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From booking acts to pitching for Team Israel

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(JTA) Before last November, Shlomo Lipetz already had his dream job.

After drinking coffee and listening to a morning news podcast – The Daily from the New York Times – he would take the L train from his Brooklyn apartment and head to his job as vice-president for programming at City Winery, a music venue and wine bar franchise headquartered on the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood.

There he would dig straight into his emails – an estimated 500 to 700 per day – and get to work on lining up some of the thousands of shows that the City Winery franchise hosts in its more than 10 venues across the country each year. He recently booked, for example, dozens of post-rehab comeback shows for comedian John Mulaney and a cross-country tour for the provocateur pop star Sinead O’Connor (who promptly decided to retire from music after agreeing to the concerts).

But starting in autumn, Lipetz added a new routine to his morning schedule: baseball workouts.

That’s because he is a member of the Israeli baseball team that’s headed to the Tokyo Olympics, which started last week.

The chilled out, baritone-voiced 42-year-old with a mullet happens to also be a 6-foot-4 pitcher who has been known as a pioneer in Israeli baseball since his teenage years in Tel Aviv.

“Anyone who’s in the music business knows just how hardcore the job is. And I think I’m for sure living my dream,” he said on the phone from his office last month. “But I’m probably living other people’s dreams who wish they [weren’t] just stuck in an office. I’m able to do both.”

For people who are both music and sports fans, it does sound surreal – on a normal week, he interacts with music industry stars and insiders, and during international competition season, he plays against some of the best athletes from around the globe.

He’s popular in both worlds, too – Rhett Miller of the country band The Old 97’s and Peter Buck of R.E.M. (who plays in a side supergroup band called The Baseball Project) tell Lipetz that he’s often the topic of conversation in a group text about baseball that they have with other well-known musicians. He also gets free vinyl from many of his musician friends, and in return, he sometimes gives back signed baseballs – they’ve been in high demand.

In Arizona, Team Israel player Ty Kelly – whose locker is normally next to Lipetz’s because their numbers are close to each other – turned to Lipetz (and the team’s few other Israel-born players) for insight into the recent violent Israel-Gaza conflict, which unfolded while the team was at training camp.

Keeping both gigs has meant a little less sleep than usual for Lipetz and some extra coffee. His typical morning from November until May became: coffee at 06:15, an hour drive north of the city to a baseball facility in Pleasantville, a 90-minute workout, a drive back to Brooklyn, a quick stop to change clothes, then a walk to the train. Some nights he would continue his workouts after finishing a day of work at about 20:00.

An intense competitive drive pushes him through it all, he says.

“I just get into my own kind of baseball world, I don’t check my phone. I just like competitiveness,” he said. “I mean, I’ll wake up at six o’clock in the morning, have a crazy, crazy week, and it doesn’t matter – I’ll wake up early, and go play a baseball game, a doubleheader in, you know, 100 degree [37C] weather, just because I love it. It’s just this really purifying experience for me.”

Lipetz isn’t the only multitasker on the team. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled Eric Brodkowitz, a Yale graduate who has been able to keep working remotely as an analyst for Goldman Sachs. Many of the other players are current or former American minor leaguers who have earned Israeli citizenship in order to represent the country and keep their professional careers going. The team’s trainer recently described the squad as “a combination of the Bad News Bears and the Jamaican Bobsledding Team”.

But in spite of the fact that baseball isn’t a popular sport in Israel, the team has a chance of winning a medal in Tokyo. Only six teams are competing in the sport, which hasn’t been played at the Olympics since 2008. And Team Israel has impressed the baseball world in recent years, placing a surprise sixth out of 16 teams in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. They are led currently by former major league All-Star Ian Kinsler and Danny Valencia, a former MLB infielder with 96 career home runs.

These days, the Israel Baseball Association, with funding from the non-profit Jewish National Fund-USA, is deep into an effort to popularise the sport in the Jewish state, starting with building multiple baseball fields. IBA President Peter Kurz, a Mets fan and American expat who has lived in Israel for more than three decades, wants the fields being constructed in the central Israeli city of Beit Shemesh to host winter leagues in the near future, similar to those organised in Latin American countries, Florida, and other warm places where professional players go to hone their skills during the MLB offseason.

