From Chukar to Israeli baseball team
We can say without fear of contradiction that the Idaho Falls Chukars haven’t quite ascended to baseball’s fields of heaven just yet. How could they? As a minor league baseball franchise, they play in Idaho’s Eastern league, as far away from the hotbeds of United States (US) baseball as it’s possible to be. (To give you an idea of where Idaho is, roughly-speaking, San Francisco lies 1 300km to the south west, while Salt Lake City is three-hour drive due south. To all intents and purposes, Idaho Falls is in the middle of nowhere.)
Playing out of Melaleuca Field in Idaho Falls itself, the Chukars count as their regional rivals in the Pioneer Baseball League the Billings Mustangs and the Missoula Paddleheads. Once upon a time, they were called the Spuds, before being re-named the Russets. They’ve also been called the Braves, the Angels, the Eagles, and the Padres before the club owners finally settled on calling them the Chukars in 2007.
Their mascot is called Charlie the Chukar, a chukar being a pheasant like game bird not unlike a grouse. They are much-loved but little known, although things in this regard are changing very slightly for the better.
This is because one of their players, a young New York investment banker by the name of Eric Brodkowitz, used his experience pitching for them in the minor leagues as a springboard to becoming a member of the Israel baseball team. Brodkowitz thought he had played his last game of competitive baseball in 2018, when he pitched for Yale in a losing cause in an Ivy League game against Columbia. He had given the sport his best shot, and was now off to Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. Baseball was something he’d tell his grandchildren about.
Fate had other ideas. Watching from the stands that day, was Eric Holtz, whose son played for Columbia but who, more importantly, was the manager of the Israel baseball team.
After the game, Holtz approached Brodkowitz. He liked his fast-ball very much, he said. Brodkowitz thanked him politely. Then came Holtz’ pitch, “He was Jewish, right?”
Intrigued and irritated in equal measure, the 25-year-old pitcher replied that he was.
Holtz sketched a proposition. Israel was forming a baseball squad to take to the Tokyo Olympics in a couple of years’ time. Would Brodkowitz be interested in taking out Israeli citizenship? More importantly, was he prepared to chase the dream? An arduous qualifying campaign in places as far afield as Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Germany beckoned. Oh, and before he forgot, would Brodkowitz be prepared to ask his employers if they could allow him to work remotely. Holtz rather fancied a furlough in Idaho with the Chukars would be good for Brodkowitz’s fitness and pitching arm. What did he say?
Brodkowitz said yes to all of the above as Israel set about gathering up a baseball team, mainly raiding the minor leagues of the US for Jewish players who weren’t yet Israeli citizens. During their odyssey, they have trained like demons, bonded like they didn’t believe they could, and beaten far more fancied teams like Sweden, Italy, and the Netherlands. And they qualified for Tokyo with more than a year to spare, becoming the first Israel team to qualify for the Olympics in a team sport since 1976.
Truth be told, very few are expecting the Israelis to get a medal, but stranger things have happened. There are only six competing teams in the competition itself (the hosts, the US, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and South Korea) so Israel have to be in with a shout. Their first two matches this week (South Korea on 29 July) and the US a day later, will be crucial if Brodkowitz and his colleague are going to get any traction on the competition.
Baseball has a chequered Olympic history, a sport never quite sure of its foothold on the event. It was introduced as an official Olympic sport only at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, with Cuba taking gold from Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) and Japan.
Cuba again won gold four years later, this time being followed by Japan and the US. The sport, however, hasn’t been included since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, not appearing in either London or Rio, so the Israelis’ qualification as the world’s 24th-ranked team is even more remarkable. It also has to be one of the stories of the games, full of the once-in-a-lifetime romance that Hollywood moves are made of.
Brodkowitz wouldn’t have it any other way. “I thought my baseball career was probably over,” he told the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton in talking about the punishing loss to Columbia when pitching for Yale in 2018. That was three years ago, and so much has happened in-between. Perhaps there’s a chapter or two left for the pitcher and his team.
Esports a green field for soccer pro Larry Cohen
Larry Cohen trained with football stars like Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and Gianluigi Buffon during his playing career, but now he’s cheering for the likes of Bale and other renowned players in the world of esports.
Cohen decided to hang up his boots in 2016 after playing for Jomo Cosmos, Chippa United, and Moroka Swallows in the top tier of South African football. However, he’s still involved with the game – albeit the simulated version.
His business, 38 Entertainment Group, brings together the world’s top footballers to play FIFA against each other, and Cohen enjoys egging them on, just like he supported his teammates sitting in the dugout as a substitute during his playing days.
