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Legendary South African Jewish Athlete Dies at 103

South African Jewish cricketer Norman Gordon, who has died today at the age of 103, epitomized speed and durability in sport. Gordon was the first Test cricketer to become a centenarian (duration is a key to Test cricket itself, the longest form of the sport, which may last up to five days.). In Gordon’s day – he played in five Tests in the 1938–39 South African season – there were even longer ordeals. A so-called “timeless Test” in 1939 at Durban, South Africa, was called a draw after 10 days. The opposing team, the Marylebone Cricket Club, had to leave to catch a ship home to England. During this marathon, Gordon bowled 738 balls, still a world record for a pace bowler in a Test match (pace bowlers, or fast bowlers use high speed to get a batsman out).

In addition to stamina, Gordon had courage in being the first openly Jewish cricketer in South Africa. In 2011, Gordon told “The Wisden Cricketer”: “The South African Jewish community was very proud that a Jew was playing for their country.” In 1938, when he ran in to bowl the first ball in his Test debut in Johannesburg, a spectator yelled, “Here comes the rabbi!” Undeterred, Gordon played so well that it “shut [the heckler] up for the rest of the tour,” he recalled. His sports career was abbreviated by military service during the Second World War. In his autobiography, the noted cricketer Len Hutton stated that he had “little doubt that if the war had not intervened, Norman Gordon would have made a big name for himself had he toured England”. In 1947, at age 36 he was indeed considered as a player for a tour to England, although ultimately was not chosen.

As Gordon explained to “The Wisden Cricketer,” the South African captain Alan Melville told selectors that since anti-Semitism was rife in postwar England at a time of anti-British violence in Mandatory Palestine, it would be best to avoid any unpleasant conflicts by omitting Gordon, who later stated: “[Melville] felt it expedient to let me out of the tour. There was quite a bit of feeling about Jews even after the war in England.” Instead, he continued playing locally until 1949 and then opened a sporting goods store, maintaining his ties with the sport.

In 1949, the year of Gordon’s retirement from sport, “The Jewish Chronicle” opined: “The characteristic English background of the leisurely cricket field is usually all too sedate, and expensive in point of time, to whet the appetite of the average Jewish nature… A less potent reason may be that in generations gone by the opportunity of indulging in athletic pastimes was restricted by the orthodox observance of the Sabbath, which would seriously conflict with Saturday afternoon — the customary time for English sporting activity.”

It is true that relatively few Jewish cricketers have become prominent, and one who did, Manfred Susskind, who played five test matches for South Africa on its 1924 tour of England, kept his origins quiet. Gordon noted that Susskind was “Jewish but didn’t profess to be Jewish, didn’t admit to it. The South African papers never mentioned he was Jewish.” This was an era when a major cricketer, Percy Fender, was not named captain of the English team merely because some people thought he looked Jewish. A biography denied that Fender was Jewish, and his son suggested that the rumors may have started because his father had a “long nose” and “curly hair.” Yet Gordon belonged to an older school of polite play, wherein players never indulged in sledging, or insulting opponents to gain a competitive advantage. Perhaps Gordon’s only extreme aspect occasioned his nickname, Mobil, because he used to slick down a persistent cowlick in his hair abundantly with Vaseline. Cricket journalist Sidharth Monga interviewed Gordon in 2011, reporting: “His voice is strong, similar to that of one of the most famous Jews I know of, Larry David. And there is no curbing Gordon’s enthusiasm when you start talking cricket with him.” Journalistic segues aside, Gordon’s voice as recorded on radio broadcasts in recent years is mild-mannered and extremely polite, nothing like the aggressively plaintive angst of Larry David.

Gordon’s gracious precedent helped pave the way for later South African Jewish cricketers, which is a good thing, since as “The Jewish Chronicle” noted in 2009:

“There are undoubted similarities between cricket and Judaism. Both value history and tradition. Just as Judaism combines laws and ethics, the laws of cricket are supplemented by the spirit of the game. Both depend upon an intricate balance between the individual and the collective.”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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