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Take 5: Franklin Foer on his book about well-known and obscure 'Jewish Jocks'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2013 - The sports stars you’d expect to see in a book about Jewish athletes are present in “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.” There’s Sandy Koufax and Mark Spitz, even Bobby Fischer. But there’s also a boxer devoted to his mother and the man who made eating into a competitive sport.

“Jewish Jocks,” edited by the New Republic’s Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, is a collection of 50 essays on the athletes, their times and their impact.

Foer, who will appear Feb. 28 at the JCC Staenberg Family Complex, took a little time to talk about the book, the characters inside and what their participation meant, not just to the world of sports, but the world itself.

Beacon: I’m kind of ashamed to say that even though I’m from a huge baseball town, I’m not the most observant fan. Still, in baseball and in general, it doesn’t seem like there’s a pervasive stereotype of the Jewish jock, so how did the idea for this book even come about?

Foer: It began with a personal obsession. Since I was a boy, when I’d watch sports, I would go fishing around for the Jewish athletes, and my father and I even would make up funny stories and try to claim certain athletes who were obviously gentiles as Jewish. I think this obsession with the Jewish jock is actually fairly universal. It’s kind of part of the Jewish-American experience. And so my friend Marc and I set about commissioning essays. We went to some of our favorite writers and we asked them to contribute essays about their favorite Jewish jocks.

You and Marc Tracy edited pieces by some great writers for this book. Can you tell us about some of the voices inside and the stories they shared?

Foer: It was extremely easy to get writers to contribute to this book because it’s a subject that brings them a certain amount of joy. We got everybody from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers who was a fan of the 1970s tennis player Harold Solomon to the great linguist Steven Pinker who wrote about Red Auerbach, and there are a lot of famous journalists. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, gave us a piece about St. Louis native Art Shamsky, who played for the New York Mets during the miracle season when they won the World Series against all the odds in the late '60s.

“Jewish Jocks” isn’t just about the athletes but also features stories of trainers, coaches, owners and broadcasters. Do you have a favorite among the 50 people featured?

Foer: The book covers figures like Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Mark Spitz, but a lot of my favorite essays are the ones about the more obscure, off-beat characters. I love the story about the greatest Jewish bullfighter who ever lived, who was born in Brooklyn and ended up in Spain, or the story about the guy who invented ultimate Frisbee who happened to have become a very famous Hollywood movie producer, who did such movies as “The Matrix” and “Brewster’s Millions.” I love all those little stories as much as the big ones, and our hope was that this all added up to a real portrait of Jewish life in this country as told through sports.


Your own essay in the book is about Benny Leonard, the boxer. Could you tell us a little about him and his impact on that sport?

Foer: Benny Leonard is not just the greatest Jewish boxing champion; he’s one of the all time greatest boxers of any religious persuasion. The boxing historian Bert Sugar has him just a notch lower than Muhammad Ali and a notch higher than Jack Dempsey. He was a total mama’s boy. He spoke about his mother with utter devotion. In fact, he ultimately retired from the game to spend more time with his mother. He had such a wholesome image that he helped remove a lot of the anxieties that Jews held about their sons participating in sports like boxing. It wasn’t a path to crime and moral degradation. It was a way to make a lot of money and to become a hero to kids. I think Benny Leonard helped play an important role in making, not just boxing, but all sports kosher to Jews.

A few years ago I read your book “How Soccer Explains the World,” which was quite revealing for me as the clueless wife of a South American footballer. For people picking up “Jewish Jocks,” what kind of historical and cultural insights will they find?

Foer: The book is really about assimilation into this country. One of the reasons that people are obsessed with the subject of Jews in sports is that it goes back to a very core anti-Semitic stereotype, which is that the Jew is bookish and effeminate and kind of physically weak. Jews through the last couple centuries have gone about trying to refute that caricature. A central part of Zionism was trying to redeem the Jewish body, to have Jews participate in physical labor and participate in sports. The subject of Jews in sports actually occupies a really important part in our brain, and it’s not really a trivial subject at the end of the day, even though it’s fun to make jokes about it. It goes to a very important place.