“Sitting on the bench, you could watch but you couldn’t do anything, yet you still got that thrill of your team participating, winning, and you doing well,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “That’s the way it is with esports, because you have no control over the guys, but you’re there supporting.”
His father, Martin, whose gritty flair anchored the Highlands Park midfield in the 1970s, was his hero growing up in Morribrook Avenue in Linksfield North, Johannesburg.
“As a footballer, my dad was one of the best in the country,” says Cohen. “I always looked up to him. I got to see only a few clips of him playing, but he always guided me in the right direction without being pushy.”
Cohen’s time at King David Linksfield taught him the values, camaraderie, and what he describes as “the KDL fight” needed to believe in yourself and do well in life.
He admits he wasn’t the best student and got into a lot of trouble because his priority was “the beautiful game”, and playing for SuperSport United Academy occupied a lot of his time.
“In matric, I used to come to school quite late because I was training with a professional team,” he says. “Principal [Arnie] Altshuler wasn’t very happy with me. But it was a great experience. I loved being at King David, and the Jewish community is always close to my heart.”
Jomo Cosmos coach Jomo Sono gave Cohen his first professional contract at the age of 19. Having just returned from training with West Ham in England, he was thankful that his potential was noticed by the man who had played alongside his dad in a mixed-race South African team’s 5-0 win against a rebel Argentina XI during the apartheid era.
“It’s always not easy getting your first contract and to break into the professional ranks, but then it’s even more difficult to stay there,” says Cohen.
When Cohen was 22, he trained with English club Tottenham Hotspur.
“I could never play in England because I had a South African passport so I couldn’t get a work permit. I saw it as an opportunity to improve my game. I was training with the likes of Kane in the reserve team. A few days a week, I would mix up with the first team, which included Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor.”
A highlight of Cohen’s career occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
He was set for an off-season break from playing duties at Wits when the club’s head of development, Eric Tinkler, gave him a call.
“One of the Italy players got injured,” said the former Bafana Bafana midfielder. “Would you mind training with them for the next 10 days?”
Cohen jumped at the chance. “Training with the likes of Gattuso, Pirlo, and Buffon was an incredible experience,” he says. “They were really friendly and welcoming. I remember going back to the hotel to have lunch, and Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper who is an absolute legend, pushed one of the players out the way and said, ‘No, Larry, you come sit here, my friend.’”
While playing for Moroka Swallows, where he recalls forming a great centre-back partnership with Roger da Costa, he almost played for Lithuania against the Wayne Rooney-captained England in a Euro 2016 qualifier at Wembley.
He was called up to the Lithuanian national team after finally receiving citizenship. Playing against England at Wembley would have been an absolute dream for the great-grandchild of Lithuanian emigrants to South Africa.
“It’s a pity it didn’t happen,” he says. “FIFA denied my call up, saying my citizenship had to come through my grandparents. It was heartbreaking, having worked so hard to reach that level.”
Bafana Bafana Coach Gordon Igesund then chatted to Cohen about playing for South Africa. “He said he was going to call me up,” says Cohen. “Unfortunately, about two weeks before the game, I pulled [a muscle in] my groin, and I was out for about a month. So, I had a few unlucky breaks in my international career.”
At the age of 28, he retired from playing because he had fallen out of love with the game. The unsuccessful call up to both national teams was “a bitter pill to swallow”. “It was always my dream to play overseas. I was at the age where I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done well, I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in terms of becoming a professional footballer, I’ve enjoyed my time, and I’d rather call it on my terms.’ I wanted to pursue other dreams.”
He moved to London, and co-founded 38 Entertainment Group with fellow King David alumnus Jonathan Kark. “The business has two brands,” says Cohen. “One of them is Elevens esports, which we run and code with Gareth Bale. Working with him is great; he’s an absolute superstar. We have a professional FIFA team, so the guys enter competitions around the world. Currently, our FIFA team is second in Europe and sixth in the world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the business starting an initiative called Combat Corona, in which 10 footballers played FIFA against each other live on Twitch. The likes of Bale, Paulo Dybala, Luke Shaw, and Mason Mount participated in the event, which raised money to help the United Nations Children’s Fund fight the pandemic.
“During our three events to date, we’ve worked with more than 150 celebrities from around the world and received just more than 10 million live views on Twitch,” Cohen says.
The eight greatest Jewish sport miracles of all time
(JTA) This Chanukah, we’re celebrating Jewish sport miracles.
We picked one for each of the holiday’s eight nights, plus one for the shamash. Our only criteria? Each moment had to feel miraculous – think underdogs, defying all odds, and incredible feats of athletic skill.
