Opinion: Jeremy Lin, the Jews and redistricting

I was too young to see Hank Greenberg play. That was my father’s generation. But growing up in New Jersey, I well remember the day when Sandy Koufax, playing for the Dodgers, announced his electrifying decision to sit out a 1965 World Series game on Yom Kippur.  Koufax’s action was a great source of pride to a Jewish kid with a baseball glove perennially at hand and who had heard way too many jokes about the thin book of Jewish sports heroes.

I remembered that Koufax moment when I watched the New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin annihilate my Lakers not so long ago. I had the feeling that Asian-American kids with a basketball perennially at hand must be feeling something akin to what I felt back then. The Lin phenomenon is not like the hoopla surrounding Yao Ming, whose presence in the NBA was really about the internationalization of the sport and who is a huge hero in China. Even though Lin is already attracting attention in both Taiwan and China, he is going to be a special star for Asian-Americans. 

When you look at the local basketball scene, you might wonder what took so long. There is a distinguished tradition of Asian-American basketball leagues, and there is a devoted basketball following in the community. You can see Asian-American girls playing in the high schools in Los Angeles and working their way into the college ranks (in fact, there are more Asian-American women than men in college basketball). 

I was reminded of these parallels between Asian-Americans and Jews while watching the unfolding debate over Los Angeles city redistricting.  Much has changed since the days of Tom Bradley, when a coalition of African-Americans and Jews dominated the political scene. Latinos and Asian-Americans, while part of the ruling coalition, sometimes felt themselves on the outside looking in. Bradley, though, consistently reached out to Asian-Americans and Latinos (saving Mike Woo’s seat in 1986 by vetoing a council redistricting ordinance, and working to create a Latino seat in the 14th District, eventually won by Richard Alatorre).

The rise of the Latino population, and its remarkable mobilization, mean that Latino political aspirations are at center stage. African-Americans, declining in population share, are trying to hold onto their representation. The current city redistricting seems to be focused on managing the inevitable increase in Latino office holding and settling internal disputes in the African-American community. The commission advising the City Council has issued draft maps, but there seems to be a lot of political maneuvering behind the scenes.  Allies of City Council President Herb Wesson seem to want to punish Bernard Parks for not supporting Wesson’s election to council president by moving pieces out of the 8th District, and Jan Perry seems to be in a similar boat. Should the 9th District (now represented by Perry) lose its lucrative downtown business base to the Latino 14th District?  These decisions inevitably impact the other communities of the city because each district must be roughly equal in population. Moving chess pieces in one area can make it harder to achieve fairness in other areas.

Asian-Americans and Jews are feeling the spillover impact of these disputes and negotiations.  The Jewish community, which once sported a half dozen members of the 15-member council, now has only one certain seat, the Mid-City 5th District represented by Paul Koretz, and that is being realigned a bit in the draft plan from the city commission. I asked Bruce Phillips, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Religion & Civic Culture at USC to run some numbers (see story below).  He concluded that with the proposed changes, the 5th would be marginally less Jewish, but there could be an increase in Jewish electoral strength in the 3rd District in the Valley.  It looks as if some Valley portions of the 5th District are proposed to be moved to the 3rd,  and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Hancock Park and Larchmont, currently in Tom LaBonge’s 4th District, would be added to the 5th. In any case, Jewish candidates stand a good case of winning some citywide offices in 2013, and high levels of Jewish voter participation will continue to be consequential in city elections. It remains to be seen whether the proposed movement of Jewish neighborhoods becomes a point of debate.

The Korean-American community, however, has registered complaints about the proposed redistricting of Koreatown. At a City Hall public hearing, Korean-American speakers charged that they were being shunted off until the end of the meeting. The set-to emphasizes the long- standing problem of not having a councilmember who would be responsive to Asian-Americans (only one Asian-American, Mike Woo, has ever served in public office in the City of Los Angeles, despite an Asian-American population of roughly 400,000). Of course, long-standing groups like the Asian Pacific American Legal Center have been submitting and advocating for proposed Los Angeles city redistricting plans all along.

It is hoped that the city will undertake a redistricting process that looks for ways to increase Asian-American representation, either by increasing the number of council districts through a charter amendment or by moving district lines to capture population concentrations of a diverse community that has become somewhat dispersed. In the final analysis, however, neither Jewish nor Asian-American communities have the raw numbers to obtain districts in which they will hold majorities. In the midst of intense conflicts over redistricting, they will have to carefully navigate the debates with an eye to creating districts in which they will have influence, and aim to build coalitions with each other and with other groups.

Perhaps this current redistricting may also activate a younger generation of Asian-Americans (and not just Korean-Americans) to become more politically engaged in the hurly-burly of Los Angeles politics. That would be no less impactful than the rise of Jeremy Lin.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Knicks’ Stoudemire says he is practicing Jew

Amare Stoudemire of the New York Knicks reportedly said he is a practicing Jew “spiritually and culturally.”

Stoudemire, who last month visited Israel on a spiritual journey to explore his Jewish roots, made the comments in an interview with Page Six of The New York Post. He also said that he is keeping kosher.

