New Jew wrestlers succeed

They walk into the gym, and immediately they feel it: snickers, stares, whispers and even laughs. 

We’re going to beat those poor little Jewish kids. Why do they even have a wrestling team? This is going to be a breeze.

Jake Gordon hears it at virtually every wrestling camp he attends. 

“There’s not a Jew in a hundred miles, and I love telling them I go to a Jewish high school,” he said.

Then someone steps onto the mat and faces Gordon, Ben de Toledo, Sam Shpall or many of the other New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) team members, believed by school officials to be the only Jewish prep wrestling team west of the Rockies. Minutes later — sometimes it’s less than a minute — the referee raises the New Jew wrestler’s hand in victory.

“For me, it’s a boost. I love being the underdog,” Shpall said. “Most schools are practicing three to four hours a day, Monday to Friday, and they go to tournaments every Saturday. We have about half the time in the wrestling room as all the other schools because we don’t practice on Fridays, because we only go two hours after school and because we don’t compete on Saturdays. … We can have half the time, and we’re still gonna get on the mat and kick your butt.”

Some major butt-kicking is happening in the San Fernando Valley, and it’s happening in a sport not usually associated with Jews. The NCJHS team is dominating bigger schools, and there is talk that this might be the year some wrestler wins a postseason championship.

Competitors from Eagle Rock, Calabasas and Thousand Oaks have already gone down at the hands of the Jaguars. So have 12 other opponents. The team is 15-5, having beaten Brentwood School 53-18 (points are earned with every victory in each of the 12 weight classes), with Prep League finals still to come. Any wrestler who finishes in the top two of the league qualifies for the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section meet, which is always on a Saturday. This year, when the competition’s finals fall on Feb. 22, coach Ken Jackson asked and received permission from the school to compete.

“We’ve never had the talent to go that far, so I never made the request,” said Jackson, now in his eighth season with NCJHS after spending seven at Granada Hills Charter High School. “This year, we have four, possibly six that can actually place after league. This is the year to ask.”

School officials said in a statement to the Journal that the decision was made in keeping with the school’s pluralistic Jewish environment. “The school’s guiding Jewish educational goal was to make each wrestler struggle with what it means to ‘keep Shabbat’ in any or all of its manifold forms in a way that helps each student stay true to who they are and challenge them to grow. For those who will be competing in the state tournament, we will find a special and unique way to keep and celebrate Shabbat,” it said.

It’s not like Jews can’t wrestle. There have been famous ones, though one must be a real aficionado to recognize the names. The most famous American wrestler, Henry Wittenberg, was a light heavyweight freestyle champion at the 1948 London Games. Jewish wrestlers from Hungary and the former Soviet Union also have been Olympic champions.

On the professional side, Diamond Dallas Page (born Page Joseph Falkinburg Jr.) won three World Championship Wrestling heavyweight titles. Bill Goldberg racked up a disputed 173 consecutive victories on the way to winning two heavyweight titles, and Dean Malenko (born Dean Simon) won the then-World Wresting Federation light heavyweight title twice.

Jackson believes that wrestling is ideal for Jews because it fits the Jewish work ethic. A successful wrestler must possess tremendous mental discipline to learn how to properly fight within the rules, not stray from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and lean protein, and maintain the proper weight. Practices can last up to 120 intense minutes, and then the wrestlers are expected to work out even more on their own.

“It really is an incredibly brutal sport,” said de Toledo, a senior wrestling at 147 pounds. “At the hardest match, when you’re going three [two-minute] periods, it’s physically exhausting. There’s nothing more exhausting. There are no breaks. There’s no resting at the bottom. You pause for a second, and it’s over. It’s brutal keeping your body tense, keeping your body going when you’re exhausted.”

Shpall, a senior at 140 pounds, has the mental discipline down to nearly an exact science. When he wakes up, he thinks about running. At breakfast, he’s counting calories. He knows exactly how many calories he burns in one hour on the treadmill or the bike.

“If you can succeed on the mat, you can succeed anywhere,” he said.

Gordon, a senior competing at 160 pounds, won the school’s first individual league title in 2011 and now is the first in his school to earn a spot on a college team. Thanks to an annual prep meet at Yeshiva University in New York, where the Jaguars will compete again Presidents Day weekend, Gordon caught the attention of Muhlenberg College, a tiny liberal arts school in Allentown, Penn. 