Night one: Sue Bird at the buzzer in 2001.
Close your eyes. It’s the Big East Tournament Championship in March 2001, between two women’s college basketball powerhouses: the University of Connecticut Huskies and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. With a few seconds left to play, star Jewish guard Sue Bird grabs the ball from a free throw rebound and sprints down the court. She stops inside the paint and shoots a fadeaway that gives the Huskies the win at the buzzer.
Bird’s buzzer-beater has gone down in history as one of the best shots of all time.
Night two: Diego Schwartzman defeats the “King of Clay” – on clay – in 2020.
On 19 September 2020, Jewish tennis player Diego Schwartzman achieved the nearly impossible, he defeated “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal on a clay court in the Italian Open quarterfinals.
In their tenth meeting, Schwartzman stunned Nadal in straight sets after losing his nine previous matches to the Spanish player who has dominated the surface like no other tennis player in history.
Night three: Linoy Ashram becomes the third Israeli to win gold at the Olympics – by 0.15 of a point in 2021.
At the postponed Tokyo Olympics, the 22-year-old won gold in the all-around rhythmic gymnastics competition, narrowly beating her Russian competitor, scoring just 0.15 of a point higher than Dina Averina. Ashram became the first Israeli woman to ever win a gold medal. If 0.15 of a point isn’t a miracle, what is?
Night four: Julian Edelman’s catch in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI in 2017.
With his New England Patriots down 28-20 with 2:28 left in the fourth quarter (they had been down 28-3), Julian Edelman reeled in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history.
During what would become the game-tying drive, Edelman fought off three Atlanta Falcons defenders to make a miraculous catch in the middle of the field, one that seems more improbable with each replay. Tom Brady’s pass was swatted in the air by a Falcons cornerback, causing Edelman and three defenders to collide into a pile on the ground, limbs pointing in all directions, with each player trying to find the football. Edelman somehow kept his concentration and got his hands around the ball, weaving through the arms and legs of his opponents to grip Brady’s 23-yard pass. Even a last-second bobble wasn’t enough to break Edelman’s focus.
Night five: Aly Raisman makes an epic Olympic comeback as captain of the United States gymnastics Final Five team
At the 2012 London Olympics, gymnast Aly Raisman became a Jewish sports legend when she performed her floor routine to Hava Nagila and won gold.
After the Games, she took a break from competing, but in 2014, her comeback was swift. She was named to the 2016 US Olympic women’s gymnastics team, becoming one of only two US women – alongside Gabby Douglas – to make back-to-back Olympic gymnastics teams since 2000.
So why a miracle? There was her age – at 22 in Rio, she was the oldest member of Team USA. But as we found out a little over a year after the Rio Olympics, Raisman had also been a victim of sexual abuse by Olympic physician Larry Nassar. She became one of the strongest voices speaking out against Nassar in the years following.
Night six: Team Israel finishes sixth in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Entering the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC), Team Israel was ranked 41st in the world – the ultimate underdog. ESPN called the squad “the Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC”. The team’s odds to win the tournament were 200-1. Talk about David versus Goliath.
But the group, made up of mostly American Jewish ballplayers like Sam Fuld and Ty Kelly, pulled off an improbable four-game winning streak in the international tournament, beating several of the top-ranked teams in the world.
Night seven: Mark Spitz wins seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics.
In what is now commonly referred to as the Munich Massacre, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were held hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
But those summer games also witnessed one of the most dominant runs of any Olympic athlete: Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, setting a world record in each competition. He won the 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 4×100m freestyle relay, 4×200m freestyle relay, and 4×100m medley relay.
Spitz’s seven gold medals in one Olympics set a record which stood for a fitting 36 years until Michael Phelps’ eight golds in 2008.
Night eight: Annie Cohen Kopchovksy bikes around the world in 1894.
In June 1894, at the age of 23, Annie Cohen Kopchovksy set off from her home in Boston, leaving her husband and three small children, to journey around the world – by bicycle.
A Jewish immigrant from Latvia, she called herself Annie Londonderry after her sponsor, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire. Her journey took her around the world and was a huge accomplishment for women’s athletics.
The shamash: Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series.
In the long and rich history of Jews and sports, there remains one player, one moment, one feat, that eclipses them all. The cherry on top. The icing on the cake. The shamash on our Jewish sports chanukiah: Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series.
