Debunking Myth of the Unathletic Jew
I would not say I’ve become jaded, but I thought I had heard enough (and written enough) about Sandy Koufax not pitching on Yom Kippur. I knew the stories about Hank Greenberg and Al Rosen and those other outstanding Jewish ballplayers.
And then one day, in the mail recently, I got a 24-page publication called Jewish Sports Review. I immediately thought of that old joke about the shortest books in the English language — you know, the list that includes “Jewish Sports Stars.”
But I opened the Kindle-sized publication, and there was a picture of Izzy Fayerman. Who knew that Potsdam College’s women’s hockey team had a freshman forward named Izzy? Or that Amherst College’s men’s lacrosse squad had a junior named Danny Gold?
But wait. I learned that Yasmin Feingold (you know, Israel’s great oarswoman) was trapped under her boat after it capsized in the Yarkon River, but a 60-year-old bystander who “leaped into the polluted water” saved her.
On and on it went: badminton stars, ice skaters, fencers, sailors. If you are a sports fan and always wondered, “Is this person Jewish?” then this is the publication for you — six times a year, at that.
I don’t know why there’s the myth of the unathletic Jew. After all, in the old countries we were often laborers just as we were store owners. Every Jewish community had its soccer teams. And when Israel was created, the glamour of farm life, of kibbutz living, seemed attractive to me, a 12-year-old who had never lifted a hoe or a hammer in Brooklyn.
Yet, while Jews have been 2% of the American population for many years, we never really got above 1% of those who played professional sports. Then again, the numbers assuredly are top-heavy for those who went into such professions as medicine, law and education; if not, maybe more would have become running backs or shortstops or point guards for a living. Maybe.
Still, we are endlessly fascinated by stories of Jews who play sports and play them well. (Say, did you know Ari Ronick of the Richmond Flying Squirrels of the Class AA Eastern League was moved up after posting a 3–1 won-lost record?)
The person who has unearthed these Jewish gems is Ephraim Moxson, a retired parole officer (wonder how many of those officers are Jews). Moxson, who also used to be a social worker, has a simple formula for finding Jewish athletes: He scours the hundreds of websites that post college rosters, hunting for Jewish-sounding names.
Being Jewish, and in business (sort of), he has a partner: Shel Wallman, a 75-year-old retired educator and the publication’s founder, who lives in New York City and does the majority of the writing. The pair conducts a bicoastal operation, since Moxson, 70, lives in Los Angeles. They divide the writing by sports: Wallman handles lacrosse and basketball, for example, while Moxson writes about baseball and football.
Wallman started the publication 30 years ago and then sold it. Eventually he saw it fade out of existence. But 15 years ago he revived it with Moxson, who had corresponded with him over the years. It has remained a two-man operation, although they do have a correspondent in Israel.
Identifying a Jewish athlete is a difficult trick these days, since half of the population of Jews intermarries. So if the father is Jewish, it’s not that difficult to find a Jewish-sounding name. But what about the mother? Ephraim finds a significant number by asking the Jewish athletes he uncovers whether they know of others, on their own teams or on rival squads. He also calls college sports-information directors.
Sometimes, the pair has hunches — for example, Olympic champion ice skater Sarah Hughes is from Great Neck, N.Y., a Jewish enclave. So Moxson and Wallman investigated and found out from her Jewish mother that, yes, Hughes does indeed think of herself as Jewish, although she has a non-Jewish father.
And once, there was the mother of Jason Marquis (now pitching for Minnesota) who called and said: “My son’s Jewish. How come he’s not in your publication?”
Beyond that, though, the magazine has an interesting take on things: Fans tend to identify as Jewish ballplayers anyone who may not be strictly (that is, in the realm of Orthodoxy) Jewish. I think the reason is, we are so hungry for someone to be Jewish that we will identify an athlete as Jewish even if his mother isn’t.
The Jewish Sports Review is of this opinion, too. In an “editorial” that appears on its back page, it states, in part, “For our purposes, an athlete is Jewish if they have at least one Jewish parent, do not practice another faith and identify ethnically as a Jew. An athlete with at least one Jewish parent is excluded only if they were raised in or converted to another faith or express a disinclination to be included….”
“We take either parent,” Moxson explained. “We’re not an official Jewish publication.”
There is the occasional nitpicker, such as the man who attended a symposium on Jewish athletes in Cooperstown, N.Y., and berated Wallman because the publication listed Jews that have gentile mothers.
“You can’t have a Jew without a Jewish mother,” the man argued.
To which Wallman replied, “Publish your own magazine.”
Gerald Eskenazi, a retired New York Times sportswriter, lectures on sports and the news media.