Who’s the Greatest Jewish Athlete?
An interview with Franklin Foer about Jewish jocks, and how they changed sports history.
This book has no anxieties! If you look at the cumulative history of Jewish sports, you have to conclude: We're pretty good. So we never worried about confirming or disproving stereotypes. We include all manner of scoundrels. There's a wonderful Ron Rosenbaum essay about Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series. One of my favorite essays is about Jack Molinas. He could have been one of the best basketball players to ever emerge from New York City. In his rookie season in the NBA, 1953, he was named an All-Star. But he also fixed games and the commissioner booted him from the league. After he quit playing, Molinas went around the country buying point guards and ordering them to shave points. By the end of his life, he became a porn mogul. It won't surprise you to learn that he was murdered by his pool in Los Angeles, while entertaining a young XXX star.
Photo by Len Small.
You seem to have a beef with our expansive definition of "jock." And, it's true, that we inserted labor lawyer Marvin Miller in our cannon. (Dahlia Lithwick wrote that one.) Our interest was in documenting the history of sports. The locker room, press box, and sideline are often the most interesting (and influential) places in the arena. Why would we exclude them?
What is the most remarkable Jewish contribution to sports—not the best athlete, but the thing that a Jew did that had the greatest impact on sports?
Basketball is the greatest Jewish contribution to sports. Sure, it was a Canadian gentile who invented the game. But it was Jews who turned it into something interesting. Before Jewish coaches and players exerted their influence, basketball was a stagnant sport. It was Jewish coaches (Harry Baum, Nat Holman) and Jewish players (Barney Sedran) who gave the basketball its speed—the backdoor cut, the look-away pass, hands-up defense, incessant motion. Barney Sedran, by the way, is the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was 5-foot-4. His team was nicknamed the "Busy Izzies" or the "Dizzy Izzies."
I noticed that Sasha Cohen, the great figure skater, is not in Jewish Jocks. I am sure there are other Jewish Jocks that you couldn’t include. Who do you wish was in there?
I'm filled with regret that we don't have an essay on Abe Saperstein, the founder and manager of the Harlem Globetrotters. Relations between Jews and African Americans is an important sub-theme of this collection, but Saperstein would have occasioned a more substantial discussion of that. I also wish we had an essay on Ryan Braun. My hunch is that guy is a player for the ages. But scandal was hovering of him during the production of this book. We weren't sure of his guilt and that uncertainty made him a difficult subject to explicate.
You have a lot of wonderful (and famous) writers in this anthology. Are they all Jewish? Was that a requirement?
We interviewed the mothers of all our contributors to determine whether they possessed the necessary qualifications. No! There are a few non-Jewish contributors to the book and others who might not qualify for automatic citizenship in Israel.
Did you let your writers choose their subjects, or did you assign them? Did you find that almost everyone you approached had a passion to write about someone? Does every Jewish boy (and girl) have a Jewish Jock that he fantasizes over? (I can’t imagine how you settled the brawl over Sandy Koufax!)
I have never had an easier time assigning essays. You're right that everyone has a favorite Jewish Jock. The novelist Tom Rachman was obsessed with Sidney Franklin, the greatest Jewish bullfighter who ever lived. (As it turned out, Sidney Franklin is also the greatest gay Jewish bullfighter who ever lived, too.) Your colleague Emily Bazelon had an abiding interest in the transgendered tennis star Renee Richards and the conflict she created on the woman's tour. In other words, it was the contributors who steered us towards many of our most interesting subjects.
With Koufax, there was really only one choice. We went to Jane Leavy who wrote a spectacular, definitive biography of Sandy. Her essay in the book recounts the day that the great pitcher attended her daughter's bat mitzvah at Washington Hebrew Congregation. It's a completely charming tale and an interesting meditation of his character.
Are Jews getting better or worse at sports?
We're in the midst of a Jewish sports renaissance. Baseball is filled with Jews (Braun and Ian Kinsler are arguably the forth and fifth greatest Jews ever to play the game); at the Olympics, there's nothing surprising about Jews on the balance beam or racing across the pool. Or check out the World Cup roster for the American national team: Bornstein, Spector, Feilhaber. Over the generations, Jewish life in America has become completely normalized—and that assimilation includes, of course, sports.
Settle a fight I have with my Israeli-born wife. Who are better athletes: American Jews or Israeli Jews?
I'm going to say American Jews. We don't have to serve in the military, which can disrupt a budding athletic career, and we have thriving college sports, which nurtures them. Israel often has a great national soccer team, but they are screwed by the Arab boycott. If Israel competed in Asia, where it geographically belongs, it would routinely qualify for the World Cup. But it is forced to qualify as a European nation, since Saudi Arabia and Iran won't deign to play on the same field. Israel tends to get very close to winning a bid, then it loses a final important game against France or some other power. Shande!