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"Jewball" by Neal Pollack

Oct 31, 2016 | Books

All the SPHA guys want to do is play basketball. They’re not interested in politics or the impending war, they just want to play the game. And they did it than almost any other team of their day. Inky Lautman, one of the teams’ starring players, grew up playing basketball. He played as a kid and went pro at 15 for the SPHA team in Philadelphia in 1937.

In some ways, Jewball is Inky’s coming-of-age story. He goes out into the world, meets girl, gets girl, loses girl, gets her back, and most of all, plays basketball better than almost every other player of his day, including most of his teammates, all while learning to navigate a would that is not friendly to Jews. I don’t know about the boy-mets-girl part, but the rest is true.

Yes, Inky is Jewish, as is the whole team. SPHA stands for Southern Philadelphia Hebrew Association Even though World War II was still nearly a decade away, anti-semitism had always been present in America, and it was rising frighteningly quickly and powerfully in Hitler’s Germany. The Bund was Hitler’s American arm and they were simply not going to allow Jews to dominate so definitively in an otherwise entirely Christian sport.*

The story itself is fiction, but many of the events did occur, but not in the context they do in Jewball. The SPHA team was founded in 1917 and it was one of the best teams in the history of the sport, as the book suggest. This Jewish superiority was so annoying to so many that it was justified by saying Jews naturally had better rhythm, athletic ability, and dexterity than “whites.” Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

Almost all the players in the book were real. The Bund did exist, was as vicious and ruthless as depicted in the book, and most of the characters in the book were real members.

It’s a good story, it’s engaging. Mr. Pollack does know how to turn a phrase. There’s always that one guy on the team who is perfect. He doesn’t lord that over anyone – that would not be perfect – he simply is – but he was so popular in Philly that he could have run for mayor. “Yes, he would have lost, because there was no way the town would elect a Jewish mayor, but he carried enough respect so that the people would have at least given a more nuanced reason for rejecting him.”

But there are many times when he seems to be poetic just for the sake of showing he can: “The city gave in to the cold and the wet like a helpless wino getting rolled in the shipyards.” Analogies like that simply do not fit the tone of the book at all.

This is one of those books that’s more important than good. We really need to be aware of how much the American people hated Jews then and struck out against them. Not all of them, of course, maybe not even most of them. But if the sentiment hadn’t been strong, the Bund would not have flourished the way it did. This just one more example of how much hate our history is comprised of. I think it’s important to remember that, especially in these anti-Muslin days, believing that all Muslims are terrorists who hate us. Whatever may seem to be true at the time, what history teaches us is that we are always wrong when we judge an entire religion, race, whatever by the actions of a few radicals.

*I imagine there were a few Jews playing on another team or two in the league, but they would have kept quiet about it.

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