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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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Jersey City Boy

Mayor Steven Fulop tells his story — and his immigrant parents schep naches

The story of the new mayor of Jersey City is a goulash — a rich, highly seasoned, aromatic stew, full of disparate ingredients that somehow blend together.

This variant is kosher.

And for added authenticity, it’s Hungarian.

Steven Fulop’s story is both as deeply American and as fully Jewish as one person’s story could be — it is our own 21st-century version of the great American dream.

Cooking alongside it is the story of Jersey City, the state’s second largest, with a century-long history of corruption and bossism that Mr. Fulop is well positioned to turn around.

Mr. Fulop’s story starts with his grandparents. All four were born in Transylvania, the heavily wooded, mountainous, lushly beautiful region that has changed hands between Hungary and Romania. As this story begins, it still was part of Hungary. World War II came late there; his mother’s parents, the Kohns, were taken from the ghetto toward its end. His grandfather, Alexander, went to a transit camp, and his grandmother, Rosa, was on one of the last transports to Auschwitz in April 1944.

Her story is so painful that when her son-in-law, Arthur Fulop, tells it, his eyes fill, even though it is a story he has been telling for decades.

 

Take my kidney. Please…

Local cantor is living donor for beloved congregant

It’s fairly easy to say “I hope you feel better” to a sick friend.

It’s much harder to put your kidney where your mouth is, but Cantor Eric Wasser of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center did.

On February 19, he donated a kidney to his friend, Harvey Jaffee of Garfield.

Mr. Jaffee was in what his doctors “were starting to call end-stage kidney failure,” he reported. He now has a functioning kidney and will be able to resume his life, and Cantor Wasser will be able to return to his. Both, they say, feel enriched and ennobled (if temporarily weakened) by the experience.

Mr. Jaffee’s kidneys had been failing for some time, and he had trekked from doctor to doctor as he tried to get on the registry for a transplant. The screening process is extraordinarily thorough. “It’s one of the most daunting things in the world,” he said. “They send you to doctor after doctor, to check every orifice you have — and some that you don’t. Sometimes I was seeing four or five doctors a week.

 

The essence is to wake us all up

Ikar founder Rabbi Sharon Brous and local leaders talk about building a living Jewish community

Rabbi Sharon Brous radiates intensely concentrated passionate hummingbird energy in almost tactile waves.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could have done what she did — created and maintained a Jewish community that has grown wildly, attracted devoted members, brought disaffected Jews back to Judaism, juggled the tensions between tradition, innovation, accessibility, and fidelity — but once you meet her, you can see that if anyone could have undertaken that impossible-sounding feat, it would have to be her.

Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue that Rabbi Brous imagined and shaped 10 years ago, is now a 580-plus family shul, with a 150-child preschool, a multigenerational membership, and a growing future. Rabbi Brous has garnered so much recognition and so many awards almost off-handedly — on the Forward’s 50 most influential Jews for years! On Newsweek’s Top 50 rabbis list for years, once as number one! Giving the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration! — that it is hard to realize that she is only 41.

 

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The case of the family tree

Local rabbi solves genealogical mystery

Move over Sherlock Holmes. There’s some pretty good detective work going on right here in Bergen County.

Putting together clues and puzzle-like pieces of information, Rabbi Benjamin Shull has solved what he jokingly refers to as his “semi-obsession” — the search for more branches on his family tree.

In the process, he has discovered previously unknown relatives, uncovered a direct link to a renowned Lithuanian rabbi and Musar activist, and come into possession of a beautiful, illuminated honest-to-goodness family tree.

Rabbi Shull, the religious leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, has written a memoir, “Uprooted,” detailing his journey.

His story begins in the early 1990s, at the cemetery in Philadelphia where his father’s family is buried.

 

The little house in the big woods

Artist’s family remembers growing up in Fort Lee

The three children grew up in the middle of the woods.

There were acres of land all around the house; waterfalls tumbled from the rocky hills and splashed down in their rush toward the mighty color-shifting river far below. There were trees to climb, trails to blaze, rocks to scale. For half of the year, glorious canopies of trees shaded their view; when the leaves fell, the children could see the river, and the ships that steamed silently upriver to unload and then headed back south again, out to sea.

It was a perfect pastoral scene, the backdrop for a bucolic 19th-century childhood.

Then pull the camera back a bit. You’ll see that the river is the Hudson, the time the second half of the 20th century, and the town is Fort Lee.

 

The essence is to wake us all up

Ikar founder Rabbi Sharon Brous and local leaders talk about building a living Jewish community

Rabbi Sharon Brous radiates intensely concentrated passionate hummingbird energy in almost tactile waves.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could have done what she did — created and maintained a Jewish community that has grown wildly, attracted devoted members, brought disaffected Jews back to Judaism, juggled the tensions between tradition, innovation, accessibility, and fidelity — but once you meet her, you can see that if anyone could have undertaken that impossible-sounding feat, it would have to be her.

Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue that Rabbi Brous imagined and shaped 10 years ago, is now a 580-plus family shul, with a 150-child preschool, a multigenerational membership, and a growing future. Rabbi Brous has garnered so much recognition and so many awards almost off-handedly — on the Forward’s 50 most influential Jews for years! On Newsweek’s Top 50 rabbis list for years, once as number one! Giving the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration! — that it is hard to realize that she is only 41.

 
 
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