The book: “Jewish Jocks: An Unorothodox Hall of Fame”
The authors: Edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy
The publishing info: Twelve Books/Hatchette Book Group, 285 pages, $26.99
Where to find it: At the publishers’ site, Powells, Amazon, Barnes&Noble
The essence: Of course, we know the line from the movie “Airplane!” where the stewardess hands the passenger a leaflet of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends” when asked if she had any light reading material (see video above).
But that’s just a nice one-liner. This joke is much more rich.
“‘Jewish Jocks’ is, of course, a Jewish joke,’” Foer and Tracy write in the introduction, “but not in the way you might have thought . . . (the joke) is that our pantheon includes people who, in some cases, couldn’t even run the bases: the gangster who helped fix the World Series (so-called “American Shylock” Arnold Rothestein, in 1919), the idealistic ping-pong player (Marty Reisman); the nerdy general manager (Theo Epstein). They get to be counted, too.”
And so do Howard Cosell, Shirley Povich and Robert Lipsyte, more famous for being in the sports media. There’s Jack Molinas, who could “very well have gone down as the kind of basketball player New Yorkers turn into mythology — on par with Lew Alcindor, Connie Hawkins and Bob Cousey,” writes Chad Millman,” but instead is known for organizing game fixing.
Sidney Franklin? Does it matter that he’s a matador? Harvey “Sifu” Sober? Founder and grand master of Tora Dojo, a Jewish-centic martial arts.
Ain’t that a kick?
They’re all mixed in the new, enlightened essays about Sandy Koufax, Nancy Lieberman, Al Davis, Corey Pavin, Sid Luckman, Dolph Schayes, Red Holtzman and Renee Richards (yes, the trans-gender tennis player).
Those who write these pages on each “jock” do so in a masterful, loving manner. Take specifically Jane Leavy, who did Koufax’s recently best-selling unauthorized biography and now writes about how the Dodgers Hall of Famer attended her daughter’s bat mitzvah.
“I knew him well enough to know that being the center of attention of 250 Jews he doesn’t know, all of whom want to know him, is not his idea of a good time,” Leavy writes. “But I had promised my daughter (I would ask). . . . Despite a five-hour drive from his home in Pennsylvania, he and the woman who would soon become his wife were the first guests to arrive.
“Koufax is the rare public figure who eschews public life as it is led on Page Six of the New York Post or on the proliferating websites devoted to consuming what little is left of American privacy. This is not because he is a recluse or a misanthrope or a snob, but because, in defiance to modern convention, he refuses to trade parts of his sould for ‘mentions’ and ‘items’ and ‘sound bites.’ His soul does not require those ministrations.”
You’ll find similiar insights with Jon Wertheim writing about Pavin, George Packer on Mark Cuban, Buzz Bissinger on boxer Barney Ross and Ira Berkow on Hank Greenberg.
Recently, we’ve come across the JLTV — Jewish Live TV, a channel on our DirecTV menu that has reruns of Soupy Sales or “The Jack Benny Show” or even a very sweet sit-com from the 1950s called “The Goldbergs,” that looks like the answer to “Father Knows Best,” except with the Jewish mother, Molly, as the focal point.
Watching those shows now tend to make you smile instead of laugh out loud, but that’s also the point that comes across from the editors of “Jewish Jocks” about the culture’s influence on the sports world. Maybe they weren’t the greatest athletes in every case but as the editors point out: “Maybe Jews would feel differently if they knew that, as much as Hollywood, modern sports are a product of the Jewish imagination.”