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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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Dentistry in Africa

Local father-daughter duo fix teeth in Jewish Ugandan village

Kayla Grunstein’s parents, Shira and Dr. Robert Grunstein, didn’t want her to “be a brat,” Kayla said.

They wanted her to learn something about the world and her place in it, about the importance of work and the satisfaction of a job well done, about gratitude and generosity and giving.

They also were not adverse to allowing the 14-year-old some excitement and adventure at the same time.

In fact, a lot of excitement and adventure. With the Abayudaya in Uganda.

This is how it happened.

Her father, Dr. Robert Grunstein, is a dentist. He lives in Teaneck but has spent his career working mainly with lower-income children in Passaic and Paterson. He had the brilliant idea (yes, this is journalism, but some things are so clear that they just must be said, so brilliant idea it is) of buying an old fire truck and turning it into a mobile dental office. “Kids love fire trucks, and they are ambivalent at best about going to the dentist,” he said. “If you mix the two, it becomes more palatable.

 

We’ve got the horse right here…

Local Orthodox family wins the Kentucky Derby. Really!

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.

There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.

How did they get there?

 

The with-luck-not-too-lonely woman of faith

Local hiker joins love of Judaism and wilderness to create walking adventures 

When you think of the words “wild” and “New Jersey,” you might think of bloated, run-amok politicians, or Sopranos in driveways or diners, or cement-shod bodies tossed under the Meadowlands. It is, after all, the country’s most densely populated state, and better known for the stadium than for actual, you know, meadowlands.

But New Jersey also is home to natural beauty, to wild animals and rattlesnakes, to gravity-defying geological formations, and to part of the Appalachian Trail, as well as to abandoned iron mines, crumbling old mansions, and other human-made artifacts decaying back into nature.

If you look at the maps put out by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, sturdily and colorfully printed on a rip-proof, paper-like material called Tyvek — because it is meant to be used by serious hikers on real trails — you will see that the northern part of this state, beginning in western Bergen County and going west from there, is full of parks that are ringed with hiking trails. Just to their north, Rockland, Ulster, and Sullivan counties in New York state are similarly rich in accessible but rough trails.

 

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Master of disguise

Unmistakable Tuvia Tenenbom, journalist discusses his sad findings about Israel, Europe, Germany, and anti-Semitism

When you try to imagine a crusading journalist, someone who would go undercover, assume false identities, pretend to be someone other than who he is, you probably would imagine someone who does not look like Tuvia Tenenbom.

You might expect a master of disguise, able to change his appearance at will, or maybe someone nondescript, mousy, too boring to describe.

That’s not Tuvia.

Tuvia — who will speak at Temple Emanu-el of Closter this Shabbat morning — is not tall, but he is broad; when I met him, he wore a white billowy button-down shirt, open enough to display the thick gold chain around his neck, wild-and-crazy-guy style. His thicket of hair is an unlikely yellow, his glasses a lovely pink. A near-visible fog of cigarette smoke surrounds him at all times, even when he is not smoking.

Tuvia not only loves to smoke, he loves to eat; even more than that, it seems, he loves to explore, to ask questions, to ask forbidden questions, to follow paths that intrigue him, and to explore them even more avidly once they are marked as off limits to him.

 

‘Indescribable’ connections

Zahal Shalom brings Israeli veterans to Ridgewood for touring, love

What happened when the alarm went off in the Pentagon was a reminder of one of the reasons local volunteers behind Zahal Shalom are so eager to open their homes, their schedules, and their wallets to 10 wounded Israeli veterans each year.

During their two-week stay, the Israelis get to see New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.

In Washington, they visited the monuments, ate in the Senate dining room, and took a tour of the Pentagon, where — and this was not on the five-page itinerary — a fire drill caused alarms to clang loudly.

For Anat Nitsan, the alarm brought back memories from the Yom Kippur war, more than 40 years ago. Now an art curator, then she was a soldier at the air force base at Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of Sinai. She survived the initial surprise attack from the Egyptian air force. And then, in a case of friendly fire, she watched in horror as a missile seemed to target her directly. Somehow she survived that too — though not without a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

We’ve got the horse right here…

Local Orthodox family wins the Kentucky Derby. Really!

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.

There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.

How did they get there?

 
 
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