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Making it to the majors

Pro baseball’s next generation of Jewish players

 
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From left, clockwise, Josh Satin, who suited up for the New York Mets in September, during his time in Class Double-A. Ken Mandel; Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Courtesy MLB; and San Francisco Giants Minor League catcher Aaron Lowenstein. Ken Mandel

It is simple, really. If you are Jewish, wield a scalpel, not a baseball bat. Master the nation’s laws rather than the rules of the national pastime.

“You’re not supposed to be a ballplayer if you’re Jewish,” former White Sox pitcher Marv Rotblatt says in the 2010 documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.” He adds, “You’re supposed to be an attorney or a doctor.”

However, while Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, and Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler remain the exception — not the rule — among Jewish athletes who have risen to baseball’s Major League ranks, a growing number of young athletes are looking to join them.

“It’s a terrible stereotype,” said Houston Astros pitching prospect Josh Zeid. “A lot of my friends are really athletic and could’ve played college sports. Maybe at an early age, their parents tried to be more realistic. You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer, though getting an education is important. When you look across the Major Leagues, you see the Jewish players. I want to be one of those guys.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Zeid found it easier than most to focus on athletics. All students were required to participate in sports at school, and Zeid thrived. A hard-throwing pitcher at Hamden Hall Country Day School, he possessed a blazing fastball that produced a school record of 400 strikeouts.

As a senior, he led the Hamden Hall Hornets to a second straight New England Championship and was listed by Baseball America as the nation’s 27th-best prospect.

His collegiate travels took him from Vanderbilt to Tulane. After struggling in his third year of college, Zeid considered non-athletic endeavors, like law school or writing spy and murder mystery novels. Things improved once he stopped worrying about on-field performance.

“Baseball became easier,” he said. “I didn’t stress out as much and failing didn’t matter as much. When you’re a high school star, everyone tells you it’s easy, and you listen when you’re 18 years old. It takes being humbled to fight through it.”

The Philadelphia Phillies drafted him in the 10th round in 2009. He advanced as high as Double-A Reading this year before being included in the July 29 trade for outfielder Hunter Pence.

Academics are still a big part of his life. An English major, Zeid blogged about his experiences in the Arizona Fall League and wants to compose stories about growing up as a Jewish baseball player in New England.

“A lot of people don’t know anything about Jewish people and our culture,” said Zeid, who’s read biographies about Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. “There are a lot of bad stereotypes. It’s about letting people know we are capable of playing sports, doing well in school, and being generous.”

The U.S. Jewish population, despite waves emigrating from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has remained underrepresented in dugouts.

According to “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” only 160 of more than 16,700 MLB players have been Jewish. Because of such scarcity, aspiring Jewish baseball players know the stories of Greenberg or Koufax, who each famously sat out games on Yom Kippur. But do they also know about Phil Weintraub or Harry Danning, who were nearly refused road lodging in 1934 because of their religion?

Lipman Emanuel Pike, a Jew of Dutch origin, was the first known salaried player, earning $20 in 1866 from the Philadelphia A’s. When the first professional baseball league was formed years later, Pike was one of its first stars.

Thirteen Jewish players populate Major League baseball rosters today: Braun, Breslow, Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Sam Fuld, John Grabow, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, Josh Satin, Michael Schwimer, Danny Valencia, and Youkilis. Three of them: Satin (Mets), Schwimer (Phillies), and Lavarnway (Red Sox) debuted this season. More could be on the way.

Like Zeid, pitcher Eric Berger is another Minor League farmhand looking to break through. The lefty generated a lot of misses this season, striking out 87 batters in 71 and 1/3 innings at Double-A and Triple-A in the Cleveland Indians organization.

“I love the fact of how few we are and I’m trying to represent for us that we can be athletes,” said Berger, a former star at Woodcreek High School in Roseville, Calif. “The amount of professional [Jewish] athletes is so small. If kids can latch onto somebody, he can help inspire them.”

Berger and San Francisco Giants catching farmhand Aaron Lowenstein grew up in California, finding that inspiration in their home state from former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green. The pair would love to become big-league role models.

“It’s awesome to get recognized for being Jewish,” said Lowenstein, who spent the 2011 season with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. “For some reason, it’s tougher for us. Hopefully, Jewish kids can look up to us and follow in our footsteps.”

The list of Jewish players is increasing. According to jewishbaseballnews.com, which tracks the progress of Jews in baseball, 50 populate rosters from Triple-A to the Rookie Leagues, including former top picks Aaron Poreda (Padres) and Jeremy Bleich (Yankees).

Jesse Levis has noticed. The former catcher, who spent parts of nine seasons in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, is now a professional scout for the Phillies. He does not recall meeting as many Jewish players when he was coming up in the late 1980s and 1990s.

“I notice the names,” Levis said. “My mother always talked about it. Could he be...? It’s a topic of conversation. When I hear a name, I’m always curious. When I met a Jewish kid, we would start talking and become friends.”

Levis is a Conservative Jew and raising his three children with that identity.

“The older I got, the more proud I felt and the more it meant,” he said. “My sense of religion really increased when I got married and my wife’s family was religious. That’s when it hit me. I was so happy to be a Jew who played Major League baseball, because not many of us did.”

Levis got lucky in 2005 when, while in spring training with the New York Mets, he met Koufax. Although the two did not discuss religion, Levis understands the importance of sharing experiences.

