Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

This account of the first flyers and makers of airplanes is a great example of ambition, observation and study.  The author is a master at telling the true story.  The Wright brothers are an example that a college education is not necessary in gaining success.  Ambition, curiosity and the ability to read are really the components of success.

The brothers showed great curiosity and sought out information from all the available resources at the time.  They received information from the Smithsonian Institution and they read all that was available by the German pioneer in gliders, Otto Lilienthal and made friends with other scientists like Octave Chanute.  The brothers showed patience in observing the different birds and how each one differed from the other; how some soared and some plummeted at great speed with out losing control of their ability to regain altitude.  They were patient in taking notes and making diagrams of the different wings of each species of birds.  They took note of the different ways the birds tilted or warped their wings in flight making turns seem effortlessly.

Studying birds took some 4 years before the brother decided to test the effect of gliding in the air like birds.  They discovered that previous calculations made by the other pioneers were erroneous and they made their own adjustments.  They chose Kitty Hawk on the coast of the Carolinas because of the constant steady winds there.  Launching their glider into the wind to study the wind's effects enabled the brothers to create rudders to control the flight.

There seems so have been somewhat of a race as to whom would be the first flyer and the brothers were very wary of letting others into their circle of knowledge.  Their sister, Katherine was a booster along with their preacher father.  There was an representative of the marketing firm of Flint and Co. by the name of Harte Berg who represented the brothers in Europe.  Being patriotic Americans, the Wright brothers wanted the US government to have first crack at purchasing their airplanes, however when the US government turned them down flat they took their assets to Europe.  It was unclear why the US turned them down.  It was possible that since so much investment was made by Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian that turned into a colossal failure, the US gave up any hope of man's ability to fly.

The brothers created an engine with dual propellers and made their historic short flight in 1903. The next ten years great strides and improvements were implemented. They gave great demonstrations in France to large crowds and became a worldwide sensation that was covered by every major news outlet in the world!  Only after these exhibition flights could they interest their home government.

Although the brothers profited from their invention, they did not earn the fantastic wealth of some of the great entrepreneurs of that day.  And although there was always a lawsuit against someone who violated the Wright brothers' patents they did not seem greedy to get rich but rather only took that which struck them as their fair share.

The Wright brothers were not country bumpkins.  They were well self taught, great readers of literature and history.  They lived by the high moral standards set by their religious father.  For example, they never worked on their Sunday Sabbath.  Wilbur was perhaps more articulate than Orville but they lived by the code of a very close knit family.

This book is another example set by Mr. McCullough that the USA has been home to great exceptionalism where ambition, curiosity and thirst for knowledge produce great results.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Judaism's Encounter with American Sports by Jeffrey S. Gurock

Historian, Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University delivers a fascinating study of the intersection of the Jewish community and American Sports.  Unlike Peter Levine's study that highlights some famous Jews using sports to assimilate and demonstrating his thesis that sports are a means toward becoming truly American, Prof. Gurock studies the communal responses of the seemingly mass exodus from synagogue to gymnasium in the USA.  

After a brief background chapter discussing the interface and clash between the physical culture of Greece and Mitzva culture or Divine covenantal culture of Judea, Prof. Gurock shows the cultural crisis that affected the immigrant generations of the late 19th century through the early 20th century. In order to show that one is truly American, the lure of sports was too easy to pass up.  In droves do the new Americans hit the gym, playgrounds and ball fields.  Prof. Gurock highlights the tensions among the rabbinate on how to attract those playing sports back into the synagogue.  Rabbi Herbert Goldstein in one of the first rabbis to advocate for a synagogue complex that incorporates sports.  Mordecai Kaplan is one uncomfortable with the violation of what he views as 'holy space' with the profane.  One reads of the rise the independent JCC movement and the ensuing disputes between synagogue life and secular Jewish life.

One reads of the eventual 'Yeshiva League' and the incorporation of sports at the modern Orthodox flag ship Yeshiva University.  One learns of the struggles with sports by 'segregationist' Orthodox yeshivos that really do not want to integrate a sports program but nevertheless, their more enlightened leadership understands the great pull that sports has on an American youngster and certain compromises are made.  Red lines are drawn, however, when female athletes and spectators begin to encroach on the male dominated pastimes.  Halachic issues of intermingling and immodesty preclude the segregationists from joining sporting events.

Prof. Gurock's critical skills as historian come out when he discusses the phenomenal rise of High School phenom Tamir Goodman, a person deemed by Sports Illustrated as a "Jewish Jordan"!  Goodman's rise is highlighted at the YU Sarachek Tournament where he gets much attention - too much attention for his yeshiva and the administration becomes threatened by the overtaking of basketball interest at the school instead of Torah Scholarship!  Goodman transfers to a gentile school for his last year of High School with the understanding that the University of Maryland will make accommodations for his Torah observance.  When time comes to sign, the University reneges on the deal.  Goodman gets an offer to play for Towson U.  but there too although he makes the team no accommodations are made and he gets very little playing time and much attention due to an altercation with his coach.  The family claims 'anti-Semitism' and the University claims that Goodman did not meet expectations for Division I ball.  As a representative of the University said, 'comprises are made for real talent!' Goodman goes to Israel and signs with a big league Israeli professional team but ultimately is sent down to the minors!  Mr. Gurock concludes based on the evidence that the Unviersity version is reasonable since ultimately Mr. Goodman could not compete on the pro level.

Tamir Goodman is, nevertheless, representative of how far the Jewish community has integrated sports, and how far America has accepted Jewish Americans without losing a complete Torah observant identity.  Sandy Koufax may have given American Jews a proud excuse that it is ok to give up work and go the synagogue on the one Holiest day of the year but the idea that a completely Torah Observant Jew would be accepted in the world of Sports shows the true tolerance and kindness of  a nation.

Throughout the book, Prof Gurock includes himself as Scholar/Jewish Athlete and peppers his study with personal insight that makes the book a more intimate look into the lives of Jewish athletes.