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.

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