Reading the Sporting Jews

When scribe Jonathan Tobin selected his all-Jewish baseball team, it was tempting to pencil in Rod Carew at second base.

This would have given his fantasy Maccabees squad its third Hall of Famer, with Hammerin' Hank Greenberg and southpaw Sandy Koufax. When you're talking baseball holy writ, it's impossible to overlook Carew's 3,053 hits and seven American League batting titles.

The Baseball Online Library took a leap of faith and put Carew in its Jewish All-Star Team. After all, he married a Jew and they raised their children in the faith. But Carew never converted, despite years of rumors. Thus, Tobin sent his team into cyberspace competition without Carew's .328 lifetime average.

One passionate reader reacted to the column (at by saying: "OK, so he never converted. What's important is that he's still a better Jew than most of the Jews today who are not even raising their children in the faith. I say we should count him!"

Truth is, there's more to this than pundits seeking another excuse to argue about baseball and culture while enjoying a ballgame and kosher hot dogs. The search for what the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent editor calls "The Sporting Jews" offers intriguing insights into the puzzle of American Jewish identity.

Jewish immigrants once yearned -- like members of any religious or ethnic minority -- to find their own heroes and role models in a new land. Thus, Tobin said Jews grew up watching their elders point in history books while saying, "Look! Eddie Cantor is a Jew. Look! Irving Berlin is Jewish." It was important to thrive everywhere from Main Street to Hollywood and Vine. And then there was the sports page.

Athletics wasn't even on the "radar screen" in the old Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, he said. But it was impossible to deny baseball's role here, especially in the thriving urban neighborhoods into which Jews moved in the cathartic, agonizing decades before and after World War II.

Millions of Jews cheered when Greenberg opted out of a 1934 World Series game that fell on Yom Kippur. Decades later, Koufax declined to pitch on the opening game of the 1965 World Series, once again on Yom Kippur. Who could have imagined living to see such open displays of pride and Jewish identity?

"What could be a better symbol of this new Jew, this Jew who was finally living in a land where he could be comfortable in his own skin, than to be able to find Jewish heroes at the ballpark? ... I think it's hard for us to grasp how important someone like Greenberg was at that time. He was an icon of this new Jewish experience in America," said Tobin.

That was then.

Today, American Jews live in the age of Jerry Seinfeld and Joe Lieberman. Today, it's hard to imagine a time when the word "assimilate" would have sounded good to Jewish leaders. A century ago, millions of Jews were anxious to claim a new sense of identity -- as Americans. Today, the question is how many will choose to claim an old identity -- as practicing Jews.

The statistics are now familiar. Jews have declined from 4 percent to 2 percent of the U.S. population. While a 1990 survey -- currently being updated -- found 5.9 million Jews, researchers said 1.3 million practice another faith and 1.1 million claim no faith. Only 484,000 American Jews regularly attend temple or synagogue services.

While doing assembling his Maccabees roster, Tobin researched whether he could list current Philadelphia catcher Mike Lieberthal, who has a Jewish father. In the Phillies yearbook, he saw that the Lieberthal family picture showed them posed in front of a Christmas tree. He took that as a sign.

"There is a phrase that we use these days to describe people who convert to Judaism or step forward to publicly claim their Jewish identity. We call them 'Jews by Choice,' " said Tobin. "What we need to realize is that, in 2001, all Jews in America are 'Jews by Choice.' That is the reality of our situation. ...

"That seems humorous, when we're talking about hunting for Jews in the major leagues. But it isn't funny, otherwise. This is serious."