In his novel “Jewball,” author Neal Pollack paints a portrait of hard-drinking, ham-fisted Jewish basketball players pitted against a bunch of Jew-hating goons. One thing about those characters: They were real.
“It’s a true setting,” Pollack says of his book, which takes place in Philadelphia in the late 1930s. “The team existed, as did most of the characters.”
That team was the champion South Philadelphia Hebrew Athletic Association, one of the best pro teams of the era. As counterpoint to their exploits, Pollack plucked from the pages of history the notorious German-American Bund — Nazi sympathizers of the prewar years — and cast them as the evil antagonists.
The result is a darkly comic look at urban, working-class Jewish American culture before the Holocaust changed it forever.
Pollack will visit the Bay Area for a talk and book signing 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3 at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos.
Though most of his characters were real — including main character Inky Lautman, at 15 the youngest pro basketball player ever — Pollack says he did not want to “write a book that was just an ethnography of Jewish basketball players. I like a punchy action yarn.”
In “Jewball,” the South Philly team plays rough-and-tumble games, with hooligans mercilessly taunting them. They also drink to oblivion, suffer for their coach’s gambling habit and cope with the Bund, which has it out for the upstart Jewish athletes.
The author of several previous works of fiction and nonfiction, Pollack got the idea for “Jewball” years ago while attending a retreat sponsored by Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes Jewish cultural innovation. He was sitting in the “shvitz” when the subject of Jewish basketball players came up. “It was a spark of inspiration that grew into something else,” he recalls.
One fascinating aspect of Pollack’s version of the Jewish team is the members’ assimilation into mainstream society, even though they are just a generation removed from the shtetl. They like to drink, gamble and philander as much as any mug of the period.
The author says that was deliberate. “That was a time when assimilation was starting to speed up rapidly. I’m not that interested in ritually religious Judaism myself, so any Jewish protagonist I create would reflect that. These are people for whom Judaism was a culture, not a set of spiritual beliefs.”
The narrative includes two climactic scenes, one in which the team outwits and outslugs the Bund after a nighttime ambush in the Pennsylvania countryside; the other when they head to Minneapolis to play a team of Aryan lugs fielded by the Bund. That contest was pure fiction, but the subsequent riot, in which a band of Jewish gangsters wallops Nazi sympathizers at a Bund rally in the Twin Cities, actually did take place in 1938.
“It was pre-Holocaust, pre–Jewish victimhood in a sense,” Pollack says of the era. “It allowed me some latitude to let the guys kick some ass, not in an ‘Inglorious Basterds’ revenge fantasy, but standing up for their own territory.”
A lifelong basketball fan, Pollack had fun describing SPHAA games, which exemplified the slower style of basketball in those days. “I tried to pace the games the way I would imagine a good NCAA tournament game would go, but even lower-scoring.”
The Austin-based writer says he’s currently working on a serialized detective novel (it involves a sleuthing yoga instructor), but notes that he was so pleased with the world of Inky Lautman and the SPHAAs, he plans a sequel. Maybe two.
How those stories will unfold, he’s not sure. But Pollack isn’t worried.“I write by the seat of my pants,” he says.
Neal Pollack, 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3, Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. Free. www.siliconvalleyjcc.org
“Jewball” by Neal Pollack (212 pages, Thomas & Mercer, $14.95)