Gordon’s effort typifies what Jackson thinks of wrestling.

“Wrestling is the kind of sport where a boy has to be a man for six minutes,” Jackson said. “These are young Jewish warriors.” 

Wrestling with it: U.S. vs. Iran

Iran is a mainstay in international wrestling. The United States has a long and proud wrestling history, too. In February, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) policy-making executive board moved to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games program. Sports officials in both countries would like to change that.

Thus, this week, USA Wrestling was promoting two meets, one which took place May 15 in New York, the other taking place on May 19 in Los Angeles. Both days: U.S. versus Iran. It’s an example, a press release notes, of “international goodwill through wrestling,” and follows an American wrestling trip in February to Tehran.

It is often said that sports and politics don’t mix.

In this case, the sports are all about politics. It’s sports politics. It’s geopolitics. It’s politics with ramifications yet uncertain.

It’s “outrageous,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said of the wrestling exhibitions, asking rhetorically, in a reference to the Berlin Games used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes, “Did we not learn anything since 1936?”

The challenge for USA Wrestling is that it has an elemental goal: to get back in the 2020 Summer Games. That is its narrow focus, and that is why the Iranians have been extended an invite.

“We think this an opportunity to use sport for good and maintain our position on the Olympic program,” said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling.

The bigger-picture complexity is that Iran’s Olympic-sport athletes have for the last several years withdrawn, purposely lost or suddenly reported feeling ill so that they wouldn’t have to compete against Israelis.

The Olympic values purport to exemplify excellence, friendship and respect. Consider the record since 2004 in particular, and ask how USA Wrestling is — simply by giving the Iranians this platform and the media attention that goes with it — advancing those values.

Iran does not recognize Israel. It bans contact with the Jewish state.

New York and Los Angeles make up — outside Israel — the largest Jewish communities in the world.

At last summer’s London Olympics, Iranian officials declared for the record that their athletes would indeed compete against Israelis.

But the only Iranian athlete who could possibly have faced an Israeli opponent — judo champion Javad Mahjoob, competing in the 100-kilogram class — pulled out immediately before the Games, claiming a digestive infection.

At the 2011 world swimming championships, Iran’s Mohammad Alirezaei opted out of his qualifying heats in the 100-meter breaststroke. Israeli Gal Nevo was in the same race. Alirezaei told Associated Press he was “so tired and drowsy” from flying the day before the race.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Alirezaei pulled out of the 100 breaststroke, which included another Israeli, Tom Beeri. The IOC accepted the explanation that Alirezaei was ill.

That both withdrawals came against Israelis, Alirezaei said when asked about it in 2008 — that was simply a coincidence.

At the 2004 Games in Athens, Iran’s Arash Mirasmaeili showed up the morning of his match against Israeli Udi Wax. But Mirasmaeili — an experienced two-time world champion — inexplicably did not make weight, “disqualifying” himself.

And more:

In 2006, Iran withdrew from the World Judo Championships, to avoid a match with Israel. A year later, Iranian referee Ahmed Kaspandi declined to referee a match in which an Israeli player was participating.

At the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, Israel’s Gili Haimovitz won the 48 kg/106 pounds gold-medal match when Iran’s Mohammad Soleimani defaulted; he claimed to have aggravated a leg injury.

Moreover, at the medal ceremony, Soleimani did not show up. The Israeli flag went up; the anthem was played; the silver-medalist’s spot went vacant.

The Wiesenthal’s Rabbi Cooper is a longtime sports fan. He said, “I was pretty shocked wrestling was removed because it’s a dynamic sport. It brings people from around the world together. A lot of other things should have been cut first, and they should restore it.”

He also is a fan of the Games: “It is compelling. There are rules. There is no shtick. This is what sports are supposed to be.”

In London, Iran won six wrestling medals, fully half its total of 12. Three were gold, third-best, behind only Russia and Japan. In Iran, wrestling really matters.

For comparison: The United States won four wrestling medals, two gold, out of 104 total.

Wrestling is not just about force and power. It’s also about leverage. USA Wrestling had it but didn’t use it, Cooper said, asserting that the federation should have have “had the guts” to invite a third party — the Israelis.