Kurz thinks winning a medal in Tokyo would open Israelis’ eyes to the possibilities of baseball. It excites Lipetz, but he has some complicated feelings about his home country, in particular regarding its government and its views on diversity.

“I’m not a nationalist. You know, I think I’m very liberal in my thoughts. I wish we had an Arab Israeli on our team. And I wish we had an Ethiopian Israeli on the team,” he said. “For me, [Israel is] a mixed bag.

“But you’re representing a country that definitely fills me with pride, and you know, it reminds me in a sense of being part of something that’s bigger than you,” he added. “I love the country, and I’m proud to be representing Israel.”

He’s also proud to have the dual life that many dream about.

“I’m in this world where, you know, actors always want to be musicians, musicians want to be athletes, athletes always want to be something else,” he said. “So anyone in the industry, in the music industry that I work with, and especially the musicians, just absolutely love this.”

Then it was back to the emails.

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Bacher hit for six by Boucher outrage

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Former South African cricket captain and veteran administrator Ali Bacher has been criticised for defending Proteas coach Mark Boucher, who has been accused of racial discrimination during his years playing for South Africa.

Bacher has been steadfast in his support for Boucher, telling the SA Jewish Report this week that he’s not surprised by the flak he has taken as we live in a democratic country where everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

The accusations were made in Cricket South Africa’s (CSA’s) social justice and nation building hearings into racial discrimination. Boucher has since apologised “unreservedly for any offensive conduct, real or perceived, that has been attributed to me”.

Boucher went on to say, “We, the team, coaching staff, selectors and CSA, during the period in question, should have been more sensitive and created an environment where all members of the team could raise and talk about these issues without allowing them to fester, as they clearly have.”

In an article in the Sunday Times on 29 August 2021, Bacher said, “Let me simply put it like this: Mark Boucher is one of the best cricketers this country has ever produced. He has apologised for what he has said previously. We all make mistakes.”

In the “letters to the editor” section of the following week’s Sunday Times, Bacher was criticised. “Neither Bacher nor some of his teammates who have suddenly found their voices spoke out against apartheid sport or racism in society at that time,” wrote one reader.

However, Bacher did make a stand in the apartheid era through his actions. In 1976, Bacher and the South African Cricket Union introduced “normal cricket” to playing fields across the country. With the cricket community split over the politics of race, “normal cricket” was an attempt to integrate the sport in South Africa, allowing black teams to play white teams on formerly whites-only playing grounds.

He soon realised that cricket had no long-term future in the country unless cricketers in formerly disadvantaged communities were encouraged to reach their full potential. As a result, he organised mass coaching clinics and development programmes in townships in the 1980s.

In 2009, Bacher told The Sunday Independent, “I never voted for the National Party, never supported apartheid. Many times I was castigated by state media for that.”

Bacher had the foresight to form a single, colour-independent body to oversee all cricket in South Africa. Asking Steve Tshwete to help get the parties to agree on such a unified entity, he became friends with the head of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) sports desk. This was followed by a London visit, in which South Africa was admitted to the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 1991.

Another letter writer wrote, “As far as Bacher and his ilk are concerned, they need to be reminded of the role they played in trying to prop up apartheid sport with those rebel tours in the 1980s.”

With apartheid South Africa excluded from the ICC and test match cricket, Bacher believed that “rebel” tours were essential to maintain playing levels in South Africa.

Although six previous rebel tours had passed smoothly, the 1989-1990 one against England coincided with the unbanning of the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Bacher was hit for six by angry demonstrators who simply hadn’t been allowed to show their frustration and resentment on previous occasions.

“That tour nearly finished me off emotionally,” Bacher told The Guardian in 2010. “When we had the previous rebel tours, there were packed crowds, mainly white people, no demonstrations. I thought that the country, the people, had no problem [with it]. I must confess that if I had known the anger and the hurt that those tours would cause, I would have thought twice about them. It was very hurtful for me. I had been a liberal all my life.”

