BACK WHEN TRACK AND FIELD was a popular spectator sport, my dad used to take me to Madison Square Garden to watch the Millrose Games in the dead of winter. Invariably, he would nudge me and point to an elderly gentleman in black tie standing in the infield.
“There's Abel Kiviat!” he'd exclaim. “Your grandfather knows him. He was the best.”
Kiviat was then in his 80s, a shrunken gnome with bowed legs. In his prime, just before World War I, he was a top-rated distance runner. He held the 1,500-meter world record and took the silver medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
Family lore has it that Kiviat and my grandfather worked as counselors at the same summer camp. Later, as cogs in the judicial system, they would stop and chat in the marbled hallways of the state and federal courthouses.
The connection transcended the personal: Abel Kiviat was a Jew. This was of supreme importance to our family because so few Jewish athletes succeeded at the elite level. Those who did — the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax being the prime example — acquired a distinctive aura. Kiviat and Koufax were the real Chosen Ones, SuperJews, able to whip the Goyim on their AstroTurf.
I thought about Kiviat while reading Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, a fascinating, if uneven, collection co-edited by Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, and Marc Tracy, a staff writer with The New Republic, Jewish Jocks features essays about 50 sports notables by a lineup of journalists, novelists, and historians that includes David Remnick, Jane Leavy, Howard Jacobson, Buzz Bissinger, David Margolick, Tom Rachman, Sam Lipsyte, and Jonathan Safran Foer. (San Francisco-based artist Mark Ulriksen provides the sprightly illustrations.)
Previous books have explored the topic from a broad historical-sociological perspective. Peter Levine's Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience (1993) chronicled how sports helped transform Jewish immigrants into full-fledged citizens. Allen Bodner's When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport (1997) focused on the golden era of the 1920s and 1930s, when Jewish fighters vied for ring dominance against Italian- and Irish-American opponents.
Foer and Tracy, who grew up in the same Washington, DC, neighborhood, are more interested in the athletes and personalities who shaped America's jock culture in ways great and small. Foer himself profiles boxing champ Benny Leonard, whose fists disproved the stereotype of meek, bookish Jews. Hemingway "hated" Leonard's "scientific approach," according to Foer, considering it "the stuff of sissies." (F. Scott Fitzgerald persuaded Hemingway to delete a disparaging anecdote about Leonard at the beginning of the short story "Fifty Grand," a decision Hemingway regretted for the rest of his life.)
Within his own community, Leonard was a symbol of pride. He wore a six-pointed Star of David on his trunks and worshipped his mother. He made boxing — and thus professional sports — respectable for Jews. “[Leonard] was well groomed (he boasted that his opponents could not dislodge even a strand of his black hair) and well spoken (he once challenged Bertrand Russell to a debate),” Foer writes. “His image stood as the refutation of the immigrants’ anxiety that boxing would suck their children into a criminal underworld or somehow undermine the very rationale for fleeing to the Golden Land.”