January 5, 2006
A Line Drive Down Jewish History
"Judaism's Encounter With American Sports," by Jeffrey Gurock (Indiana University Press, $29.95).
In an oft-repeated anecdote dating back to the early 1910s, Rabbi Solomon Schechter, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, told Louis Finkelstein, then a young rabbinical student, "Remember, unless you play baseball, you will never get to be a rabbi in America."
Finkelstein went on to have an illustrious career, eventually heading the seminary, and never learned much about American sports. But Schechter's advice reflected a sensibility that knowledge of sports would help rabbis relate to young congregants, that sprinkling sermons with sports metaphors would engage their parents.
Yeshiva University professor Jeffrey Gurock tells this story in his new book, "Judaism's Encounter With American Sports." This is not the usual book about Jews and sports -- it's not an album of Jewish sports figures and their accomplishments. Gurock, a historian and avid sportsman, uses sports as a lens for viewing American Jewish history. He shows how athletics have played out in Jewish life -- how, through sports, generations of immigrants and their descendants became acculturated, accepted into the mainstream and even embraced.
"The right to play on a team -- what did we say as kids, the chance to be 'chosen in' -- is among the surest signs of an individual's or group's acceptance in a society," Gurock writes.
He also chronicles how sports have been a source of conflict between generations and between religious and secular values. With its own obligations, rules, traditions and sacred time, sports, as Gurock explains, can be seen as a competing religion. Since the game clock is often out of sync with the clock and calendar of Jewish life, some have feared that interest and participation in athletics could lead to religious nonobservance.
"The athleticism valued in the world of sports was not honored in the 19th century shtetl. Reverence and concern for the head, for the intellect, far more than the cultivation of the body, was where these Jews' emphasis lay," he writes.
On the Lower East Side where many immigrants settled, clashes arose between parents and youth, who learned the values of sports and physical fitness in settlement houses and also honed their skills on the streets. The older generation's attitude toward the gym, as the author quotes Irving Howe, was "suspicion of the physical, fear of hurt, anxiety over the sheer 'pointlessness' of play: All this went deep into the recesses of the Jewish psyche."
Gurock goes on to describe how rabbis and Jewish leaders sought to attract Jews to religious institutions by creating gym facilities within -- "shuls with pools." The hope was that "those who initially came to a shul's gym to play might be convinced to repair to its sanctuary to pray." Questions then arose about how synagogues and community centers would deal with the use of their facilities on Shabbat.
In an interview, Gurock, a New York City-area resident, says that this is a book he has been thinking about for almost his entire adult life and spent the last five years working on. His passion for the subject is clear.
Gurock is a good storyteller, and within these pages he unfolds many true tales that may be surprising for readers. Sports metaphors come up often in his prose; when he describes two Orthodox worlds clashing, he speaks of one contingent as retreating to a clearly marked sideline.
"They could build it, but almost no one came," he writes of efforts in 1897 to establish a new rabbinical school.
He writes extensively about yeshiva high school basketball, and how issues were resolved about which schools had teams, who they played against and how religious studies and sports activities coexisted.
The author or editor of 13 previous books, Gurock describes the introduction of cheerleaders to the yeshiva basketball scene in 1951 (the first squad, at Ramaz, wore longish skirts, which by 1954 had gotten shorter) and their ultimate disbanding by all the schools by 1991. The cheerleaders' role in Gurock's narrative has less to do with their gymnastic prowess and original songs, than questions of modesty and differing outlooks among the leaders of Orthodox day schools.
He analyzes more recent sports stories like the basketball career of Tamir Goodman, the Baltimore yeshiva basketball player who was recruited in 1999 to play on a college team with the understanding that he would not play ball on Shabbat; and the 1996 decision of the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School League (the name had been changed from "Jewish" to "Yeshiva") to refuse to allow the Conservative Schechter schools to play in their league.
The book also has autobiographical threads. Gurock has been an athlete all his life, playing a variety of sports as a kid. At City College, he played on the lacrosse team.
When I tried to reach him at home one evening, he was coaching basketball at Yeshiva University. In fact, he has served there as assistant men's basketball coach for the last 25 years. Whenever he visits other universities to lecture, he tries to also go to basketball practice and meet the coaches. These days he's a runner, and although he spent Marathon Sunday this year giving a talk in Syracuse, he has run the New York City Marathon 12 times. Having just turned 56, he figures that since age 40 he has run 23,000 miles. In two years, when he expects to reach 25,000 miles -- the distance around the world -- he's planning a big celebration, inviting all his running partners.
"Like most highly dedicated sports people of my generation, I value competition to the core of my being and am blessed, as a middle-aged man, to be battling still for playing position," he writes.
Sports are in his genes: His father, Jack Gurock, was an amateur wrestler who -- fearing his immigrant parents' disapproval of the sport -- adopted the name Jack Austin for his competitions. A photo of him along with his 1936 wrestling team at the 92nd Street Y appears on the book jacket. As an adult, the author's father played handball and softball. His mother was proud of her claim that as a girl in the Bronx, she played handball with Hank Greenberg.
For Gurock, playing sports brings him close to God.
"My marathon experience has a certain spiritual dimension," he says. "When you run a marathon, you are testing yourself, your own personal limits, your ability to run 26 miles. You need something to motivate you. To feel that God is pushing you along makes me feel closer to the Almighty."
He adds, "Before every marathon, I say a prayer that God should be with me."