If the conclusion had been that to invite the Israelis meant the Iranians wouldn’t come — well, Cooper said, “that rests the case.”

As it happens, the May 15 event in New York, at Grand Central Terminal, was indeed a doubleheader. There was the U.S. versus Iran. And the U.S. versus Russia — Russia is the world’s leading wrestling power. Russia won 82 medals overall in London, 11 in wrestling. At press time, results of the New York match were not yet available.

The Israelis were not invited.

The May 19 show in Los Angeles is set for the Sports Arena.

As further evidence that this tour is motivated by interests other than pure sport: International wrestling is hardly on the radar screen in Los Angeles, home of the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Angels, Kings, Ducks, USC and UCLA.

Indeed, while USC and UCLA now field women’s varsity sand volleyball, and USC even has a women’s lacrosse team, there is no USC or UCLA varsity wrestling team, men’s or women’s. Olympic-style wrestling is simply just not part of the Southern California culture.

What is, though, and indisputably, is the Iranian influence. Estimates vary, but there is no question that there are hundreds of thousands of people who can claim ties to Iran in Los Angeles and Southern California, and the phrase “Tehrangeles,” especially for the area immediately south of UCLA, is a well-known part of L.A. life.

Iranian wrestlers have not competed in the United States since 2003, when the world championships were held in New York.

The Iranians are expected to bring two-time world champion Mehdi Taghavi Kermani at 66 kg/145.5 pounds, and two 2012 bronze medalists, Ehsan Lashgari at 84 kg/185 pounds, and Komeil Ghasemi at 120 kg/264.5 pounds.

The U.S. team in Los Angeles will be led by 163-pound gold medalist Jordan Burroughs and 132-pound bronze medalist Coleman Scott. Two other 2012 U.S. Olympians are on the U.S. roster: Tervel Dlagnev, the 2009 world silver medalist, at 120 pounds, and Sam Hazewinkel at 155 pounds.

The U.S. versus Russia meet was due to be held under some experimental rules designed to press wrestling’s case before the IOC. The U.S. versus Iran would feature the current international freestyle wrestling rules.

“It’s too bad the Iranian sports system corrupts and debases what sports stands for,” Cooper said, adding a moment later, “I am also disappointed the U.S. State Department did not put a caveat on this: The Iranian team would be welcome to come but not by debasing what America stands for.

“At best it’s a lost opportunity and at worst it’s sending a wrong signal. It’s sending the signal that will be received by the mullahs that was the same signal Hitler got: You can do all these terrible things, make a mockery of human rights and still get invited to the dance. That’s a shandah,” the Yiddish word for shame.

Cooper laughed a wry laugh and said, “That’s a famous wrestling term. And you can quote me on it.”

Alan Abrahamson is an award-winning journalist specializing in Olympic sports. He is also the creator of the Web site 3 Wire Sports (, where this column originally appeared).

VIDEO: Heeb Olympics 2008 — Gefilte Fish Wrestling

Four modern-day gladiators do battle for the gold (a lifetime supply of Gold’s mustard) in the Heeb Olympics. For more information, check out


Woody Allen once said the shortest book ever written was the one on Jewish athletes. Well, here is the shortest chapter in that book: Since May 1987, Argentinean native Imach Marcello Solomon (a k a Hoshitango) has been wrestling his way up in the competitive sumo leagues in Japan.

Currently ranked eighth in the Juryo division, the 35-year-old, 368-pounder is the only Jewish sumo wrestler in the world. Wrestling out of the Michinoku-beya sumo house in Chiba, Japan, Hoshitago is among 26 other men in his division, vying for a spot in one of the upper four divisions. Hoshitango’s overall record as of July 2000 is 357 wins, 314 losses.

Receiving a base salary of 773,000 Yen ($7,000) and a virtually uncountable amount of perks, bonuses and endless amounts of food, he remains, like most athletes, very well paid.

Up Front

All the Right Moves

“He’s a nice Jewish boy,” Michal Finkelstein says of her son Shimon. “He likes to sing in shul, he’s an A student…. He never uses his strength or skills to bully others.”

Except on the wrestling mat.

The 10-year-old Shimon is the California state champion in the boys’ 65-pound division, ages 9 to 10. This month, he will compete in the Western regionals, then it’s on to Iowa for the nationals.

