When World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) announced Bill Goldberg would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame prior to April’s WrestleMania 34, I was far from kvelling, because the only way a Jewish wrestler can find success in WWE is if he doesn’t have any stereotypical Jewish characteristics. Goldberg was the -ish in Jewish, and he didn’t resemble me at all.
Growing up an anxious kid in Albany, NY, I was obsessed with pro-wrestlers. While there were Latino, African American, Japanese, Samoan, and all-American WASP players, I was disappointed there were hardly any Jews. Whenever a wrestler’s Hebrew faith played a part in his character, he was a jobber, a term for a wrestler there only to make an opponent look good. In wrestling, everyone was a stereotype—but Jews lost, without fail.
At seven, searching channels for cartoons, I landed on Superstars of Wrestling and was terrified by the barbarians wearing horrible makeup, attempting to cripple each other. But when I was 11, preparing to become a bar mitzvah, I became obsessed with the way the cartoonish jesters peacocked to the ring, dressed in fur, sequined robes, and other outfits clearly from the women’s department. They walked with confidence although society ridiculed them—so masculine they could afford to be ludicrous. I wanted to be like that.
As a nebbish who loathed sports and attended temple on Shabbat with my wallpaper salesman dad, I wanted a macho role model. I got Barry Horowitz, the only outwardly Jewish wrestler in early 90s mainstream pro-wrestling. I was excited that he came out to Hava Nagila with a star of David on his trunks. He became a parody, rocking horn-rimmed glasses, like me. His signature gesture: Patting himself on the back, since no one else would.
Jewish culture adored underdog stories. But Barry Horowitz wasn’t the charming schlemiel who won. He was the schmuck. If wrestling was fake, why did the Jew have to lose? It was bad enough that I was one of the only Jews in my upstate NY middle school, and my classmates loved mocking me for my dad’s commercials: “Come ta Deitcha’s Wallpapa’ Outlet. We won’t be undersold,” they’d say, with their noses plugged. By ninth grade, my social life mirrored Horowitz’s career. The first time I was called a Heeb, I thought my schoolmate was making up gibberish, so I called him a hoob. Kids spewed ethnic slurs and flicked pennies down the hall in my direction. Mimicking a WWE superstar, I reacted with equally offensive slurs. Sometimes, I was the challenger, instigating a fight. Once the match started, I lost.
In 11th grade, I transitioned from mainstream WWE to Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), the federation that broadcast from a bingo hall and pushed “sports-entertainment” towards an older demographic. As my favorite entertainers destroyed themselves in barbed wire matches, I became another stereotype, the Jew who mocked himself to lessen the sting. As the announcer screamed “cat fight!” while women wrestlers ripped off each other’s already minimal clothing, I strutted the halls rocking tank tops and called myself “The Killer Kike” and “The Jewish Juggernaut,” hilarious because I was bony and weak.
ECW was owned by Paul Heyman, the son of a Holocaust survivor, but in storylines he played a manager. Jewish managers (often portrayed by non-Jews) were a trope in pro-wrestling, but Heyman played such a great manager, he made it cool. Balding and dressed in a suit, he verbally tore down opponents and had gentile “clients” to protect him.
ECW’s success, despite its low production values, inspired the backyard wrestling craze. My friends and I recorded matches in my basement, passing the VHS tapes around school the next day. The champion, never me, was awarded a cardboard title belt. The fake aspect was lost, and we really wrestled, performing the stunts without holding back. My finest move was wiggling so much my opponents couldn’t pin me. My parents weren’t wrestling fans and couldn’t fathom us holding our own bouts, so they ignored the noise, happy I finally invited friends over. While ECW wrestlers put each other through flaming tables, my opponent broke my arm with a banzai drop off the staircase. After taking me to the hospital, my parents shut down the basement venue, forcing the federation to move to my friend’s backyard.
My senior year, I was voted Most Changed for senior superlatives. I went from loser to the token funny Jew and spent my Shabbats with jocks at keg parties. Still, no girls would talk to me. My success came as Bill Goldberg had an undefeated “streak” of destruction, attaining the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) World Heavyweight Championship while a Southern crowd went insane cheering. Goldberg was a bald bruiser wearing black trunks, a “muscle Jew,” defying stereotypes of my people being weak intellectuals. Because he couldn’t be categorized, the crowd chanted his Semitic name without caring about his heritage. He’s not like the other Jews, they’d think. To me, he was a circumcised unicorn, an anomaly. I forgot he was Jewish too.
At Ithaca College, I stayed far from Hillel and spent Yom Kippur at the Chinese buffet. I became consumed with outing every Jewish wrestler. On the Internet, I used to Ask Jeeves (the original Siri) about wrestlers’ heritages. ECW superstar Raven was a member of Mensa—he had Jewish smarts. The list grew to include: Prince Albert, Dean Malenko, The Grand Wizard Ernie Roth, and Randy Savage (Jewish on his mom’s side. Raised Catholic). Most of the Jewish performers portrayed excessively goy-ish characters: a leather-clad tattooist, an emotionless (therefore not Jewish at all) ring technician, a macho man who wore a bedazzled cowboy hat and came out to “Pomp and Circumstance Military March #1.”
In 2007, 26-years-old and directionless, I moved to Jerusalem for nine months with a temporary visa and enrolled in yeshiva. The glorification of the Israeli Army never sat right to me—an army of Goldbergs—but I found strength in religion. I wrapped myself in tefillin and felt connected to my ancestors, rebel Jews who refused to give up.
In 2008, a new Jewish grappler appeared in WWE, played by Colt Cabana, a dark-haired comic who looked like my cousin. Finally, a wrestling master who represented me. I needed him to succeed. A WWE employee through 2009, Cabana lost every match. Later, in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling, Cabana said that during his time there, he was openly referred to as “Kike Cabana” by a WWE trainer.
I was hurt by Cabana’s treatment. I made it my goal to fight back, becoming a regular temple attendee. One by one, I incorporated commandments, beginning with eliminating shellfish, and took a leadership role in a monthly Shabbat meetup for freaks on the fringes of the community, like I once was. I met my bashert, Annie, who hated real sports too, and we chuppahed-it-up.
Imagine my excitement when WWE hired Scottish grappler Noam Dar in 2016 and acknowledged he was born in Israel. His Israeli/Jewish identity didn’t factor into his character, probably the reason they let him win his first three matches. Soon, his losses ratcheted up. Getting defeated about 80 percent of the time felt like progress.
The WWE came full circle last August when Israeli-born Canadian Wrestler Tomer Shalom, wrestling as Jean-Pierre Goulet, debuted on WWE RAW with a gold Star of David on his back. He was pinned in under 90 seconds and hasn’t been on WWE TV since.
Not one outwardly Jewish wrestler appeared on the WWE RAW the week the Goldberg announcement took place on, but at least we didn’t lose.
Before I went to bed that night, I Googled a video from soon after I reached bar mitzvah—on July 9th, 1995, during an episode of The Action Zone, a WWE B-show, Bodydonna Skip battled Barry Horowitz. After a brief back and forth, Skip hit a suplex and screamed at the camera, “He ain’t nothing but a loser. He never won a match in his life.”
A great-miracle happened there: Horowitz snuck besides a distracted Skip, rolled him up and scored the three count. “Horowitz wins! Horowitz wins! Horowitz wins!” the announcer shouted.
I closed my eyes and recited the Shema, feeling as if I had won, too.
Jay Deitcher is a writer and clinical social worker from Albany, N.Y.