The NBA All-Star joined the Knicks this summer as a free agent. He formerly played for the Phoenix Suns. Stoudemire reportedly decided to visit Israel after learning that his mother was Jewish.

Stoudemire told the newspaper that he is continuing his Jewish studies. “I figure, what the scriptures speak about, that’s what I celebrate,” he said. He has reportedly been studying the Bible since he was young.

Some have suggested that Stoudemire is exploring Judaism as a way to help the Knicks sell more tickets, a charge that the star player denies.

Stoudemire told Page Six that he will celebrate the High Holidays, but will not miss any games for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Playing the games are my livelihood,” he said. “But I’m still going to celebrate the holidays.”

‘The First Basket’ depicts journey from Ellis Island to shooting hoops

It’s true that major league baseball has seen a renaissance of Jewish players during the past few years, but the historic American Jewish sport is surely basketball.

It makes sense if you think about it: Easy to play on the concrete surfaces that are ubiquitous in urban areas, basketball was the sport most accessible to the sons of the immigrants who had flocked to the United States between 1880 and 1920.

As David Vyorst makes clear in his comprehensive and entertaining documentary, “The First Basket,” those sons took to the game with fervor. Interview after interview with former players and coaches makes clear that basketball, not religious observance, was what mattered to this Americanizing generation.

“My father was busy trying to make a living. My mother was busy taking care of the household. And we were busy in the streets, and in the schoolyard, playing basketball and growing up,” Ralph Kaplowitz says in the film. Kaplowitz lived in the Bronx and later played two years for the New York Knicks.

Kaplowitz wasn’t alone in making a religion out of basketball: The Jewish kids who learned the game in the rough-and-tumble New York City neighborhoods of Brooklyn’s Brownsville and Williamsburg, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, later stocked the top collegiate teams and the early professional ranks.

The trailer

Indeed, the film’s name stems from the fact that in 1946, a Jewish player, Ossie Schectman, scored the first basket in the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to today’s National Basketball Association.

Considering the paucity of Jewish players in today’s NBA (there’s currently one, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jordan Farmar), it’s astonishing to remember that several members of Schechtman’s 1946-1947 Knicks team were Jewish, as were players on other teams. Some still affectionately refer to the game that they and top coaches such as Red Sarachek and Red Auerbach developed — emphasizing teamwork, crisp passing and defense — as “Jew ball.”

This style of play originated earlier in the 20th century, when Jewish players competed on both the amateur and semiprofessional levels. Teams were sponsored by settlement houses that wanted to Americanize immigrants, and by labor unions and Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring branches.

Players on the most famous of these teams, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, or SPHAs, wore Hebrew letters and Stars of David on their uniforms. What’s more, after many SPHAs games, the court was turned into a dance floor where young Jews could socialize and look for husbands and wives. Some of the figures mentioned in “The First Basket” — Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and current NBA Commissioner David Stern, both of whom were interviewed in the film — are well known.

Others are less familiar to casual fans. Barney Sedran, for instance, was an early 20th-century player who, at 5 feet 4 inches, is believed to be the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame. During his heyday in the 1910s and ’20s, Sedran played in as many as three games a day, often for different teams.

The Jewish connection to basketball isn’t entirely rosy. “The First Basket” points out that the roots of the 1950s-era college basketball scandals rest in the Catskills summer resorts. The cooks apparently were the first to fix the games with college players, who were there for summer jobs and a bit of basketball.

In the Catskills, gamblers first made the connections that would eventually rock the college basketball world and lead to the suspensions of several City College of New York players, as well as players from other schools in New York City and around the United States. No longer would such New York City teams as CCNY, New York University and Long Island University dominate college hoops, as they did between 1935 and 1951. In a devastating archival clip that is part of the documentary, Nat Holman, the legendary CCNY coach, admits that he never got over his players’ participation in gambling.

The Catskills gambling story could be a nice segue into some of the pitfalls of Americanization: Do any of the players interviewed for the documentary have regrets about their rebellion against their parents’ religiosity? Did they maintain their Jewishness, and did they pass it on to their children and grandchildren? An exploration of these questions would have added another layer of complexity to the film.

Also, the final section of “The First Basket” feels a bit disjointed. Sure, Holman helped bring the game to Israel, contributing to basketball’s globalization. But the link between Maccabi Tel Aviv’s stirring victory in the 1977 European Cup semifinals against a Soviet team and the acculturation of American Jews through basketball, which is the film’s focus, feels tenuous.

To its credit, however, “The First Basket” is a rare documentary that not only provides context (thanks to interviews with scholars of Jewish history), but also is fun to watch. The film’s story, while covered in such works as Peter Levine’s 1992 book “Ellis Island to Ebbets Field” (Oxford University Press), has not been put on celluloid in such detail.

Vyorst’s interviews allow for a glimpse into a generation of Jews who shaped basketball – and who are proud of their accomplishments and their toughness. As Jack “Dutch” Garfinkel, who played for the Boston Celtics from 1946 to 1949, remembers with a smile: “I’m the first man who used the look-away pass in basketball. My passes were very tough. I broke a lot of fingers.”

“The First Basket” opens in Los Angeles on November 14. For more information, visit www.thefirstbasket.com.