Soccer Jews of New York in World Cup Frenzy; Luftmensch Wingmen: Stewart, Foer, Hirshey, Mass White-Collar Exodus to Watch U.S. Flop
By Lizzy Ratner
David Hirshey, soccer fan, HarperCollins heavyweight and regular Jewish mensch, had taken the better part of the afternoon off from work. So had such landsmen as Little, Brown editor in chief Geoff Shandler, author David Friedman and Gui Stampur, a former Columbia soccer captain with a wiry frame and European hair.
It was approaching noon on Monday, the fourth day of the international sweat fest known as the FIFA World Cup, and the four men had gathered with a minion’s worth of other literary types at an Irish joint called the Playwright Tavern. Mr. Hirshey had invited them there for a kind of ritual watching of the first United States game, an anticipated if uneven matchup against the Czech Republic. On normal occasions, these men would never take an afternoon off for the home team—what home team?—but the World Cup inspires strange fits of passion and patriotism in even the soberest of soccer fans. So they slapped each other’s backs and ordered up drinks and awaited the first kick with the high spirits of yeshiva boys ogling a shiksa.
But six minutes into the game, just after the towering Czech striker Jan Koller headed the ball into the American’s under-guarded goal, the projection TV went dead. “Noooo!” shouted the fans, before launching into a din of grumbles and moans and the occasional “Kill Hirshey!”
“This reminds me of my daughter’s bat mitzvah, when the rabbi showed up late,” said Mr. Hirshey. “I had all these people sipping Manischevitz and eating pigs in the blanket.”
Laydees (and gents), meet the Soccer Jew, that intellectual, kvetchy, Granta-reading guy who also happens to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Ronaldinho’s every kick. With one foot planted firmly in the nerd camp and at least a few toes dangling in the jock sphere, he is the strange, hybrid Creature of the Moment. He is Mr. Friedman and Mr. Hirshey, as well as late-night hero Jon Stewart, former Cosmos goalie Shep Messing and Nixon-era powerhouse Henry Kissinger (though, politically speaking, Mr. Kissinger resembles less a liberal-leaning Soccer Jew than a conservative golf-club goy). Perhaps the Soccer Jew’s most abiding characteristic is that he never roots for Germany.
Up until recently, the Soccer Jew was a rare and unfamiliar being, ignored by sports-page editors and scorned by the average beer-guzzling sports fan. He practiced his soccer worship in solitary anonymity. But with this year’s World Cup, with the advent of soccer parties and power blogs and a small pantheon of celebrity soccer bochers, his moment seems to have arrived. These are his Days of Awe.
“It’s considered a fashionable sport again,” said the mustachioed Mr. Hirshey, who came dressed for the game in khaki shorts, a black polo and New Balance sneakers. “It was fashionable in the late 70’s, and now, after almost 30 years, it’s somehow reignited again in a different generation of fans.
“Now it constitutes this entire movement,” he added. “It’s like Purim, only 10 times better.”
Mr. Hirshey is widely considered the Grand Rebbe of the New York Soccer Jew movement, a diehard from an earlier era who can still remember those glorious 1970’s days when Pele tore up turf for the New York Cosmos. Heck, he used to hang with him at Studio 54. Back in those days, Mr. Hirshey was a young reporter for the Daily News, living out every fan’s fantasy during what turned out to be the golden age of professional American soccer. When that hazy disco moment ended, he refused to give it up. Instead, he held on, writing books, coaching teams and, in a rather un-Jewish move, converting friends like New Yorker scribe Jeffrey Toobin and VH1 exec Michael Hirschorn to the religion of soccer.
Now, to his glee, a new generation of soccerniks is on the rise. These are men in their 20’s and 30’s, like Mr. Stampur, as well as The New Republic’s boy-editor Franklin Foer and Slate’s deputy editor David Plotz. Raised in the post-Pele moment, this new Soccer Jew grew up dribbling, kicking and scrimmaging his way across the soccer field, or at least knowing kids who did. For him, it was a bona fide high-school sport—and, as important, one that his overprotective mother would actually let him play.
“I played [football] for a little while, but … it was a violent sport, so my mom didn’t want me to play it,” said Ethan Zohn, a Vassar-educated former soccer pro who played for, among others, the 1997 and 2001 U.S. National Maccabiah Team. Of course. “And then I broke my collarbone, so she was like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
In 2002, Mr. Zohn, 32, achieved mild fame when he became the last man standing on Survivor: Africa—a triumph that earned him $1 million and a place in the ranks of the growing Soccer Jew subcategory, the Hot Soccer Jew. It was a distinction that the curly-haired soccernik would have thought impossible back when he was still a prepubescent goalie with “big glasses, braces and a mustache.” (The mustache, he said, was because his father refused to let him shave before his bar mitzvah out of some superstitious fear that he wouldn’t grow if he did.) “It was not a pretty sight,” said Mr. Zohn.
But in a way, isn’t that the whole point of the Soccer Jew? The unexpected mix of bookishness and sportiness? Awkwardness and wit?
Perhaps no one captures this better than Jon Stewart, jokester, media mensch and devout soccer fiend. Long before he emerged as the wise-cracking icon of the liberal set, Mr. Stewart spent four years as a wing for the College of William and Mary soccer team—a fact that might just make him the Moses of the Soccer Jews. To this day, the team still hands out an award called the Liebo (Mr. Stewart’s pre-celebrity name was Liebowitz) in honor of the old team cutup.
(It’s worth noting that David Beckham, the golden-calved British soccer god, reportedly has a Jewish grandfather and was raised “somewhat Jewish,” according to one Web site. By some definitions, this might in fact make him the greatest living Soccer Jew. But does a man who is married to Posh Spice really have enough of a sense of irony to be a Soccer Jew?)
