Bursting with Pride
Fields, Suzanne, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Joe Lieberman grew up a long way from the world of "Gentleman's Agreement," the 1947 movie about anti-Semitism in America. He's the first Jewish vice presidential candidate of a major political party.
That makes me, as a Jew, proud. But it makes me nervous, too. Other "firsts" in academia, sports and politics have made Jews nervous. "Jewish happiness," a wise man once said, "is never entirely free from fear."
Lionel Trilling, for example, was the first Jewish teacher of English literature to become a full professor at Columbia University in the 1940s. No small thing, because most schools in those days had quotas limiting the number of Jewish students. Not everyone wished him success and some, probably many, hoped that he would fail. Even those who admired his literary criticism warned him not to think of his appointment as an opening for other Jews. The prejudice as then articulated suggested that Jews could not appreciate the nuance of Anglo-Saxon literature (though Christian theologians did just fine with interpreting the Old Testament).
Hank Greenberg, another Jewish first, was a slugger who joined the Detroit Tigers in 1933 and whose life was recently the subject of a documentary that begins with children singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in Yiddish. The sportswriters of his day called him "Hammerin' Hank" (and Jewish fans called him the "Moses of baseball"). Every time he came to bat you'd hear anti-Semitic slurs in the stands. Teammates sometimes used the slurs, too. Spectators even hurled pork chops at him. Hank did not keep kosher (you might think someone would have taken the pork chops home), but he was later regarded by some as the "Jackie Robinson of the Jews."
Hank returned from the war in mid-season and hit a grand slam homer at the end of the season to lift Detroit into the 1945 World Series with the Chicago Cubs, and then led the Tigers to the title. His fifth-inning home run with two on in the pivotal second game broke the Series open. He was such a hero to Jewish kids, noted more for their brains than for athletic prowess, that Alan Dershowitz recalled years later that he thought "Hank Greenberg would be the first Jewish president." Though he wasn't religious like Joe Lieberman, Hank wouldn't play baseball on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, and his precedent was followed a generation later by Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who sat out a World Series game on Yom Kippur in 1965. …