Realising he had made a major political error, he negotiated to halt the tour, bringing an end to the “rebel” era.

Another letter writer claimed, “White people like Ali Bacher are still very arrogant. You don’t know the pain, Mr Bacher. You have never experienced that kind of pain and humiliation.”

A general practitioner by profession, Bacher’s work as a doctor at the teeming Baragwanath Hospital on the outskirts of Soweto made him painfully aware that the South Africa in which most of his countrymen lived and died was a vastly different place to that inhabited by suburban, privileged whites, who had access to superb sporting facilities at institutions like King Edward VII School, where he had been a prodigy.

Said Bacher this week, “Amongst the black community, in the 1970s and 1980s, I have no doubt that there were many fine, aspiring young cricketers who, if given the opportunities, encouragement, facilities, and coaching that our white cricketers experienced, would have come through too and reached international stardom.”

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The record-breaking, observant “Jewish Jordan”

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Although basketball seldom grabs the headlines in South Africa, SA Jewish Report readers have probably heard of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Lebron James.

Another basketballer who played in the prestigious Capital Classic All-Star Game, American-Israeli Tamir Goodman, is a religious Jew who, as a 17-year-old high-school junior at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore in the United States, was dubbed “the Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated magazine.

The 6-foot-3 (1.9m-tall) Goodman went on to become the first Jewish basketball player to play Division-1 college and professional basketball without playing on Shabbat. He also set the record as the first yarmulke-clad player in Division-1 college basketball history.

Excited by the upcoming movie about his life, Goodman believes that “basketball is a universal language”, and he offers physical, mental, and spiritual lessons in his book, Triple Threat. He described some of the qualities that stood him in good stead.

“I would like to share the messages of humility, resilience, strong identity, time management, organisation, dreaming big, listening, paying attention, and trying to learn each day. Do small things well all the time, which will eventually lead to big accomplishments. Don’t stay too down when you’re down, and don’t celebrate too much when you’re on top of your game.”

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1980s, Goodman had eight siblings, and began playing basketball at the age of five. His father, Karl, was an attorney, and his mother, Chava, threw the javelin and discus.

In spite of his dream of being an elite basketballer seemingly out of reach as most teams played on Shabbat, the sport was Goodman’s passion, and he could practice regularly as his family had a hoop in the backyard.

He gained national attention after averaging more than 35 points per game as a junior at the Talmudical Academy. In Grade 11, he was ranked the 25th best high school player in the country.

Frequently, Goodman’s religious and secular worlds overlapped. After completing a 24-hour religious fast, Goodman placed second in a local slam-dunk contest in 1998.

He didn’t know how he was going to be able to pass his SATs because not only was there high expectation of him as a basketballer, he had also been diagnosed with severe dyslexia.

“What G-d hindered him with, G-d blessed him with something else,” Goodman’s high-school coach, Harold Katz, later said. “His vision was honestly as good as anybody I’ve ever seen play basketball.”

Goodman received a scholarship from the University of Maryland, and his life changed completely. News of his plans to play in one of the top-ranked basketball teams in the country attracted more than 700 media requests that week, he said. “I remember going to services with my father on Friday night. There were reporters inside the temple. It was just completely indescribable.”

He chose to play for Towson University, which better accommodated his religious observance.

“I realise G-d gave me this talent and if I use it the wrong way, he can take it away from me just as fast as he gave it to me,” Goodman said at the time.

The first freshman to start at Towson in more than a decade, Goodman was presented the Coach’s Award for his performance on the court and in the classroom.

Once, when the team was on the road and sundown was approaching, Goodman got out of the van and walked three blocks to a house where he was staying for Shabbat.

“My teammates see me fasting on some days, and they learn about havdalah and kosher food,” Goodman said. “It’s a great opportunity to teach them about Judaism.”

After Goodman and his Towson teammates finished seventh on the 2000/2001 America East Conference standings, the university changed its head coach.

Goodman and the new incumbent didn’t have the best relationship.

“I thought to myself, ‘What clearer message could I have had from G-d telling me it was time to leave Towson?’” said Goodman. “I just picked up and went on to Israel.”