Koufax is perhaps best known for that game he didn’t pitch. After a dominant 1965 season – for which he would win his second Cy Young Award – Koufax famously declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Koufax would go on to pitch Game 2, holding the Minnesota Twins to two runs over six innings, while striking out nine. The oil didn’t run out from there. On just two days of rest, Koufax took the mound for Game 7, and boy, did he pitch! Koufax hurled a complete game shutout, giving up just three hits while striking out 10. He was named World Series MVP (Most Valuable Player).
The best moment of the best Jewish player’s astonishing career. A true miracle.
SA-born rugby star helps beat the Boks
South African-born rugby player Sarah Levy scored a hat-trick as the Barbarians trounced the Springboks 60-5 at Twickenham in London. A record crowd for women’s rugby – 29 581 spectators – attended the 27 November match.
The Barbarians, an invitational all-star side known as the Baa-Baas, went into half time 38-0 up with winger Levy having crossed the whitewash twice. The number 11 grabbed her third try after the break to seal the biggest win for the Barbarians women’s team since its first match in November 2017.
“I was so honoured to play with the Baa-Baas, and to play against my birth country makes it even more special,” Levy told the SA Jewish Report. “I’ve never played against a South African team, and to play against them with the Barbarians makes this experience even more special.”
Levy, who plays for the New York Rugby Club, the oldest rugby club in the United States, was born in Cape Town to a South African father and an American mother. When she was two years old, her family made aliyah to Israel. A couple of years later, they moved to San Diego in California, where she grew up.
Her father Denis and uncles Rob, Nelson, and Peter all played rugby. By being selected to represent the Barbarians, she has now joined her great-grandfather, Louis Babrow, as a life member of the famous club. In 1931, Babrow become one of the first Jews to play for the Springboks. The first Jewish Springbok was his cousin Morris Zimmerman. A medical doctor and lifelong opponent of apartheid, Babrow played for the Baa-Baas in England before going to fight in World War II.
The Baa-Baas roll of honour reads like a who’s who of the history of rugby, featuring famous names like Jonah Lomu, Francois Pienaar, and Bryan Habana.
Receiving an invitation to don the club’s famous black and white hooped jersey is a source of enormous pride to players.
Levy said it was “unreal to play with so many legends” in the Barbarians women’s team, which consists of over 700 international caps across nine nations. The New York Rugby Club player was one of four United States-based players in the squad, which included World Cup winners, current and former international captains, and even someone like Irish prop Lindsay Peat, who has played rugby, basketball, and Gaelic football.
“It’s been a fun training environment, and everyone’s very supportive,” said Levy. “It’s nice to play with new people and have a different game plan from what I’ve been doing with the US team. These connections I’m making are so special.”
Levy got into rugby after having signed up for every sport at her school’s club fair. She received a rugby email, saying that practise was in two days’ time before a tournament that weekend, and another girl convinced her to take part.
“She went from strength to strength, and made progress going up the ranks. Two years ago, she was selected to represent the United States at rugby,” said Denis.
After taking up rugby, most of Levy’s conversations with her dad were about the game. “He would tell me all about Louis’ playing days, and he gave me newspaper clippings and photos and showed me YouTube clips,” Levy told SA Rugby magazine. “That made me want to play even more. I knew I have a connection to South Africa. I always had a Springbok jersey, but I never realised the meaning behind it. Suddenly, when I started playing rugby and reading about rugby, it meant so much more. It made me feel more connected to South Africa, and Grandpa Louis and all the other men in my family who have played.”
Levy keeps up to date with everything that’s going on in South Africa, including the economy and politics. “My dad once brought me a pair of shoelaces with a South African flag on them,” she told the magazine. “I had them in my cleats all through senior year at college. My dad’s brother ended up moving to the same city as us, and we braai all the time.”
Her family members living in the US are mostly girls, and they all played soccer at school. “Our parents never thought about us playing rugby, but I wish I had started playing early because I love it so much,” she told the magazine. “It’s cool to see that I can do what my uncles and granddad used to do. My ouma sent me a newspaper clipping of her playing in a touch game with other nurses.”
Levy trains full-time with the US seven-a-side team, a hopeful for the next Olympics. “I go in four days a week for usually three sessions a day,” she said. “This consists of two rugby sessions and a weightlifting or speed session.” This season, she got selected to play for the 15s in a northern-hemisphere series against England and Ireland.
“Rugby is a very rapidly growing sport in America, especially at universities,” said Denis. “It’s not as big as in England and Ireland, but it’s growing very fast.”
Levy, a Bachelor of Science graduate studying physiotherapy at the University of California, would “love to have the honour” of being selected for a World Cup or Olympics. “I would also like for the US team to earn a medal in those events someday,” she said.
Levy has great appreciation for her roots. “I love the Jewish community, and what it provided for me growing up.”
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