TO THE ENDURING FRUSTRATION OF SPORTY JEWS, the People of the Book have long been perceived as a decidedly unathletic type. The Nazis and their sundry vicious spin-off movements certainly promoted that stereotype during the 20th century, but Jews themselves have long traded in the nebbish shtick. Never mind Woody Allen; among the first pieces of modern Jewish literature is Der Ershter Yidisher Rekrut (early-mid 19th century), the story of a bumbling army recruit who “can’t do anything right,” said Yiddish translator and scholar Michael Wex.
“[Jews] weren’t perceived as being athletic, as being outdoorsy,” said Mr. Wex, whose recent book, Born to Kvetch, chronicles one of the few acknowledged sports in which Jews have excelled. “Remember, they weren’t farmers, for the most part. They had indoor occupations …. And among more religious people, they just figured [sports were] a waste of time and they tended not to do it.”
For all this, there is a surprisingly rich soccer tradition among recent generations of European and Eastern European tribesmen. Old-country Jewish culture tended to reflect the sporting habits of the “host” country, said Mr. Wex, and by the early 20th century, Europeans were all about that raucous, hands-free game with the funny shoes and fast-moving ball. One by one, Jewish soccer leagues began cropping up across the shtetl-scape, many of them a deliberate rebuke to that persistent stereotype of the nebbishy Yid. Many of the leagues were Zionist; a few even managed to produce a serious athlete, like the famed Danish brothers—and geniuses—Neils and Harald Bohr. (A Jew named Neils? … Never mind.) When Jews began fleeing Europe, they took the leagues with them, planting them in the soil of their adoptive countries.
“The game has soaked into our genes,” said Roger Bennett, a British transplant who grew up cheering the blue-colored shirts of Everton and just completed a documentary about soccer and Israel called Sons of Sakhnin. (His other claim to fame is that he co-edited the instant kitsch classic Bar Mitzvah Disco.) “Our European routes come seeping through via tales of grandpas who played against the Pope in a Polish village, or of our families being forced to run in the face of marauding Cossacks and being able to take only their most valuable possessions.
“The hockey pads and stick were too cumbersome to schlep,” he added wryly, “but the soccer ball fit into the samovar just fine.”
Over in the United States, the beautiful game didn’t take root so much as incubate, flaring up here and there every generation or so like some strange dribbling cicada. For Mr. Hirshey, for instance, the passion was passed down Dor-leDor style through his father, a Lithuanian immigrant who played competitive soccer back in the old country and wanted his son to “experience the joy he did,” said Hirshey the younger. “I spent hours learning to spin an in-swerving corner kick as expertly as I learned to spin a dreidel.”
He also learned to run, a skill, he said, that might explain the Soccer Jew’s attraction to the sport as much as any. “One of the reasons that Jews gravitate to soccer is that we have to run to survive, so we have to get very good at running,” Mr. Hirshey explained in his rabbinic baritone.
But even among those who had no soccer-star dad, where there was no latent impulse to bounce a whizzing inflated ball off one’s head, there were other, perhaps equally Jewish reasons for the love of the game. Mr. Foer, for instance, is the first to admit that the dribbling gene didn’t make it into his DNA. But what ancestry couldn’t provide, a culture of, say, studiousness helped create.
“I think that nerdy kids have a classic response to their sporting disasters as kids: What they can’t master physically they try to master intellectually, and certainly that’s the case with my soccer experience,” said Mr. Foer, whose 2004 book, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, is a clear testament to that impulse. “I think a lot of it is, the thrill of soccer, to me, was like the thrill of opening up an atlas, where you were exposed to all these foreign countries, foreign names—and that was the appeal.”
Soccer Jews are big on geopolitical analyses of the game (though they also tend to deny that it is a particularly “intellectual” one). Much like that earlier generation, the Baseball Jews, they enjoy the chatter around the sport almost as much as they enjoy the sport itself, though there is a key difference: While baseball is the American-as-apple-pie game of assimilation, soccer is a post-assimilation sport (in the U.S., at least, if not the rest of the world). It’s about internationalism, and daring to enter a world where anti-Semitism is still raw, as the presence of protesting neo-Nazis at this year’s tournament has shown.
“It’s been a way of resisting assimilation, because it’s always been such a foreign phenomenon in the country,” said Mr. Foer. “If you’re born in the 1970’s, I think you feel pretty comfortable being an American and being an American Jew … and in that way, it becomes a lot easier to embrace something like soccer, which is not the most American of sports.”
This kind of self-conscious chatter is common in this season of high-intensity soccery, particularly on the various invite-only World Cup blogs, like Mr. Foer’s the Goal Post, which read like Talmudic commentaries on every team, player, kick and tumble of the tournament. Call them virtual soccer yeshivas (they even don’t let in girls!). On these blogs, soccer fiends can proffer their theories, indulge their brainy urges and yet still be guys, which is perhaps the ultimate sign of the Soccer Jew. They can be dorky and sporty all at once.
Both of these qualities were on display at the Playwright Tavern, as Mr. Hirshey and his fellow Soccer Jews (and a gaggle of non-denominational fans) watched the first U.S. game on a small TV, barely three soccer balls wide. For 90 minutes, they gasped and squirmed as the U.S. struggled—or was it that they didn’t struggle?—against the Czech machine, finally succumbing to a humiliating 3-0 defeat. When the game ended, they kibitzed mournfully and then shuffled quietly off to work, just like their zaydes in generations past.
Said Mr. Hirshey: “I’ll be sitting shiva tonight for the U.S. team.”
P.S. Beckham is Jewish.