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How Gold Medalist Sarah Hughes Skated under the "Jewish Radar"

This article originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission of, The Forward.

It's not as if there were a lack of clues: Her name is Sarah; she comes from Great Neck, N.Y., she has had dreams of becoming a doctor. Still, for the most part, the Jewish media were asleep at the Zamboni wheel during the 2002 Winter Olympics, when Sarah Hughes became the first member of the tribe to capture the gold medal in figure skating.

That's right, 16-year-old Sarah Hughes has a Jewish mother, Amy Hughes née Pasternack, and reportedly grew up in a house with some attachment to Judaism. But odds are you didn't read about it in your local Jewish paper.

Three newspapers based in the metropolitan New York area--the Forward, the New York Jewish Week and the Long Island Jewish World--all missed the story. So did the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the New York-based wire service used by Jewish newspapers across the country. Based on an informal survey, in fact, it seems that only the Jewish Star Times in Miami nailed it.

"The danger in counting Jews is that sometimes you miss one, and this time we missed a big one," said Lisa Hostein, editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

"However, that being said, it is not always clear anymore if some one is Jewish," Ms. Hostein said. With higher rates of intermarriage and lower rates of affiliation, she added, "You can't tell by names these days, or by birth places. It's a challenge. We all love to count the Jews, but we don't always know where to find them."

It's a tricky game, Ms. Hostein said, noting the case of Russian figure skater and silver medalist Irina Slutskaya, whose father's family is believed to be Jewish. Ms. Hostein said that her staff received assurances from Jewish communal leaders and government officials in Russia that Ms. Slutskaya was Jewish. So the wire service included her on a list of Jewish athletes sent out before the Olympics, only to see the figure skater cross herself on television at the end of each routine.

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and the Forward featured pre-Olympic stories on Sasha Cohen, the southern California resident who eventually finished fourth in the women's figure skating. Ms. Cohen reportedly never had a Bat Mitzvah, but her family belongs to a Reform congregation. All told, three of the top four finishers in the women's figure skating competition are known to have at least one Jewish parent. In the world of Jewish journalism, several editors said, such a strong showing would have normally merited a story, especially with Ms. Hughes finishing first.

"Jews have a place in every sector of American cultural, political and business life," said Jonathan Tobin, editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. "But sports is one sector where the presence of prominent Jews is anomalous."

As a result, Mr. Tobin said, Jews and Jewish reporters will still stretch to tag a big-time athlete as Jewish, more so than when it comes to someone in the world of entertainment. As for Ms. Hughes, who is the fourth of six children and has a non-Jewish father, Mr. Tobin and several other editors said that they would have run a story had they been aware of her family's Jewish connection.

In her press material, Ms. Hughes identifies Christmas as her favorite holiday; ABC ran a segment on her in January, that showed the Hughes family in front of the Christmas tree, according to Alina Sivorinovsky, author of Sarah Hughes: Skating to the Stars (Berkley Publishing Group, 2001). But, Ms. Sivorinovsky added, family members have said that the figure skater's two older brothers celebrated their Bar Mitzvah.

"Her mother and grandparents talk proudly of it," Ms. Sivorinovsky said, referring to the family's Jewishness. "It's not a secret as it is for some of the Russian skaters."

A call to the Hughes house was not returned.

While Jewish newspapers may have had trouble identifying the religious bona fides of a girl from Great Neck, several media outlets dedicated to tracking Jewish athletes were on top of the story, including the Los Angeles-based newsletter "Jewish Sports Review" and the Web site JewishSports.com.

The co-publisher of "Jewish Sports Review," Ephraim Moxson, said that he called the Hughes house about two weeks before the Olympics and reached the figure skater's mother. Mr. Moxson quoted Ms. Hughes as saying that the family does not practice a religion, but leans toward Judaism.

That, Mr. Moxson said, was enough for his newsletter, which has a policy of only covering athletes who have at least one Jewish parent and do not practice another religion. He dismissed the notion that the family's Christmas tree constituted a violation of the rule.

"It annoys me," Mr. Moxson said of Jewish families that put up Christmas trees. But, he added, as a secular observance practiced by some Jews, it doesn't keep an athlete out of the newsletter.

"The Russian Jews are a breed onto themselves," Mr. Moxson said, when asked about his decision to include Ms. Slutskaya, even though she crosses herself.

"She doesn't practice anything. She goes to Israel to visit her aunts and uncles. She wears a Jewish star on occasion. Our editor spoke to her agent, who said that for all intents and purposes she is Jewish."

For Joshua Pines, editor of JewishSports.com, the standard is having one Jewish parent and wanting to be identified as Jewish.

"I think that we want to reflect worldwide Judaism, and not just one view of it," Mr. Pines said. "It would be great if everybody came out and gave us the date of their Bar Mitzvah and told us who gave them a bris. But there will be people from interfaith families, who don't live a textbook Jewish life. But that doesn't mean we wouldn't include them."

In the end, Mr. Pines said, the point of his Web site is to provide a unique tool for promoting Jewish pride: "The truth is that finding a Jewish athlete to follow could end up being a person's only connection to Judaism."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Ami Eden

Ami Eden writes for the Forward.

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