“A couple of times during my career, youth groups would come to the park and ask me questions,” Levis said. “That was always an honor. I was never a superstar. I was the backup catcher, but still a big leaguer. You can make an impact and give them someone to identify with.”

For Zeid, furthering customs and a Jewish identity never stops.

“If you become a successful athlete, you should let people know where you’re from,” said Zeid, who always wears a star of David and a chai. “Guys aren’t afraid to say they’re Jewish. The more you can tell people, the more everyone will understand who we are as a community.”

JointMedia News Service

 
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A love story

Cory Booker talks about growing up in Harrington Park, falling in love with Judaism

Often it’s easy to pick out a non-Jewish candidate trawling for Jewish votes.

He’ll show up at a shul wearing a fancy crocheted kippah with his name spelled out along the edge; it’ll be pinned to cover the bald spot precisely. (Really, if you’re going to wear one, you might as well benefit from it, right?)

He’ll throw out Yiddishisms with abandon — mishuganeh here, mensch there, oy, oy everywhere. He’ll talk about getting a bagel with a schmear. (Do you know any Jew who has ever eaten one of those? Me neither.)

In order to show his deep, lifelong sense of connection to the Jewish community, he’ll pander so hard it must make his teeth hurt.

But if you are looking for an actual Judeophile, a non-Jew whose connection to the Jewish world is longstanding, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and clearly real, you would have to direct your gaze in another direction.

 

Bus, bomb, book

Local reporter investigates personal and political repercussions

According to Jewish tradition, every person is an entire world.

The death of any one person is the disappearance of that world, and all the other touching, interlocking worlds are left infinitely poorer.

Mike Kelly of Teaneck, a columnist for the Bergen Record, has been in a small room with a man who killed 46 people in three separate bombings. A man who obliterated 46 separate worlds. And who seems to be proud of it.

Mr. Kelly has written a book, “The Bus On Jaffa Road,” that focuses on one of those bombings, the one on the Jaffa Road in Jerusalem in 1996 that killed 26 people, including Sara Duker, also of Teaneck, and Matthew Eisenfeld, her boyfriend, who came from West Hartford, Connecticut. He also focuses on Steven Flatow of South Orange, whose daughter Alisa was killed in another bus bombing the year before, and who was instrumental in the story as it unfolded.

 

5774 Year in Review

Read about the highs and lows of 5774 — and everything in between.

September 2013

• The United States and Russia reach a deal to rid Syria of its arsenal of chemical weapons, promoting Jewish groups to suspend their efforts lobbying for U.S. strikes against Damascus.

• Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles and teacher of Jewish mysticism for A-list celebrities, dies at 86.

• William Rapfogel, the ousted leader of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, is arrested on charges of grand larceny and money laundering. Investigators later say the scheme involving Rapfogel netted $9 million in illicit funds, including $3 million for Rapfogel himself. Rapfogel pleads guilty the following April and is sent to prison in July for 3 1/2 to 10 years.

 

RECENTLYADDED

At the heart of Touro

Alan Kadish leads America’s largest Jewish university

Few children, if any, dream of growing up to become university presidents.

Dr. Alan Kadish of Teaneck certainly didn’t.

Instead, the childhood dream that led him to the presidency of Touro University began with the death of a beloved uncle.

“My mother’s brother, a strapping man in his 50s, had a sudden cardiac death when I was 15,” Dr. Kadish, 58, remembered.

“That was a problem I wanted to study.”

Alan Kadish, the son of a father from the Lower East Side and a mother from Vienna, went to Yeshiva University’s MTA high school. He then attended Columbia University, where he majored in biochemistry, and he followed that with a medical degree from Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College. His specialty, of course, was cardiology: helping to prevent and treat heart attacks. After a residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, he took a fellowship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

 

Bus, bomb, book

Local reporter investigates personal and political repercussions

According to Jewish tradition, every person is an entire world.

The death of any one person is the disappearance of that world, and all the other touching, interlocking worlds are left infinitely poorer.

Mike Kelly of Teaneck, a columnist for the Bergen Record, has been in a small room with a man who killed 46 people in three separate bombings. A man who obliterated 46 separate worlds. And who seems to be proud of it.

Mr. Kelly has written a book, “The Bus On Jaffa Road,” that focuses on one of those bombings, the one on the Jaffa Road in Jerusalem in 1996 that killed 26 people, including Sara Duker, also of Teaneck, and Matthew Eisenfeld, her boyfriend, who came from West Hartford, Connecticut. He also focuses on Steven Flatow of South Orange, whose daughter Alisa was killed in another bus bombing the year before, and who was instrumental in the story as it unfolded.

 

Art versus life

Tenafly JCC to host work of mid-century Jewish artist

Stories about starving artists, creative souls driven to make art no matter what it does to them or to their families, are among our culture’s most basic tropes.

They can be tragic — the ballerina dancing to death in her red shoes, the writer starving in his garret — but they somehow end well, if posthumously, with the artist finally recognized for his or her genius.

It’s not impossible that this scenario will play itself out for the artist Jack Goresko, who certainly has the first part of it nailed. That’s the part where he had to live a tortured life, compelled to make art, driven to make art, ignoring his family and getting by on scraps, and dying, in 1991, largely unrecognized.

Now, though, his son, Eben Goresko, has gathered, restored, and begun to show his work. Jack Goresko’s paintings and sketches will be on display at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly from November 2 to November 23. (The show will open with a reception on Sunday, November 2, from 1 to 3.)

 
 
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