He is the grandson of an Austrian Jew who came to America in the 1920s and lost scores of relatives in the Holocaust. He was reared conservatively by his parents, Barbara and Bernie Pearlmutter, a salesman who shortened the name to Pearl for convenience sake, in Boston in the racially charged 1970s. He learned to think hard about right and wrong on social issues such as forced busing, to appreciate the ethnic mix of Boston from Southie to the North End, and to defend his faith with his fists.
“I grew up watching kids swing at each other because their skin was a different color,” he says.
Pearl was a three-sport star at Sharon High who consciously set out to counter stereotypes. “And of course there was something stereotypically not tough about being Jewish,” he says. He resented it when the annual athletic banquets would begin with “In Christ’s name we pray.” It made him feel discounted, excluded. God was with him, too, he told himself. When his friends crossed themselves, he made the Star of David.
When he was a senior, he was playing first base one afternoon when a base runner called him a “Jew Boy.” Pearl tapped his glove, signaling the pitcher to throw to first. When the ball slapped into Pearl’s mitt, he whirled, smacked it into the runner’s face and started swinging. “I went to dukes,” he says. He was tossed from the game.
He had his choice of local colleges, but he specifically chose Boston College because it was the best sports school in town, and because he wanted to prove a Jewish student could make it at a Catholic university.
“I wanted kids to meet someone who was Jewish, and have them say, ‘Gosh, you don’t look Jewish, or act Jewish,’ ” he says. “I wanted to talk about religion, to have those discussions.”
When Pearl took his team on tour of Europe last summer, he scheduled a stop at the Terezin concentration camp. As they toured the site, he told his players, “They killed 6 million of us 50 years ago ‘cause of how we prayed.”
Shortly before the team reconvened on campus this fall, Pearl’s daughter Leah celebrated her bat mitzvah, and Pearl invited his players. He beams as he tells the story of how warm it made him feel to gaze through the crowd at the Heska Amuna synagogue and see his players towering over the heads of the guests, some of the Vols 6 feet 9 or taller.
“Here came these talk, dark, handsome men, all wearing yarmulkes,” Pearl says delightedly. Then he adds his favorite detail: how he heard some of the players greeting the other well-wishers.
“They were going, ‘Shalom, y’all.’ “