women. When she found out that a reporter was single, she immediately began matchmaking. “You live in Brooklyn?” she said. “I know some girls for you in Brooklyn.”
How did the professional cheerleader change into a professional Jew?
Three years ago Mendlowitz began taking classes at the University of Judaism, a Conservative institution. “I wanted to get married, I [wanted] to have children, and what’s my knowledge of Judaism?” Mendlowitz said. “Well, bagels and cream cheese, and Yiddish [jokes] and… bagels and cream cheese.”
She was invited to a Sabbath dinner, where she was deeply moved by the ceremony of the family patriarch blessing each of his 11 children before dinner began. She began attending services at Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox organization that, in its own words, is intended to “combat alarming assimilation rates.”
“When I showed up — the new girl — I looked like a Raiderette, with my long blond hair and pants suit on,” she said. Someone told her that to be religious, a woman needed to wear a skirt, so the next week she showed up in a candy-apple red skirt.
“I didn’t want Hashem to know I wasn’t sincere,” Mendlowitz said, using a Hebrew name for God. At her synagogue was a sink where people would wash their hands and say their prayers after using the bathroom. “I saw them moving their mouth, so I knew they were saying a Hebrew blessing. So I went over and joined.” She assumed that everyone was saying a blessing over the “holy water fountain.”
She met her husband — rabbi and businessman Feivel Mendlowitz — just over a year ago at a kosher restaurant; four months later, they married, and she inherited three stepchildren, a mother-in-law and herds of brothers- and sisters-in-law.
When the Raiderettes came to Mendlowitz’s wedding, they were brimming with excitement. “They [were] saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so many questions,’” she recalled. The Raiderettes spent the wedding eating and dancing only with other women, instead of their husbands — a tradition unfamiliar to most of them, but one that they took to right away. “I didn’t miss him at all,” one Raiderette later said of her husband.
Mendlowitz’s family has also been “supportive,” she said, although her religious awakening has required some adjustment. “They’re happy for me,” she said, “as long as they don’t catch it.”
Although it might seem like quite a change, it was a change Mendlowitz was ready for. Mendlowitz’s previous life — the life of the cheerleader — wasn’t as glamourous as one might expect.
“The image you get is: We get what the players get” in terms of salary, Mendlowitz said with a laugh. But being a Raiderette was an unpaid privilege. “If you’re a savvy businesswoman — which most of the girls were — you could book your own gigs.” Raiderettes made appearances at local auto stores or on television specials, which is how they earned most of their income. When Mendlowitz was dancing for the Raiders, she was a stand-up comedian on the side.
Her act consisted of — well — being a Jewish cheerleader.
Mendlowitz’s grandmother gave her Jewish cheerleading advice that she, in turn, passed on to her audiences: A Jew, she said, “is supposed to own the team — not cheer for it.”
“It didn’t feel so good when I would see Howie Long sack this little quarterback,” Mendlowitz said in her act. “You could hear bones [break]. I would say ‘Howie — did you have to hit him so hard?’”
After she had warmed the audience up, she would get into the details of her family life. “My dad was one of the members of the National Jewish Outdoorsmen.” After a pause she added: “Three of the nicest guys you’ve ever met in your life.”
Being a comedian wasn’t such a stretch for the former Raiderette; born Sandy Wolshin in Miami, one of six children, her father was a hypnotist and Borscht Belt comic.
“My dad was a shtickler,” Mendlowitz said. Going into a restaurant, her father would say to the maitre d’, “‘Hey, you know a good place to eat around here?’” He would then order in the accent of whatever ethnic restaurant they were in. “I was so grateful the menus [in the Chinese restaurants] were so big,” said Mendlowitz, who used to hide behind them in embarrassment.
Raiderettes were obliged to re-audition every year; Mendlowitz began doing her stand-up act at the auditions, a big hit with fellow landsman, Raiders owner Al Davis. “The pressure would be on me to have new material,” Mendlowitz said.
The material she works on now is gentler, milder. “My father — of blessed memory — taught me some of his cheers,” Mendlowitz said. “Achey, Jakey, Makey, Sam! We’re the boys that eat no ham!”