They walk into the gym, and immediately they feel it: snickers, stares, whispers and even laughs.
We’re going to beat those poor little Jewish kids. Why do they even have a wrestling team? This is going to be a breeze.
Jake Gordon hears it at virtually every wrestling camp he attends.
“There’s not a Jew in a hundred miles, and I love telling them I go to a Jewish high school,” he said.
Then someone steps onto the mat and faces Gordon, Ben de Toledo, Sam Shpall or many of the other New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) team members, believed by school officials to be the only Jewish prep wrestling team west of the Rockies. Minutes later — sometimes it’s less than a minute — the referee raises the New Jew wrestler’s hand in victory.
“For me, it’s a boost. I love being the underdog,” Shpall said. “Most schools are practicing three to four hours a day, Monday to Friday, and they go to tournaments every Saturday. We have about half the time in the wrestling room as all the other schools because we don’t practice on Fridays, because we only go two hours after school and because we don’t compete on Saturdays. … We can have half the time, and we’re still gonna get on the mat and kick your butt.”
Some major butt-kicking is happening in the San Fernando Valley, and it’s happening in a sport not usually associated with Jews. The NCJHS team is dominating bigger schools, and there is talk that this might be the year some wrestler wins a postseason championship.
Competitors from Eagle Rock, Calabasas and Thousand Oaks have already gone down at the hands of the Jaguars. So have 12 other opponents. The team is 15-5, having beaten Brentwood School 53-18 (points are earned with every victory in each of the 12 weight classes), with Prep League finals still to come. Any wrestler who finishes in the top two of the league qualifies for the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section meet, which is always on a Saturday. This year, when the competition’s finals fall on Feb. 22, coach Ken Jackson asked and received permission from the school to compete.
“We’ve never had the talent to go that far, so I never made the request,” said Jackson, now in his eighth season with NCJHS after spending seven at Granada Hills Charter High School. “This year, we have four, possibly six that can actually place after league. This is the year to ask.”
School officials said in a statement to the Journal that the decision was made in keeping with the school’s pluralistic Jewish environment. “The school’s guiding Jewish educational goal was to make each wrestler struggle with what it means to ‘keep Shabbat’ in any or all of its manifold forms in a way that helps each student stay true to who they are and challenge them to grow. For those who will be competing in the state tournament, we will find a special and unique way to keep and celebrate Shabbat,” it said.
It’s not like Jews can’t wrestle. There have been famous ones, though one must be a real aficionado to recognize the names. The most famous American wrestler, Henry Wittenberg, was a light heavyweight freestyle champion at the 1948 London Games. Jewish wrestlers from Hungary and the former Soviet Union also have been Olympic champions.
On the professional side, Diamond Dallas Page (born Page Joseph Falkinburg Jr.) won three World Championship Wrestling heavyweight titles. Bill Goldberg racked up a disputed 173 consecutive victories on the way to winning two heavyweight titles, and Dean Malenko (born Dean Simon) won the then-World Wresting Federation light heavyweight title twice.
Jackson believes that wrestling is ideal for Jews because it fits the Jewish work ethic. A successful wrestler must possess tremendous mental discipline to learn how to properly fight within the rules, not stray from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and lean protein, and maintain the proper weight. Practices can last up to 120 intense minutes, and then the wrestlers are expected to work out even more on their own.
“It really is an incredibly brutal sport,” said de Toledo, a senior wrestling at 147 pounds. “At the hardest match, when you’re going three [two-minute] periods, it’s physically exhausting. There’s nothing more exhausting. There are no breaks. There’s no resting at the bottom. You pause for a second, and it’s over. It’s brutal keeping your body tense, keeping your body going when you’re exhausted.”
Shpall, a senior at 140 pounds, has the mental discipline down to nearly an exact science. When he wakes up, he thinks about running. At breakfast, he’s counting calories. He knows exactly how many calories he burns in one hour on the treadmill or the bike.
“If you can succeed on the mat, you can succeed anywhere,” he said.
Gordon, a senior competing at 160 pounds, won the school’s first individual league title in 2011 and now is the first in his school to earn a spot on a college team. Thanks to an annual prep meet at Yeshiva University in New York, where the Jaguars will compete again Presidents Day weekend, Gordon caught the attention of Muhlenberg College, a tiny liberal arts school in Allentown, Penn.
Gordon’s effort typifies what Jackson thinks of wrestling.
“Wrestling is the kind of sport where a boy has to be a man for six minutes,” Jackson said. “These are young Jewish warriors.”