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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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From Budapest to Woodcliff Lake

Rabbi Andre Ungar’s career crossed continents, spanned streams

Rabbi Andre Ungar, a courtly man with a spade-shaped beard and impeccable manners, speaks with what seems at first to be pure and crystalline Queen’s English, precise and beautiful.

Listen carefully, though, and you hear something else underneath, something somehow both more and less familiar.

It’s a Hungarian accent, giving depth and context to his speech.

Rabbi Ungar, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, is a complicated man, an intellectual with a well-earned passion for social justice and a life that took him to five countries in four continents before allowing him to settle here, in this one.

 

Blue and white moon

Israeli lunar mission makes stop in Paramus

In the May 1944, Itzhak Bash and 299 other Jewish engineers were removed from Auschwitz and taken to work at a Volkswagen factory that was assembling the V-1 flying bomb.

He had been a textile engineer in Hungary before the Nazis invaded and deported the Jews, but the Germans didn’t need his specific technical skills; they wanted slave laborers they could trust with careful work. The first V-1s from occupied France landed on London on June 13, 1944. As the Allies pushed into France, Mr. Bash was switched to work on the V-2, the first rocket to reach the edge of space. By the war’s end, more than 3,000 V-2 rockets had been launched.

Mr. Bash was one of the lucky hundred men who had survived from the original group of 300 engineers. Some were killed by Allied raids; others by the conditions at the work camps.

 

‘Come on over…’

As summer starts, we look at the Palisades Amusement Park through the eyes of its longtime publicist, Sol Abrams

“Palisades has the rides... Palisades has the fun... Come on over.

Shows and dancing are free... so’s the parking, so gee... Come on over.”

Suppose, just for a moment, that you might want to take an elephant water-skiing.

(No, don’t ask why. That’s a question for another time. Just go with it.)

Okay. So you’ve got the elephant. You’ve got a body of water big enough for it — the Hudson River.

Oh, and you happen to be on 30 acres that span Cliffside Park and Fort Lee, in southern Bergen County, not far at all from the river — but the direction to the river is less east than it is down. Straight down a jagged cliff. (It’s not called Cliffside Park for nothing.)

 

RECENTLYADDED

No light yet

‘Remember – she’s 2’

Although this community does not feel the barrage of rockets, the adrenaline and strain of IDF service, the upside-down-ness of life after a sudden recall to active service, the sleepless worry of parents, the responsibility of hundreds of innocent deaths on the other side, or the uncertainty of the outcome of the situation in Gaza, many of us have deep connections to Israelis, and even more of us want to help in any way we can.

Here are some stories of how this community – and remember that New Jersey is about the size of Israel – is reacting. These stories are just a few of very many, but we think that they are both representative and illustrative.

Please note that we have been careful not to include too much information in these stories. We have not said anything about where IDF members are serving, or what they are doing – or even given their names. We know that the IDF does not think it safe to publicize such information, and we comply with that request willingly.

 

No light yet

‘He meant to live his life’

Ilan Vakhnin, principal of the Shakim High School in Nahariya, is on the steering committee developing policy and programming for th Partnership 2Gether, a sister city relationship between the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and Nahariya, a city in southern Israel.

He was part of a six-person delegation, in town for a few days of meetings, when his cell phone rang.

On the other end, his daughter was crying so hard that he had to tell her to stop it if he was going to be able to understand what she was telling him. Eventually, she was able to get the message out.

 

No light yet

‘Daddy, come home’

Rabbi Avram and Leah Herzog of Fair Lawn are the aunt and uncle of two nephews who live in Israel. They are the sons of Rabbi Herzog’s sister, Zehavah Bigman, who made aliyah with her husband, Joel, more than 30 years ago.

Both of the nephews have completed their IDF service. Both are married; the older one at 32, has four children, and the younger one, 26, has a baby.

Both, like most Israeli men their age, are in the reserves.

 
 
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