Lets let our Jewish athletes be Jewish, or not

You could easily write a doctoral thesis on the sociological reasons why so many Jewish people, especially Jewish men, are fixated on Jewish athletes.

In reality, Jews are not underrepresented as top-rank athletes in terms of their percentage of the population. Indeed, considerably more Jews have won Olympic medals than one would expect based on the world Jewish population.

Overall, however, Jews are certainly not as overrepresented in the top tier of athletics as they are in so many other prominent fields.

The existence of top-flight Jewish athletes is a counterpoint to the stereotype that diaspora Jews have concentrated on the life of the mind over physical excellence. An athlete is a far cry from the stereotypical bookworm “ghetto Jew” who got by on his wits rather than taking on the world of anti-Semites with his fists.

But none of this excuses the lengths that many Jewish sports fans and Jewish media will go to prop up the religious and ethnic bona fides of an athlete with some trace of Jewish ancestry.

Take the case of Milwaukee Brewers’ rookie sensation Ryan Braun. His father is Jewish and his mother is not. Although raised in no faith, he is clearly proud of his Jewish background, as an interview earlier in the summer with the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle made clear.

The assertion that Braun was raised in “no faith” is based on information received from the editors of the Jewish Sports Review, the most reliable and authoritative source on the Jewish heritage of athletes. They got this information from Braun’s college coach, who had got it from Braun himself.

Still, as Braun continued to slug his way through the summer, the buzz began to grow on Internet over a new “Jewish” athlete on the scene. Wikipedia was busy building a special “Jewish section” within Braun’s entry with a lot of information of dubious validity. (It still doesn’t mention that Braun’s mother is not Jewish.)

Enter the Jewish Press, a Brooklyn-based Orthodox newspaper. In an Aug. 8 article called “Greenberg to Green to Braun,” the Brewers rookie was hailed as the heir to Jewish baseball legend Hank Greenberg and New York Mets outfielder Shawn Green (never mind that most of the newspaper’s readers wouldn’t even consider Braun Jewish, once they realized that his mother was not a MOT).

Citing no sources, the article declared that Braun’s nickname was “the Hebrew Hammer” and that “he is cool with that.” My own search found no source but the Jewish Press article in which Braun said he is cool with, or even likes, being called the Hebrew Hammer.

The issue came up in a profile of Braun that appeared in the Aug. 28 edition of USA Today Sports Weekly.

The profile said Braun’s non-Jewish mother, Diane, grew up in a home where Greenberg once lived. It also mentioned that Braun’s father, Joe, was born in Tel Aviv and came to America as young boy. But, the story went on to say, “Ryan was not raised Jewish and never had a bar mitzvah, but suddenly he’s hearing from Jewish organizations claiming him as their own.”

“He’s totally not Jewish,” Braun’s mother was quoted as saying. “I heard some organization started called him, ‘the Hebrew Hammer.’ I said, ‘Oh no.’ My mother would be rolling over in her grave if she heard that.'”Ryan is proud that people want to claim him now, but where were they before?” she added. “You know how that stuff works.” Her comments should have clarified matters.

But a week later, JTA ran a Sept. 6 story titled “Jewish Rookie Makes History: But Will He Sit Out on Yom Kippur?” that was republished in many Jewish papers.

The story began: “As baseball season heads into the home stretch and the High Holy Days approach Ryan Braun is supplying a double dose of suspense: Will the Milwaukee Brewers’ slugging third baseman become the first Jewish player to be named Rookie of the Year in either league? And does he plan to take a day off on Yom Kippur in the tradition of Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green?”

Such an opening only set up observant Jewish fans to be disappointed when Braun played on Yom Kippur. However, if Jewish fans knew his background, they could still be proud of the rookie slugger, while understanding where he was coming from in terms of Yom Kippur observance.

On Sept.14, one week before the fast day, the Web site of Major League Baseball quoted Braun saying that he would play. “I am half Jewish, and I am not Orthodox, so I never grew up celebrating the holidays,” he said. “I’m going to play.”

As promised, Braun played on Friday, Sept. 21. He went 2 for 4 with a run scored in a 4-1 win against the Braves.

Sometimes a marvelous thing happens when the Jewish community fetes a Jewish athlete: the athlete enjoys the attention and becomes “more Jewish.” He thinks of himself as a role model for Jewish kids and is drawn into the sphere of the Jewish community. This happened with Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green — all became strong cultural Jews and good role models overall.

There is nothing wrong with Jewish fans having a special regard for Ryan Braun. My sources say he seems to like the attention; it makes him feel a bit special.

Still, there is something almost sad about some Jewish fans and Jewish journalists writing about him like he is the second coming of Moses.

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes the "Celebrity Jews" column for J.