In the mid-1990s, when I was in elementary school, my father started taking me to nightclubs around Boston to watch a young boxer named “Dangerous” Dana Rosenblatt. The guy was good—he finished with a career record of 37-1—but his talent was a secondary concern. The first thing my dad mentioned when he told someone about “Dangerous” Dana—and he told anyone who would listen—was this: Rosenblatt wore a Star of David on his trunks.
There is a specific generation of American Jews, mostly men, who came of age alongside Sandy Koufax and ever since have taken tremendous pride in Jewish athletes. They are the reason the phrase “Is Stephen Strasburg Jewish?” was a suggested search term on Google last summer. (He’s not.) They’re the reason a market exists for sets of Jewish baseball cards. Were it not for them, Amar’e Stoudemire probably wouldn’t have tried to claim Jewish roots upon signing with the Knicks.
My father is of this generation. So is Shel Wallman. A retired public school teacher living on the Upper West Side, Wallman is the founder of the Jewish Sports Review, a bi-monthly magazine available only in print and by subscription. The JSR exists to solve a simple problem. “We wanted to know who the Jews were when we watched a game,” says Wallman, 72. “Now we usually do.”
Wallman’s being modest. He always knows.
For the past 14 years, Wallman and his partner, a retired Los Angeles parole officer named Ephraim Moxson, have been poring over rosters, pestering sports information directors, mailing postcards, calling parents—whatever it takes to figure out whether an athlete is Jewish. That shared obsession—together they put in more than 40 hours per week—has led to the definitive source on the matter, an encyclopedic data dump of Jewish athletes and their stats. “We fact-check like mad,” says Moxson, 68. “There’s some satisfaction in being the foremost authority.”
They typical JSR issue is 24 pages and contains very few, if any, traditional articles. The writing is in the style of Peter Gammons’ famous Sunday notes columns for the Boston Globe: a string of short paragraphs and lists, grouped by sport, heavy on statistics and light on transitional sentences. Wallman does most of the writing. When he chooses to editorialize, the tone is almost always that of a booster.
While the highest-profile athletes get top billing, the JSR does not limit itself to covering the pros. The latest issue recapped the 2009-10 NFL season (10 Jews suited up) and announced the annual Jewish Sports Review College Football All-America team (Oberlin sophomore Josh Mandel got the nod at QB). But it also listed 118 softball players preparing for the upcoming collegiate season, all the way down to Division III.
And it carried this scoop, tucked away in the “Sports Shorts” section toward the back and written in typical JSR shorthand:
Over 20 years late on this item but MICHAEL POLLAK, a U of Texas walk-on PKer in 1990, set a school record (since broken) for FGs at 20 and was named All-Southwest Conference (dissolved in 1996), 1st team.
Why include a blurb about a player who hasn’t taken the field in more than two decades? Because not every athlete wears a Star of David on his trunks. And back when Pollak was kicking those field goals in Austin, there may have been someone in the stands, perhaps one of these guys from the Koufax generation, who wondered whether the record-setter was a Jew. That’s the mission of the JSR: to eliminate the wondering wherever, and whenever, it can.
“We both just always wanted to know,” says Moxson. “There’s a sense of pride. You always root for the Jewish guy.”
Not since the days of Koufax and Hank Greenberg have things been this good for the Jewish sports fan. Baseball, far and away the JSR’s most popular sport, has entered into something of a golden era. Fifteen Jews took the field for major league clubs last season and three—Kevin Youkilis, Ian Kinsler, and Ryan Braun—are perennial all-stars.
Off the field, Jewish sports fans are catered to like never before. Jewish sports-hero halls of fame have popped up everywhere from Long Island to Michigan to Orange County. Last fall, a documentary called Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story premiered to a packed house in New York’s West Village. And, of course, the requisite slew of blogs and sites—Jews in Sports, Jews in Baseball, On Jews and Sports—provide daily updates on everything from spring training box scores to the potential lockout plans of Omri Casspi, the NBA’s lone Israeli.