Born in Jerusalem, Shimon grew up in a West Bank settlement just north of his birthplace, Beit El. The Orthodox Finkelstein family moved to Los Angeles four years ago. It was on a return summer visit to Israel in 1995 when Shimon was introduced to wrestling by a Shabbat guest from Oklahoma.

“Shimon’s always been very physically built,” says his mother. “He learned to ride a two-wheeler at 3 years old.”

Third in a family of six, Shimon is dedicated to wrestling, specializing in freestyle and Greco-Roman style (no contact below the waist). In fact, the pint-sized powerhouse commutes from his family’s Pico-Robertson-area residence to the Valley several times a week to train.

Shimon’s father, Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein, shrugs off any potential for mayhem on the mat. “It’s less dangerous than baseball or football,” says Finkelstein, a teacher at Shalhevet High School.

Although the Finkelsteins will move back to Israel this summer, Shimon’s wrestlemania will continue on in the Middle East. As his proud mother puts it, “I hope to see him in the Olympics in Israel.”

WHY WRESTLING?: “My dad wanted to do this…I liked it. It was fun, and we kept on going.”

SECRET KILLER MOVES: “I have some moves that I’m really good at, like the ‘Flip.’ It’s the arm throw. You take the arm and you throw him. I also use a ‘Russian Roll’ — you get the guy’s head in a headlock, and then you turn him over and start rolling around the mat with him.”

KEEPING YOUR KIPPAH ON: “I don’t [wrestle with it]. They always fall off.”

FIRST-CLASS COACH: “My coach, he’s from Russia and he’s Jewish. His name is Sam Pinsky. I really love him. We practice moves a lot. I do it two times a week.”


FUTURE PROGNOSIS: “I want to be a doctor and wrestle.”

WRESTLING: REAL OR FIXED?: “It’s real. It’s not a show.”

— Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

‘Genius Grant’ Goes to Greif

Israeli economist Avner Greif of Stanford University has received a $265,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The award, given to “the most creative minds” in the United States, is popularly dubbed the “genius grant.” It is one of the most coveted in America because it comes without any strings, and recipients can use the money in any way they wish, without having to file any justifications or reports. Individuals, from any field, are selected by an anonymous panel of “talent scouts.”

Greif, 42 and a graduate of Tel Aviv University, impressed the $4 billion foundation with his research, which has led to “greater understanding of the institutional evolution and the conditions that lead to social conflict or cooperation,” according to the citation.

Using game theory and other modeling techniques, he has shown “how beliefs, institutions and other social ties, which appear to be randomly connected, are in fact linked to cultural norms of trust and reciprocity.”

In a phone interview, Greif said that he plans to use the bulk of his grant to “buy some spare time” and to learn more about sociological and historical research, as it applies to economic systems.

He also intends to dig into archives in Italy and Israel. He has long been interested in the Maghribi traders, late medieval Jewish merchants who operated in the Moslem Mediterranean and kept detailed records of their business dealings.

Greif has also studied the records of traders from Genoa, where they dominated traffic on the Mediterranean in later centuries.

A native of Tel Aviv, Greif received bachelor’s degrees in both economics and the history of the Jewish people from Tel Aviv University, and subsequently a master’s degree in the latter field under Professor Moshe Gil.

He received his doctorate in economics from Northwestern University and joined the Stanford faculty in 1989. He is now an associate professor.

Greif said that the award came “without warning and caught me by surprise.”

Thanks to the grant, he will be able to take his wife, Estee, and their children, Adi, Yaron and Ariel, along on his study travels. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


As Up Front goes to press, it’s too soon to tell how Lt. Gov. Gray Davis’ elephantine gaffe — saying Gov. Pete Wilson “likes to fan the flames of…anti-Semitism” — will affect the outcome of the governor’s race.

Davis quickly apologized for the statement, which he called “a total mistake.” Wilson may have alienated minorities with his support of Proposition 187 and other measures, but the man is no anti-Semite. He’s probably spent more time at the Simon Wiesenthal Center than Simon Wiesenthal.

But Davis’ attack of hoof-in-mouth did have one sanguine effect on Decision ’98 — it finally got the gubernatorial race some coverage on local TV news.