Real Jewish Heroes: Do They Even Exist?


Should we be ashamed of baseball player Ryan Braun and other public figures involved in recent scandals? Baseball fan and former community leader Burt Siegel weighs in.

There is a trait that most anti-Semites and many Jews seem to have in common: a fascination with the Jewish lineage of people in the news. It hardly matters if that person has only one Jewish parent, barely identifies, if at all, or even has converted to another faith.

My late father was always proud of the accomplishments of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the U.S. nuclear navy. Rickover’s illustrious career was apparently marked by a good number of incidents of anti-Semitism including during his days at the Naval Academy. He had numerous enemies during his long career in the navy and they often made note of his heritage.

Neither my father nor Rickover’s many hostile critics seemed to think that the fact that Rickover had converted to the Episcopal church as a young man disqualified him from being a “member of the tribe.”

In earlier times, Jews understandably looked for heroes among our people. We seemed to feel that an accomplishment by a military hero, a scientist, even an athlete brought credit to the entire Jewish community. Conversely, Jewish mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were shandas.

I like to think that such emotions are things of the past but watching the reaction to the news that Milwaukee Brewers All-Star Ryan Braun used performance-enhancing substances makes me wonder. A Google search of Braun reveals that the anti-Semites out in cyberland have been quick to note that Braun is a Jew and that his disgraceful behavior is the result of his inherent dishonesty and lack of sportsmanship. The fact that quite a few Christian players, including greats like Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds, have also been caught using illegal substances is, of course, irrelevant to someone who simply doesn’t like Jews.

But what disturbs me more are the Jews who think this incident somehow reflects on the rest of us.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the many Jewish baseball fans that collects the cards of Jewish players. And admittedly, I might have paid close attention to the success of Braun and fellow Jewish major leaguer Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers, both who made the All-Star Team in recent years.

But I must strongly disagree with those who claim that Ryan’s misdeeds could have any adverse impact on young Jews looking for role models. As former 76er Charles Barkely said, talented athletes should hardly be considered role models. He noted that the prisons are filled with men who can dunk a basketball.

And just what sorts of Jewish role models are Braun and Kinsler?

In an 2007 interview, Braun — who has a Catholic mother and an Israeli-born father — said: “It’s a touchy subject because I don't want to offend anybody, but I don’t want groups claiming me now because I’m having success. I do consider myself definitely Jewish. And I’m extremely proud to be a role model for young Jewish kids.”

But, he added, “I don’t want to make it into something more than what it is. I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah. I don’t want to pretend that I did.” He also noted that he doesn’t observe Jewish holidays.

Kinsler was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying that his Jewish heritage is “something I’m very, very proud of.” Also the son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Kinsler went on to note that as a child, “we’d have Christmas, and I’d be excited. Then we’d have Chanukah and I’d be excited, too. I’m not a devoutly spiritual person, but I’m very into the cultural identity that comes with being Jewish. If there are Jewish kids out there who look up to me or see me as a role model of what’s possible, I embrace that proudly.”

No doubt it would be nice if there were positive Jewish role models for young Jews — but it is not these guys. Any Jewish sensibilities or connections they might have are tangential and self-serving.

Beyond sports, the scandals involving Jewish former congressmen, Anthony Wei­ner and Bob Filner, have gotten lots of ink in the Jewish media. But as Ann Lewis, former White House communications director and sister of former U.S. Rep Barney Frank, has said, “If we need a reminder of how Jews are like everyone else, this is a useful one.”

Theodore Herzl wrote that a Jewish state would only be normal if Jewish street cleaners and gardeners worked in the same cities as Jewish doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and Jewish policemen arrested Jewish prostitutes. I believe we would be a much more “normal” people if our heroes did actually heroic things and our embarrassments only embarrass themselves.

As we all know, there are many Jews who have led exemplary lives. Hopefully, some of them were even influenced by Jewish ethics. But their accomplishments don’t necessary reflect on the rest of us. I could never hit a curve ball and the fact that Braun can didn’t help me one bit. And the fact that some accomplished Jews have feet of clay is just as irrelevant.

Burt Siegel is the former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia.


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