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 Jewish World Review, November 12th, 1999:

Jewish Pride and a Career Are a Good Match

By Jonathan Tobin

 

BEING A JEW at home and a secular citizen out in the world was once the motto of a Jewish community emerging from the ghetto and eager to participate in secular life.

While shopkeepers and blue-collar workers struggled with the problems of maintaining their Jewish identity when economic forces threatened observances such as Shabbat, more prominent Jews had other concerns. American Jews made impressive achievements in the early part of this century as individuals, but it was rare for a Jew to achieve fame in a secular career while still holding onto Jewish practices and allegiances.

The idea of a Jew rising to the U.S. Senate, the Cabinet or the heights of the business world or media while still publicly observing Judaism was unheard of. To be a Jew in the world was simply unacceptable. Even apart from religious observances, the notion of being a publicly proud Jew who supported Jewish causes was often thought bad form or dangerous for those who aspired to secular success.

In the field of journalism, the story of the Ochs/Sulzburger family, who parlayed a Chattanooga, Tenn., newspaper into the journalistic empire that is today The New York Times while trying hard to discard a great deal of their Jewish identity, shows what it meant to truly assimilate into American society.

 

A JOURNALISTIC GIANT LEAVES THE STAGE 

I thought of that last Friday when I read about the end of A.M. Rosenthal’s 55-year tenure at The New York Times. For reasons that both The Times and Rosenthal preferred to keep quiet about, the 77-year-old former executive editor and longtime columnist at the nation’s leading daily parted company. Abe Rosenthal’s journalistic career, which included a Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Eastern Europe, was remarkable. The story of how his employers insisted on giving him a byline with initials rather than his very Jewish sounding first name is legendary. But unlike his newspaper’s owners, he never shied away from Jewish topics, like the Holocaust or Israel.

He also cultivated the careers of young Jewish journalists, appointing the first Jew to be The Times Israel correspondent (the now-famous and wholly unsatisfactory Thomas L. Friedman).

Indeed, once he moved from the editor’s chair to his columnist post in 1987, Rosenthal took on the mantle of that newspaper’s - and thereby the media’s - leading defender of Israel. He also became a powerful advocate of international human rights and a leading foe of religious persecution. He inspired many others (such as this writer) to emulate him.

The Times will be hard-pressed to find anyone with half of the integrity of Rosenthal. Not to mention that without him, there will be no writer on their Op-Ed page with a clear pro-Israel point of view, save for William Safire, who rarely takes up specifically Jewish issues.

Here’s hoping that he surfaces elsewhere in the media soon and resumes his role as one of the guardians of our national conscience.

 

FINDING JUDAISM IN THE BALLPARK

As much as A.M. Rosenthal symbolizes how a man can use his secular American career to make a genuine contribution to the Jewish people, another story shows how an insistence on Jewish identity can pop up in the strangest places.

With the end of the baseball season (concluded by a resounding sweep of the Atlanta Braves by my beloved New York Yankees), Major League teams are now in the process of preparing for next year with a frenzy of trading. Players with expectations of large contracts are being swapped by teams to those that think they can sign them.

One such example is Shawn Green, late of the Toronto Blue Jays. Green is not only an outstanding outfielder and left-hand power hitter. He can also claim the distinction of being the most talented Jewish player currently in the big leagues.

Like many of his fellow Jews in the majors, Green is not exactly what you might call one of the yiddishe yiddin [Jewish Jews]. He never had a Bar Mitzvah and the Los Angeles native had minimal knowledge of Judaism prior to his arrival as a rookie in Toronto several years ago.

But Green was embraced by Toronto’s large Jewish community. He was feted at Jewish events and enjoyed the special adulation of Jewish kids of all ages, above and beyond the normal hoopla of being a Major Leaguer. He embraced his status as the new Jewish slugger, and even told the press he was thinking of having a Bar Mitzvah.

Yet, Green’s time in Toronto was running out. Under baseball’s rules, next year he would become a free agent and thus be able to sign with any team he wants. Since he had an excellent season in 1999, Green could expect to collect a huge raise from the paltry $4.5 million he made this year. Green didn’t want to stay in Toronto and, according to the team, money wasn’t the issue.

Since the Blue Jays didn’t want to let him flee without being their getting anything for him, Green was quickly put on the trading bloc.

But when Green expressed his preferences as to where he would be dealt, he almost certainly made sports, if not Jewish history, with his statement. “He told us he wanted to play in a major U.S. city with a large Jewish population,” Toronto General Manager Gordon Ash told The New York Times. Within the week, Green was dealt to his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, who will pay him a record $14 million per annum for the next six years.

While the cynics among us might say that Green - and his agent - realized his marketing potential would be greater if he played in a town with a lot of Jewish fans, I prefer to consider this a blow struck for Jewish identity. I’d like to think that being part of a Jewish community appealed to him as much as the big bucks.

Continuity experts take note. In this case, rather than a Jew having to sacrifice his Jewish identity to participate in mainstream secular culture, remarkably Shawn Green seems to have discovered Judaism via Major League baseball!

 

CHECK THE BOXSCORES

But while L.A.-area synagogues compete for the right to be the site of Shawn’s Bar Mitzvah, we should also remember to check the box scores next fall on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the past, the non-observant Green chose to play ball on the High Holidays. Perhaps next year, Green will be inspired to follow former Dodger Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch in game one of the 1965 World Series because it was held on Yom Kippur.

A check of next year’s calendar shows that would mean Green would have to miss at least one game in the first round of the playoffs (assuming the Dodgers make it to the post-season). I guess we’ll find out then just how much Jewish identity means to the . It’s a free country and he can do as pleases, but I’ll admit I’m going to root for the young slugger/millionaire to spend those days in shul and give Jewish kids a real role model to emulate.

As A.M. Rosenthal proved at The Times, Jewish pride is no barrier to a successful career.

 

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

  


 



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