He joined Maccabi Tel Aviv, a powerful force in European basketball.

“It was a pretty easy choice for me. I wrote in my seventh-grade yearbook that I wanted to be a professional basketball player in Israel and serve in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces].”

In 2004, he took a break from the sport to accomplish the latter. He was named the most outstanding soldier of his platoon in boot camp, and did guard duty right in front of Gaza.

Since retiring from professional basketball in 2009, he has evolved into a successful coach, educator, motivational speaker, and entrepreneur.

Goodman has spoken via Zoom to communities around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to inspire them. “I’ve spoken to different synagogues and community centres across South Africa,” he says. “Hopefully one day I will come on a basketball speaking and clinic tour in the country.”

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Powerlifting dad-son duo head for Sweden

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When Ian Furman and his son, Justin, participate in the World Powerlifting Championships in Sweden at the end of September, they will become one of the rare father-son duos to compete alongside each other in the same sport.

Cricket fans in South Africa might be vaguely familiar with another such duo. Dudley Nourse, the captain of the country at the halfway point of the 20th century, played alongside his father Dave on six occasions.

Although Ian and Justin will be competing in different categories at the two-week long championships, they are looking forward to their first-ever trip to Sweden.

Had tragedy not struck in 2019, they would have already visited this Scandinavian country. With his dad accompanying him as coach, Justin was about to travel to the World Powerlifting Championships that year.

However, his hopes for competing ended when he broke his ankle while playing for King David Victory Park’s 1st rugby team in its final rugby league match. On a positive note, King David won the game, giving Justin a lot of impetus for his recovery.

The BCom Business Management student at the University of Pretoria is ranked 449 out of the 1 402 South Africans on openpowerlifting.org and, like his dad, trains at a gym called Barbell Bullies in Sunninghill at least four times a week.

Asked about the record amount he has lifted in the three powerlifting disciplines, Justin said, “I squat 272.5, bench press 160, and deadlift 275 – so the total is 707.5.” His dad’s speciality is the bench press. “My South African record stands at 255kg in the equipped division, and 200kg in the non-equipped,” said Ian.

Several factors explain why Ian has always competed in powerlifting instead of weightlifting.

“I started too late in the sport. You need to start weightlifting at a very young age. I never experienced weightlifting at all, and neither has Justin. Weightlifting is a very technical sport. It’s a sport you’ve got to do every single day of your life, sometimes twice a day. We don’t really have the regime in this country to produce world-class weightlifters because we don’t have the sponsorship or the backing to do it on a professional level.”

With Ian being involved in the sport since 2000, Justin was exposed to powerlifting throughout his upbringing. “But I was more into rugby and then my dad said, ‘Listen, just come do a little bit of weight training, get a little bit stronger for rugby.’ I eventually realised that I really did enjoy the sport and wanted to start doing it competitively. I never really thought, ‘Should I do powerlifting or weightlifting?’ It was just that powerlifting was always there.”

After all, his dad not only competed in countries like New Zealand, Luxembourg, and Slovakia, but has also coached many powerlifters.

“My highlights have been more as a coach than a lifter,” said Ian. “I’ve taken South African teams to world championship events, and various lifters have won medals at these competitions. I’ve been a coach of Paralympic lifters to world championship events as well.”

Ian said the upcoming championships would probably be the highlight of his powerlifting journey. “I’m going with my son not only as his coach, but as a fellow powerlifter. That’s more special than anything I’ve experienced so far. I suppose it’s testament to all the hard work and longevity that I’m still able to compete at an international level.”

Although Justin qualified by winning his category with a total of 637.5kg, Ian will compete in Sweden even though the total of 585kg that he lifted at the SA Classic Powerlifting Championships was good enough only for second place in his category. “The guy who won isn’t going, so I’m going instead,” said Ian.

If Ian or Justin are victorious in their category in Sweden, they won’t be the first Jews to do so. Shachar Head, once dubbed by the Daily Mail as “Britain’s strongest schoolgirl”; Ellen Stein, who had a successful running career before even picking up a weight; and Naomi Kutin, the subject of the 2016 documentary Supergirl, have all tasted glory at the championships at least once.

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