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Are Raptors Kosher?

In my house, it’s basketball all the time, all year round.  Adam plays every week, as do our three boys.  When they aren’t playing, they’re watching.  So what’s a rabbi-mom to do?

Turns out I have at least two things in common with the inventor of basketball — Ontario and Massachusetts, though we travelled in opposite directions.  Born and raised on a farm near Almonte, Ontario, Dr. James Naismith studied physical education at McGill University.  He went on to teach at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts where he invented basketball in 1891.  We’ve taken our boys to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield on our way to visit family in New England.  A number of the exhibits highlight the contributions Jews have made to the sport, which has swept the city.

Did you know that the first basket made in NBA history was scored by a Jew playing against Toronto?

Shortly after the game was invented, it became particularly popular among Jewish immigrant teens in northeastern U.S. cities.  An NPR documentary called “The First Basket” tells the story.  In that first game in the history of the National Basketball Association, the New York Knickerbockers put four Jews on the court for the opening tip-off and carried six Jews on their roster. The Knicks won a thriller over the Toronto Huskies by the score of 68-66. Leo “Ace” Gottlieb led the Knicks in scoring with 14 points. Sidney “Sonny” Hertzberg captained the team. Ralph Kaplowitz was the fourth Jew in the Knick’s starting five, while Nat Militzok and Hank Rosenstein played as reserves.  And Oscar “Ossie” Schechtman scored on the first shot of the game — thus becoming the first man in the history of the NBA to score a point!

What made basketball a Jewish sport?

In the first half of the 1900s, basketball was dominated by Jews.  Before names like Kawai Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry, the names of early stars were Shikey Gotthoffer, Sonny Hertzberg, Nat Holman, Red Klotz, Dolph Schayes (the only Jew placed among the top 50 all-time NBA players), Moe Spahn, and Max Zaslofsky.

Basketball was always an urban sport.  You don’t need a field, just concrete and a ball.  Sidney “Sonny” Hertzberg, who grew up in New York City, recalls using the neighbourhood fire escape ladders as hoops. Nathan “Naf” Militzok, recalls, “We had two choices: either go to the schoolyard and play ball or hang around on the corner and get in trouble. So, we played basketball all our lives.” Retired player, Dave Dabrow, explains, “It was absolutely a way out of the (Jewish) ghetto.” Basketball scholarships were one of the few ways poor urban Jews could afford to attend university. After college, experience on the court led to positions as teachers and coaches. For a talented handful, basketball became a professional career, but the salary wasn’t enough to raise a family. Ralph Kaplowitz signed a deal for $6,500 for the 1946 season. All the players had to work at other jobs during the off-season. Many moved on for more stable income.  Hertzberg left to become a successful stockbroker, while Rosenstein became a technical sales consultant in the plastics industry.  And Ossie Schectman?  After launching basketball into history, he retired in 1947 to work in the garment industry.

What’s Jewish about Golden State? 

Today’s Golden State Warriors were previously the Philadelphia Warriors. And the Philadelphia Warriors got their start from the Philadelphia SPHAS, the South Philadelphia Hebrew All-Stars. That team was founded by Eddie Gottlieb in the 1920s at the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Gottlieb turned the SPHAS into one of the original NBA teams. His leadership, as the original owner of the Warriors, is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Today

By the 1960s, Jewish players largely start to disappear from the game.  As Jewish moved out from the city to the suburbs, it seems they lost their edge on the court.

Now the Jewish team to watch is Maccabi Tel Aviv with six Euro League championships to their name.  But today our team of choice is The 6ix.  We the North.  Go Raptors!  And Shabbat Shalom.

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Showing 7 comments
  • Shelli Eisenberg
    Reply

    Fascinating!

  • Leigh Eisenberg
    Reply

    I had No idea!

  • Leigh Eisenberg
    Reply

    Love your story, and learning about the Jewish connection to Basketball.I hand idea.

  • Mary-Ann Metrick
    Reply

    So informative and absolutely delightful.
    Jews are amazing.
    Thanks so much,
    A newly recruited basketball fan!

  • H. David Burstein
    Reply

    Hi Rabbi Splansky: With regards to your comments about the Toronto Raptors I have come to look at what is going on with them to be a holy secular experience and Scotiabank Arena to a secular Temple. I was taught that the word Holy means elevated and separated above the everyday. To experience the intense buildup of the playoffs that will hopefully culminate in a championship is to witness that excitement of seeing the dedication and sacrifice that some people will go through to succeed. The energy in the city and the sense of community that has embraced the country.
    One of the things that I find interesting is to see the secular Temple as representing the Rome/Athens branch of western civilization as opposed to the spiritual Center (the Judea-Christian) Temple of Jerusalem.
    I was taught that with the loss of the Temple, Judaism went from a sacrificial Temple centered religion into a Shabbat Torah centered.one and the mentality was in stead of finding holiness in the Temple experience, to actually find it in elevating ourselves in the daily in the sacrifice of study in order to make ourselves into better people.
    But in all seriousness, there needs to be something of positive lessons to be learned from the energy of watching the community react to the Raptors that needs to be translated in making the synagogue life more exciting.
    See you next week.
    David Burstein

  • Cynthia Good
    Reply

    We fervently follow Jews and baseball, so we love this history of the Jews and basketball. Thank you, Rabbi Splansky!
    Cynthia and Dan

  • Arlene Roth
    Reply

    Thanks for your newsy post. I very much enjoyed reading it.
    Shabbat Shalom.

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