Editor’s note: Tablet is boycotting coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to protest the Russian government’s civil rights abuses, particularly with regard to the LGBT community. We are, however, bringing our readers stories about winter sports and athletes who may feature in future, happier Games.
Jacob Davis has only been curling for three years, but last week, the 29-year-old materials-science engineer from Boston was scouted by a national squad—Israel’s.
Like a sporting Moses, Davis struck his rock, trying to impress delegates from the Israel Curling Federation, a fledgling group that dreams of one day fielding an Israeli Olympic team. While their counterparts from curling powerhouses—Canada, chiefly, but also Great Britain, the sport’s birthplace, the Scandinavian countries, and the United States—were in Sochi, Russia, preparing for the opening of the Olympic curling competition this week, the Israelis were touring North America, stopping at places like the Broomstones Curling Club in Wayland, Mass., looking for Jewish curlers like Davis, who could easily take up Israeli citizenship and represent the Jewish state in international competition. Davis doesn’t think he has the talent to win a U.S. title—“but maybe this could be my back door into more competitive curling,” he said.
Israel, a warm-weather country, has a long history of recruiting Jewish winter athletes from abroad. Ever since the Ukrainian-born figure skater Michael Shmerkin competed for Israel at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the country has steadily increased its participation in the quadrennial cold-weather sporting event by enlisting foreign-born Jews. This month, Israel is sending five athletes to Sochi: a Belgian-born alpine skier, a Ukrainian-born short-track speed skater, and three figure skaters, one American by birth and the other two Ukrainian. It’s the first time Israeli athletes have qualified for three different sports at the same Winter Games.
The 15-year-old Israel Curling Federation hopes to add curling to the list for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Israel joined the World Curling Federation in 1999, as part of an initiative by Yosef Goldberg, mayor of the northern Galilee town of Metula—one of the few places in Israel where snow isn’t an exceptional event—to put the country on the winter sporting map. Yet, for the better part of a decade, the 64 curling stones donated by the WCF sat mostly unused. Ice-hockey players at the Canada Centre in Metula would occasionally toss a few rocks after their scrimmage, but few people in Israel took the sport seriously. In 2008, after the ICF fell behind on its membership dues, the WCF kicked Israel out of the global club.
Today, after a five-year campaign to rebuild the ICF, the federation boasts around 200 members who curl at ice rinks in Metula, Holon, Ashdod, and Jerusalem. There’s even a wheelchair-curling program for disabled veterans. (One Israeli wheelchair curler, Tzipi Zipper, spent a few days last month training in Madison, Wis., with the U.S. Paralympic team.) In recognition of these efforts, the WCF voted last September to reinstate Israel into its midst. In principle, the country can now play in international bonspiels, as curling tournaments are known. They just need to find enough high-caliber curlers to field a team.
Until the late 1950s, Jews weren’t even allowed membership at many of the most prestigious curling clubs of North America. Just as in golf and country clubs at the time, an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” brand of anti-Semitism ran deep in curling. In response, Jewish curling buffs founded their own clubs. “This was a real kibbutz for a lot of us,” said Mel Wyne, 79, a financial planner in Edmonton who curled at the city’s Menorah Curling Club, which was established in 1947 with 56 members. “It solidified the small Jewish community.”
In Winnipeg—which had a larger Jewish population—the Maple Leaf Curling Club formed in 1933. From a humble start of just eight curlers who rented ice at another facility, the Maple Leaf’s membership grew to the point that by 1946, the predominantly Jewish club could afford to purchase its own building. My grandmother Eva Dolgin served as president of the ladies’ league at the Maple Leaf in the 1950s. For years, she curled in the legendary B’nai B’rith Bonspiel, the world’s largest Jewish curling tournament. The annual Winnipeg event attracted hundreds of participants from across Western Canada and the Midwestern United States. “It was very popular and got a lot of press coverage,” recalled Martin Buchwald, 77, a retired architect from Winnipeg and former president of the Maple Leaf. “I think the reporters liked to cover it because they got a lot to eat.”
Although the Maple Leaf had a handful of non-Jewish members, the B’nai B’rith tournament was open exclusively to Jews. “We were the victims of discrimination by a group that had been discriminated against,” said Doug Strange, 68, a retired lawyer in Winnipeg who isn’t Jewish but joined the Maple Leaf as a teenager because that’s where his Jewish friends from high school played. “It was kind of ironic.”
If there was ever a Jackie Robinson of Jewish curling, it was Terry Braunstein. Braunstein started curling at the Maple Leaf. But as a teenager, he also played at the Granite Curling Club, the oldest and most established club in Manitoba—which at the time had no Jewish members. In March 1958, Braunstein and his younger brother Ron—both still junior competitors—beat out adult teams to win the Manitoba provincial title, with Terry playing skip. The next fall, the Braunsteins were granted full adult membership at the Granite. Other Jews soon followed. “When we went to curl there we were made to feel a little uncomfortable,” recalled Ken Neuman, 75, a dentist in Vancouver who curled with the Braunsteins in the early 1960s. “But after a couple of years, there wasn’t any of that [anti-Semitism] visible.”
