'The Secret History of Jews in Surprising Places' is a ubiquitous trope in contemporary publishing. Books on Jews and organized crime and Jews in punk are two excellent examples. Finding Jews where they're not supposed to belong, especially in mildly transgressive fields (say, making and performing in porn) is also a staple of magazines which rely on manufactured shock, like Heeb and Davka. There's a lot more to this narrative than simply giving voice to forgotten histories. After all, who says that Jews shouldn't be punk rockers or don't commit crimes? (Or don't make and consume porn, for that matter.) Why are these kinds of histories framed as 'secret' or 'hidden'? To whom are these surprises?
Ackerman notes that Jewish Jocks does a much better job of covering athletes of the past (baseball players, boxers etc.) than it does with contemporary Jewish athletes. When the authors get to the present day, boxers and ballers have been replaced with competitive eaters, team managers, and sports writers. What gives?
If an inescapable premise of the book is that Jewish athletes need recognition, then the book ought to do a more thorough job of addressing the implications of their latter-day absence, before an anti-Semite steps into the void with a few theories.
There are any number of ways to address that absence. Here’s one: It means nothing. Nothing about who we are as a people or who we are as individual Jews follows from our endless cataloging of tribespeople in sports, crime, high finance, media or government war councils. It only reveals the anxieties of the self-appointed ethnic actuary. True, it can be fun to know that this-or-that athlete is Jewish. But if your Jewish son or daughter started to internalize the invisibility of Jewish athletes, you would probably want to instruct him or her that role models don’t come from just one community. It’s a short step to saying that Jewish athleticism is an indicator of Jewish virility, and before you know it you’re in the briar patch of self-hatred. And that’s an unfortunate subtext of this book, so much so that the editors discuss foreskins in the Greek gymnasia during the very first paragraph of their introduction. Guys: relax. [emphasis mine]
What's interesting about books on Jews and sports is not how many Jews have played professional baseball, but why it's so important to us to search out and tally them up. I think we can extend Ackerman's point not just to the endless search for Jewish sports heroes, but to the related obsession with the over-representation of Jews in comedy, science, and shlock horror films (ok, I'm probably the only one obsessed with that one.) These kinds of narratives usually suffer from a fatal tendency to see (or hope for) some essential Jewish quality to porn, comedy, science or shlocky horror films. It's an intellectually lazy exercise and one, as Ackerman rightly points out, that says much more about the writers' anxieties than it does about their subjects.