So, how are Wallman and Moxson adapting to the competition? By refusing to change a thing.
Unlike just about every print publication in the country, the Jewish Sports Review has no interest in—or anxiety over—its digital future. There will be no JSR iPad app, the editors say. No @jewishsportsreview Twitter handle. The Jewish Sports Review does not want to be your friend on Facebook. Though the magazine has a home page, it carries the following disclaimer: “Note: This website is for information about the Jewish Sports Review. We do not host our issues online. Our website is for promotional purposes only. This is *not* an e-mag.”
“We like to feel the magazine,” says Wallman when asked why he’s avoided publishing a digital version. He’s sitting in his home office; the full JSR archive, 84 issues in all, is stacked in a FedEx envelope near his desk. He seems annoyed by the question.
And maybe that’s fair, considering that the Jewish Sports Review has what many sites don’t: actual money coming in the door.
The JSR costs $36 a year, a price more than 1,000 subscribers are willing to pay. Renewal rates hover around 80 percent, well above industry average. For a two-man operation with little overhead beyond postage, the revenue adds up. So, perhaps it makes sense that they don’t give their content away online. They’ve got a business to protect, right?
“Business?” says Wallman, even more annoyed by this question than the previous one. “There is no business.”
And that’s the rub: Wallman and Moxson say they’ve never pocketed a penny from the Jewish Sports Review. Everything left over after the costs of producing the magazine—they won’t offer specifics, but after 13 years it could potentially be six-figures—is sitting untouched in a bank account.
“We just put the money to the side,” says Moxson, who handles the finances. His idea is to use the cash as a parting gift to subscribers—at some point the magazine will stop asking for renewals and just publish new issues until the money runs out. “That’s my plan,” Moxson says. “But I haven’t told Shel yet.”
The evolutionary precursor to the Jewish Sports Review, long since out of print, is a surprisingly thick book called The Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports. Wallman keeps a fraying copy in his office; he grew friendly with the author, Bernard Postal, who published the encyclopedia in 1955. Wallman isn’t sure what method Postal used to identify athletes, but it was an imperfect one—many non-Jews mistakenly appear.
Wallman and Moxson aren’t willing to let that happen with the JSR. Though neither says it outright, they clearly see the magazine as the definitive record—the Library of Congress archives a copy of each issue—and they take that self-assigned responsibility seriously.
Every athlete who appears in the JSR must be confirmed as a Jew, no assumptions allowed. The current criteria: A player must have at least one Jewish parent and can’t practice another faith. (Practicing Judaism, however, is not required.) That rigor means Wallman and Moxson spend much of their time as religious detectives, scanning rosters for possible tribe members and tracking down the likeliest candidates.
“We’re the follow-uppers,” says Wallman, who handles the initial outreach. When the magazine launched in 1997, he would send postcards—each player got three before Wallman gave up. These days it’s all by email. He’ll go to the kid first if he can find the address online, to a school’s sports information director if he can’t. (Nearly all of the “maybes” are college students or high-schoolers—by the time a Jewish athlete makes the pros, he or she has been on the JSR’s radar for years.) If there’s no response, Wallman occasionally writes the school president. “Fifty percent of the time that gets some real activity going,” he says. If all else fails, Moxson follows up with a cold call.
But scanning names on rosters can only get you so far. “We’re not going to miss a Goldberg,” says Wallman. “But there’s no question that we miss a lot of people.”
To fill in the gaps, the JSR relies on tips from coaches, players, and readers. Often, an athlete’s family will get in touch directly. That’s how they found out Washington Nationals pitcher Jason Marquis: When he was in the minors, his mother called from Staten Island to ask why her boy wasn’t listed. Same story with former Duke point guard Jon Scheyer.
Still, every tip is a reminder of the work left to be done. “Who knows how many Youkilises and Marquises are out there?” Wallman asks.
That question doesn’t seem to annoy him at all.
Max Linsky is the co-founder and editor of Longform.org. He has written for Slate, Newsweek, and Fast Company.
Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.