The 1960s were a time of transition for Jewish curling. Some Jews continued to curl out of their own clubs, where they fielded competitive squads: Members of the Maple Leaf, led by Hersh Lerner and Bob Robinson, won three provincial championships throughout the decade. Others found success at non-Jewish clubs: Barry Naimark, on a team from the Vancouver Curling Club, won both the Canadian and world championships in 1964. A year later, the Braunstein brothers won the Brier, Canada’s national men’s curling title, and came second in the worlds while representing the Granite.
By the end of the 1960s, however, membership at exclusively Jewish clubs started to wane. Fewer Jews were interested in curling, and those who were had moved out of the areas where Jewish immigrants historically lived—the North End of Winnipeg, for example, where the Maple Leaf was located—and toward more affluent neighborhoods where other curling clubs could be found. In 1971, the Maple Leaf sold its facility to an apostolic church. A similar fate befell the Menorah Curling Club in Edmonton in 1969.
The idea to enlist North American curlers for Israel was initially sparked by an inquiry from Jeff Lutz, a marketing director and avid curler who won a silver medal and three bronze medals in the U.S. College Curling Championships as a student at Syracuse University. In 2009, with the Vancouver Winter Olympics just a year away, the Michigan native decided he wanted to compete at the Games—and he thought that offering to represent Israel might be a way to get there. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m a Jewish curler, I’m from Detroit, I can build a team,’ ” Lutz recalled. But Lutz says he was told that, to compete internationally under the Magen David flag, he would eventually have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. “It was a no-go for me,” said Lutz, who was 25 at the time. “I love the country, but that was obviously a scary proposition.”
Last fall, when Lutz noticed posts on his Twitter feed congratulating Israel on rejoining the WCF, he decided to revisit the idea—in part because, at 29, he believes he’d be exempted from any military obligations if he qualified for an Israeli squad. Sochi was obviously out of the question, but if Israel can successfully form a team by May, the country’s curlers could be squaring off against Iceland, Luxembourg, Serbia, and other Group C countries as soon as October, at the 2014 European Curling Championships—a necessary first step on the path to qualifying for the 2018 Winter Games.
With the ICF’s development director, Simon Pack, Lutz helped organize the North American recruiting tour at curling clubs in Boston, Chicago, New York, and two cities in southwestern Ontario: Windsor and nearby Leamington. These places are not exactly hotbeds of curling, let alone Jewish curling. And turnout at several of the clubs, including at Broomstones, was sparse. Pack, who holds a PhD in sports management and works for the Municipal Sports Authority of Jerusalem, said the cities were chosen based on where people showed the most interest but added that he hopes to soon visit more clubs in Canada, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Pack himself is new to curling, as is his colleague Sharon Cohen, the ICF’s chief executive. At the recruiting event in Boston last week, Cohen videotaped Davis and the other curlers who turned up and plans to send the footage to more knowledgeable coaches, who can help pick promising candidates. Pack concedes it’s not exactly a rigorous tryout process but said the ICF has to start somewhere. The recruiting tour is in many ways just a grassroots awareness-raising effort for the ICF—but Pack said he’s serious about trying to compete. “The goal, for sure, is to get at least a men’s team together to compete in the Euro C tournament,” he said.
There are some examples from which the ICF can draw inspiration—and caution—as it looks to compete internationally. In 2009, Brazil challenged the United States for a spot at the men’s world curling championships. The stronger American team summarily beat the South American squad in the three-game match-up: 13-2, 13-2, 11-5. That doesn’t bode well for Israel’s chances against the curling heavyweights of the world. But last year, a team from Hungary—a country not known for its curling prowess and one that’s relatively new to the sport—took home the gold at the annual world championship for mixed doubles curling, a form of the sport that some are now lobbying to make an Olympic event.
Yet finding any four people who have the curling talent to win on a global level would be hard under any circumstances. Finding four people like that who are also Jewish and willing to make aliyah could be near impossible.
Kyle Doering is probably the most accomplished up-and-coming Jewish curler in the world. The 18-year-old from the West Kildonan Curling Club in Winnipeg won the Optimist Under-18 International Curling Championships the last two years in a row, and his team came third at the 2012 Canadian Junior Curling Championships. Doering’s mother Bonnie is Jewish, he went to Jewish elementary school, and he dreams of visiting Israel one day. A freshman business student at the University of Winnipeg, he said curling could be his ticket to the Holy Land. “If I had an offer from the Israeli team I’d definitely consider it,” he said in an interview.
But, as with Lutz and other prospects, the possibility of having to fulfill military service obligations remains a major stumbling block. “That would be the deal-breaker,” Doering said. Pack said that young athletes can usually defer service, but rarely get out of it entirely. “From an ideological stance, I don’t want someone to get Israeli citizenship just to curl,” he said.
Despite the odds, Terry Braunstein, now 74 and serving as an unofficial adviser to the ICF, remains optimistic about Israel’s chances. “I think it would be quite possible that, if they found four really good curlers who have the basic abilities to begin with, they could qualify,” he said. “They’d have to work at it, there’s no question about it, but I think there are ways they could do it.”
Lutz agrees. “There’s a real chance here—and I know I’ve heard the Jamaican bobsled reference before,” he said, alluding to the comically bad bobsledding team made famous by the 1993 film Cool Runnings. With an Israeli curling squad, he went on, “If you get the right people there, they could turn some heads.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.