- The Test of Time
The purpose of this section is to reconsider and re-evaluate texts that won the NASSH Book Award in its inaugural decade. Fuller details can be found in volume 37, number.3. Here Daniel Nathan, who won the prize in 2003 for Saying It’s So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal, looks at Peter Levine’s 1992 Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience.
- Revisiting Ellis Island to Ebbets Field
We should not ignore or under-appreciate serendipity. While re-reading Peter Levine’s award-winning Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience (1992), I took a break and turned on the television just in time to see highlights of the Sacramento Kings’ victory over the Phoenix Suns. With less than thirty seconds left in the game, Omri Casspi of the Kings hit a three-point basket to give his team the decisive lead.
For many Jews, in the United States and elsewhere, there is something exciting, even a little wondrous, about Omri Casspi (). He is a 6’9” (2.06 m) forward and the [End Page 275] first Israeli-born athlete to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA), the world’s most elite league.1 Besides being one tall Jew, Casspi can play. Selected in the first round of the NBA’s 2009 draft, Casspi, a frenetic, combative athlete, is the first Jew to play meaningful NBA minutes since, well, Danny Schayes in the mid-to-late 1980s (with apologies to Jordan Farmar). In Casspi, some Jews see their athletic dreams realized. They take pride in his toughness, skill, and religious identity, although Casspi is quite secular.2 Jewish basketball fans regularly cheer him and wave Israeli flags at his games, home and away. The support is reciprocated. Sports Illustrated reports, “Being the first Israeli in the NBA comes with a responsibility to meet the local rabbis and hit the community Hanukkah parties,”3 things Casspi apparently does with aplomb. A Jewish immigrant, striving to realize the American (or is it the Israeli?) Dream, Casspi might be interested in some of the challenges the men chronicled and celebrated in Ellis Island to Ebbets Field experienced. Yet his path to athletic success—and the cultural, religious, and financial worlds in which he lives—could hardly be more dissimilar.
Some of us read Ellis Island to Ebbets Field when it was first published; many have not. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with it, and as a refresher for others, the following synopsis may be useful.
Ellis Island to Ebbets Field is about the athletic participation and exploits of a wide range of second- and third-generation Jewish-American boys and men in the early and mid twentieth century, the social conditions in which they lived and competed, and the role sports played in their successful quest to become full-fledged Americans. In a word, it is about identity—individual and community, religious and ethnic, national and cultural—its formation, re-formation, and its politics. It is about the complicated process of assimilation while also retaining one’s ethnic, religious, and cultural identities. From the outset, Levine acknowledges that his book is indebted to “historians who take seriously the voice and experience of everyday outsiders, in search of identity and survival, as they interacted with each other and an American majority culture.”4 After providing some useful historical context about the causes and massive scale of early twentieth-century Eastern European immigration to the United States, Levine explains that his project is about much more than chronicling the athletic accomplishments of Jewish Americans.5 Rather, he argues that during the interwar years and beyond, sport was a middle ground—a complex experience shaped by interaction between generations of Jews as well as between ethnic and majority cultures that involved both the adaptation of traditional practice to new American settings and the transformation of American experiences into ethnic ways. More than a simple agency of assimilation, sport, both as actual experience and as symbol, encouraged the active participation of immigrants and their children...