Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy discuss the genesis of new anthology ‘Jewish Jocks’

Editors Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. (Len Small)
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Unexpected juxtapositions abound in the new anthology Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame.

It's something that Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, is proudest of about the book.

“I love that we have David Bezmozgis’s stubbornly Russian essay about a Soviet weightlifter alongside Etgar Keret’s piece about a crazy Israeli soccer star next to the piece about the competitive eater from Brooklyn,” Franklin Foer, who edited the book along with writer Marc Tracy, told me in a phone interview. “It’s this alchemy that could only come about from casting an extremely wide net and pursuing writers and letting them go off and indulge their exceedingly esoteric interests.”

The wide net yielded an impressive catch. Judith Shulevitz’s meditation on swimmer Mark Spitz sits alongside Jeffrey Goldberg’s account of discovering unlikely fans of the wrestler Bill Goldberg in the Middle East (members of Hezbollah, among others). Some of the anthology’s strongest pieces are its most straightforward: David Hirshey’s short biography of onetime New York Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing, or Kevin Arnovitz’s essay about the basketball player Nancy Lieberman. And yet Jane Leavy’s meditative piece on Sandy Koufax’s life after baseball is equally affecting. Out of a maximally descriptive two-word title comes a wide-ranging essay collection, satisfying as both vivid sportswriting and perceptive literature.

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As of earlier this year, the anthology’s co-editors both call The New Republic home—Foer as its editor (it's his second time in the role) and Tracy as a staff writer.

“Coming back to TNR,” Foer said, “the book has been really useful, because there are a number of writers who I’ve developed relationships with in the course of editing this thing who I’m pretty sure I’m going to work with again.”

The authors themselves have distinct voices. Tracy’s responses, when I talked to him, came as rapid-fire declarations, while Foer was more audibly circumspect, searching for precise words, phrases, and formulations. But they certainly complement each other, the result of a long history shared before they were officemates or book collaborators.

“Marc and I grew up in the same part of Washington [D.C.]; we went to the same school. He was also my cousin’s best friend,” Foer said. “Over the course of these conversations, I knew—and also from reading his blog on Tablet—that sports and Jews were a sweet spot for him. His interests pretty well intersected there, perfectly. This was kind of a natural thing for him. He was pretty genius at coming up with assignments. His depth of baseball history and football history were a lot deeper than mine.”

During Tracy’s time editing Tablet’s blog The Scroll, he approached Foer, the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, about writing something about soccer; the ensuing discussion led to the idea for Jewish Jocks.

“From the soccer book,” Foer said, “I was used to thinking of sports in a political, sociological sort of way. It was definitely one of the directions we tried to push this project.”

“Marc and I had an evening where we played fantasy baseball and tried to line up writers and subjects,” Foer said.

Tracy mentioned one pairing in particular: “An initial idea that we had, before we even pitched the book to a publisher, was ‘Lipsyte on Lipsyte.’ We knew we wanted that to happen—and of course, it did happen, and we’re so glad it did.”

That essay, “Lippy and Me,” is novelist Sam Lipsyte’s account of his relationship to his father, the sportswriter and novelist Robert Lipsyte. It’s one of the anthology’s highlights, as well as one of the more personal stories to be found in the book.

The presence of Lipsyte the elder also points toward another unique element of the book: the word “jocks” in the title doesn’t simply refer to athletes. Some of the most rewarding portions of the book focus on figures less commonly associated with sports.

“When I contacted Mark Oppenheimer,” Tracy recalled, “he said, ‘What about Joel Silver?’ I said, ‘What about Joel Silver? He’s a movie producer.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, but he also invented Ultimate Frisbee.’ ‘Oh my God—of course. Do that!’”

Jewish Jocks opens with Simon Schama’s account of the British boxer Daniel Mendoza, and moves forward chronologically from there.

“If I picked up this book and didn’t know it, I’d probably start going through it and picking out the essays whose writers and subjects I liked the most,” Tracy says. “I don’t want to be the chef who tells you how to eat the meal, but I would encourage readers to read it in order, because a couple of stories will pop out. There are a couple of meta-stories about assimilation and Jewish identity. There are also a couple of smaller stories, chiefly in boxing and basketball, about re-evolution. Those are two sports that Jews especially put an imprint on, and—you can see a trajectory.”

Among the collection’s best essays are those that seek out intense contradictions. L. Jon Wertheim tracks down the golfer Corey Pavin, who was raised Jewish but later became a born-again Christian. David Remnick’s essay on Howard Cosell traces the evolution of his public profile, and Jonathan Safran Foer examines Bobby Fischer’s descent into anti-Semitism and paranoia.

Joshua Cohen’s contribution focuses on the German fencer Helene Mayer, who competed in the 1936 Olympics, complete with Nazi salute. It stands as one of the book’s highlights, emotionally jarring and fascinating for almost anyone interested in history, culture, or sports.

“I think I’d maybe heard of Mayer; I’m not sure,” Tracy said. “But Josh was very into doing that, and thank God, because it’s an amazing essay.”

One sport that does seem under-represented in the collection is hockey, Jonah Keri’s piece on Montreal Canadiens defenseman Mathieu Schneider aside.

“I’d initially talked to Steven Pinker about doing a hockey essay because he’s from Canada, and there was some obscure hockey player that he was obsessed with from when he was a kid,” Foer said. “But he ultimately decided that he wanted to go with Red Auerbach, who was his undergrad [and] grad-school obsession. Fair enough.”

As both Foer and Tracy spoke glowingly about the process of assembling this book, it prompts a logical question: is this the last time we’ll see this particular editorial collaboration?

“The joke we make, of course, is that people invariably say, ‘Well, what about this figure?’ And we say, ‘That’s for the sequel.’ I think we’re mostly joking when we say that,” Tracy said.

For his part, Foer seems enthusiastic about both the process and the result.

“It was kind of a joyous goof for us,” Foer said. And yet that enthusiasm is tempered with pride. “There are not many more things that I can imagine doing that I’m more proud of than this book.”

Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy will be reading on Nov. 12 with contributors Jonathan Safran Foer, George Packer, and David Remnick at Barnes & Noble Union Square; Nov. 14 at The Tenement Museum with Ira Berkow, Joshua Cohen, and Liel Leibovitz; and Nov. 28 at Congregation Beth Elohim.