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Tenement Talk: Jewish Jocks


This Wednesday evening, we’ll welcome Marc Tracy, Ira Berkow, Joshua Cohen and Liel Leibovitz for a Tenement Talk on Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. By coincidence, the talk falls on Sid Luckman Day, which celebrates the Brooklyn-born quarterback and Football Hall of Famer who revolutionized the sport. Tenement Talks Assistant Meredith Heil gives us some background on this upcoming Talk.

One reason the Tenement Museum speaks so successfully about New York City and immigrationis that it tells the real human stories behind history. The same can be said of the book Jewish Jocks. Like the previous title co-edited by Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World, Jewish Jocks goes behind the numbers to portray the players who produced the statistics. These books stand out by honoring, investigating, and sometimes critiquing athletic competition as it ripples through race, class, gender, and nationality.

For centuries, sports have been cultural tools – providing ways to organize and rally citizens, ways to impart foreign customs, and ways for immigrants to easily and cheaply assimilate into society. Jewish Jocks could have easily been a simple collection of biographies, covering everyone from an eighteenth-century pugilist to Mavericks owner Mark Ruben. Instead, the anthology goes much deeper, highlighting the author’s personal connection or the athlete’s particular cultural significance.

My grandfather, Dan, grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the first-born son of Italian immigrants. He was tall with broad shoulders and a square, thick neck. After graduating from Boys High School, Dan wanted to play football and accepted a placement on Brooklyn College’s squad. Before dropping out to serve in World War II, my grandfather played several seasons for the meager team, never seeing a winning record. But when he spoke about it, he was proud, evidenced by the many photographs of him leaping gallantly to receive the squat, rugby-shaped pigskin.

Across town, Sid Luckman was tossing passes to Columbia’s equally dismal lineup. The son of German-Jewish immigrants, Sid, like my grandfather Dan, grew up on the streets of Brooklyn and loved the game of football. However, unlike Dan, Sid’s talent led him to fame. According to Rich Cohen’s Jewish Jocks essay on the great quarterback, Sid was encouraged by his father, a trucker who saw football as a way for his son to excel among his hardscrabble neighborhood buddies and fit into secular New York. Sid went on to pioneer the strategically oriented T-formation, now a standard, with the Chicago Bears, leading the team that dominated in the 1940s. On November 14, 1943, at the Polo Grounds, Luckman passed for a record seven touchdowns in a 56-7 win over the New York Giants.

Sid Luckman, 1940. Courtesy of NFL.

Sid Luckman did not rise to prominence because he was Jewish. Yet the fact he was a first-generation Jewish New Yorker provides insight into the culturally complex relationship between sports and culture, and helps us understand the immigration experience of so many, including folks like my grandfather. Jewish Jocks is filled with stories like Sid’s; there’s Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, and boxer Benny Leonard, who became the world’s top lightweight. These stories, and the athletes who lived them, paint a far fuller picture than stats alone.

—Posted by Meredith Heil