In the early years of the 20th century, American Jews had an ambivalent relationship with sports. The stereotype had it that Jewish mothers did everything in their power to keep their precious sons from playing football or stepping into a boxing ring. And yet, in time, there were many great Jewish athletes -- and as fans, Jews proved themselves to be as spirited and animated as any other American.
In fact, in an important way, sports served as a driving force in helping immigrant Jews become more American.
To prove this point to a class of college students, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert recently displayed a 1909 article translated from a Yiddish newspaper that hoped to teach the community the fundamentals of baseball. Although a bit long-winded, the article by Abraham Cahan, editor of the Forward -- the famous Yiddish daily in New York -- explained that getting interested in baseball could eventually help Jewish immigrants assimilate into American society.
"He was getting Jews to think about involvement in baseball because it's the American pastime, the national game," explained Alpert last month to about 15 Temple University students.
Her weekly class -- "Jews, America and Sports" -- is in its first semester at Temple, and is one facet of the religion and Jewish-studies curriculum at the academic institution. The class analyzes the 20th-century Jewish-American experience by exploring the community's connection to boxing, basketball, baseball and other sports, showing how successful athletes helped to undermine anti-Semitism and promote assimilation. It examines international events, like the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, and the role of sports in Israel.
During one of two separate lessons about baseball, Alpert read a quirky poem called "Cohen at the Bat," a play on the famous "Casey at the Bat," featuring not the mighty slugger from Mudville, but the mediocre New York Giants second baseman Andy Cohen. While Casey famously strikes out at the end of his poem, old Andy got the winning hit.
"They were trying to bring in Jewish fans," stated Alpert, who explained that the Giants promoted Cohen as a source of inspiration and identification, in order to sell tickets to the city's large Jewish population.
Alpert then passed around some memorabilia and artifacts, including a children's book called The Matzah Ball: A Passover Story, which depicts a child forgoing the traditional ballpark fare of hot dogs and popcorn for a home-packed lunch. In the end, the young boy catches the game-winning home-run ball, which winds up crushing the matzah he was holding.
Jonathan Blanford, a 26-year-old senior, is not Jewish like most of his other classmates, but he took the course because of his intrinsic interest in the topic.
"I like conversing with people and knowing something about [their] religion," he said. "If I'm able to talk to a Jewish person and can understand some terms, there's some common ground."
One of the students knows firsthand what it's like to be a Jewish athlete.
Adam Goldstein, an 18-year-old freshman, was recently drafted as an outfielder by the Federal League, an independent baseball organization in South Florida. The class offers Goldstein the chance to expand his knowledge of sports and history that he learned from his grandfather, a sports-card store owner in his native Scranton.
For one of his recent assignments, Goldstein wrote about how he hopes to add one more Jewish name to the short list of major-leaguers.
"I wrote about how few Jewish baseball players have played professional baseball," he said, "and how I aspire to play professional baseball, and how I'm not letting that statistic affect my attitude toward the game."