The Secret Jewish History of ‘The White Shadow’
Forty years ago this fall, an unassuming yet groundbreaking CBS-TV series called “The White Shadow,” about an inner-city high-school basketball team coached by a former white NBA player, made its debut, bringing the realities of racism, alcoholism, drugs, gang violence, domestic violence, student violence against teachers, student sex with teachers, teen pregnancy, teen death, sexually transmitted diseases, and homosexuality into the nation’s living rooms during prime time. Today that sounds like the normal thing you’d see during a night of channel flipping, but back then it was downright revolutionary. One aspect of the show that is often overlooked, however, is its authentic portrayal of traditional Jewish home life.
There is no question that “The White Shadow” — which ran just three seasons, from 1978 to 1981 — broke ground in its portrayal of the daily struggles facing a segment of African-American teenagers, prefiguring shows like “The Wire” by nearly a quarter-century. Indeed, series creator and producer Bruce Paltrow fought tooth and nail with the network throughout its short run against pressure to turn the program into a comedy along the lines of “Good Times” and “Welcome Back, Kotter.” While a critical success, and, in hindsight, a creative landmark, the show was never a commercial hit.
The basketball team largely consisted of black players, but there were a few token representatives of other groups, including a Latino and an Italian player unfortunately nicknamed “Salami.” And then there was Abner Goldstein.
Goldstein was not a starting player, and he mostly sat on the sidelines cheering on his teammates (sometimes to their annoyance) and sharing in their emotional triumphs and defeats (also to their annoyance). Played by Ken Michelman — himself a former college player at the University of Denver, where his teammates included the comedian Sinbad (then known as David Adkins), before suffering a serious ankle injury that ended his basketball career – Goldstein was an outsider. Even though he was on the team, he wasn’t really of the team, and although the show never explicitly tied this to his being Jewish – there wasn’t any portrayal of overt anti-Semitism — one could read the story as such, as a Jew who strived to belong, and whose striving was in itself the problem. “I just don’t seem to fit in,” Abner confides to his coach at one point.
The fourteenth episode of Season 1 (the entire series is now available for streaming on Hulu) delved into Goldstein’s backstory. Titled “Little Orphan Abner,” it’s here where we learn that Goldstein, portrayed as a socially awkward nerd – an “uncool fool” who “tries too hard,” as one of his teammates complains — lives with his grandparents because his parents died in a car crash when he was 11.
And oh, those grandparents! The episode takes us home with Abner on a Friday night for a serious Shabbat dinner, replete with candles, yarmulkes, and a delectably Yiddish-accented recitation of the kiddush by grandpa. Abner has invited his very blond coach, played by [Ken Howard,]( to dinner, and coach doesn’t skip a beat — somehow he has intimate familiarity with gefilte fish, matzo-ball soup, and latkes, and he even knows how to wear a yarmulke without it falling off his head. Abner’s immigrant grandparents — we learn that they arrived from Poland in 1925, an unfortunate lapse of detail on the part of the show’s writers, since the doors to Jewish immigration to the U.S. were pretty much closed with the Immigration Act of 1924 — kvell to the coach about their wonderful grandson. In his giveaway Yiddish syntax, grandpa says, “Abner we hope to be a doctor.” After dinner, coach says to Abner, “I didn’t know you were that religious,” and reassures him that it’s a good thing.
One can detect the hand of series creator Paltrow in the character of Goldstein and in the details about his grandparents. The Brooklyn-born Paltrow’s own family was of Eastern European Jewish descent, hailing from Minsk. His father was born Arnold Paltrowitz, and his paternal great-grandfather was a rabbi in Nowogród, Poland.
Paltrow partly based the series on Howard himself, who earned the nickname “The White Shadow” in the starting roster on the otherwise all-black basketball team at Manhasset High School on Long Island in the early 1960s. Howard would go on to marry Margo Lederer, the daughter of Jules Lederer and Eppie Lederer, the latter better known as Ann Landers, the advice columnist. Eppie’s twin sister, Pauline, wrote the “Dear Abby” advice column. Margo herself wrote an advice column called “Dear Prudence,” named after the Beatles’ song, whose first line is, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He often mines popular culture for unheralded or surprising Jewish stories.