About a week ago, I was browsing the New York Times’ On Religion section, one of my favorite things to read, for obvious reasons. I came across this piece, called “An Offensive Tackle Named Shlomo.” Despite the fact that I am the farthest thing from a sports fan, I read this article with interest. It began with a retrospective look, going all the way back to 1986 (oy, the year my parents were married!) when Veingrad had just started playing for the Green Bay Packers.
He entered the locker room to find a note from a Lou Weinstein, unknown to Veingrad at the time but soon to become an important figure in his life. Seemingly before he knew it, Veingrad was on his way to being entrenched in the Chabad lifestyle. The article gives some nice details about the transformation, juxtaposing the things that Veingrad proudly wears: tzitzit and his Super Bowl ring. And this gem, when we get to the root of why this issue is so fascinating to Jews (and perhaps the goyim too, but I really can’t comment there):
Within his 6-foot-5 frame, Mr. Veingrad embodies two Jewish archetypes that do not often meet. He is the baâ€™al guf, the Jewish strongman, and the baâ€™al teshuva, the returnee to the faith. While two Jewish boxers on the scene now â€”Â Yuri Foreman andÂ Dimitriy Salita â€” also are prominently observant, Mr. Veingrad may well be the only Orthodox athlete from the United Statesâ€™ hugely popular team sports.
The Times’ writer, Samuel G. Freedman writes convincingly about why this is interesting and relevant to us–essentially, we’re not used to seeing Jews in this strongman position. (Although, Wikipedia’s list of Jews in Sports would try to convince you otherwise.) But the story of a returnee to the faith is quite familiar to us. Veingrad’s story feels a little bit like a reverse-Jewish-Cinderella: he was at a place in his life where there was a dearth of spiritual wealth, and now he’s retired, studying Torah with the rabbis.
A few days after I read the article, I continued to turn the idea over in my mind–why we love to read stories like this one, why we like seeing Jews in positions in politics or entertainment or sports that we don’t expect to see. I’m not a psychology major but part of this mentality comes from feeling like the underdog for so long. To see one of our own pushing people around on a football field is exciting!
But I feel like the Times’ often perpetuates these articles of oh-my-a-Jew-in-a-strange-place-that-we-didn’t-expect-him-to-be. Case in point: The Times’ article on a bomb-sniffing Israeli dog in Montana. The story, called “Yes, Mikey, There are Rabbis in Montana,” received a bit of backlash amongst bloggers for perpetuating the idea that I just mentioned. In the shifting age of journalism, when a story isn’t just a story, it’s fodder for blog posts and tweets and who knows what else, I want to push the question: What is the true root of these stories? Is there something we are still trying to prove?