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Interfaith Celebrities: Baseball, News, and a Bar Mitzvah

April 9, 2013

Jackie Robinson: His Courage, Foes, and Friends

Opening in theaters on Friday, April 12, is 42.The title references the jersey number of the great Jackie Robinson (1919-1972), the first African American to play major league baseball. The film follows the college-educated Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman, 31), as he is selected by Branch Rickey (1881-1965), the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager, to break the "gentleman's agreement" that kept owners from signing black players.

Jackie Robinson. [AP Photo]

Playing Rickey is interfaith actor Harrison Ford, 70, who has been mentioned numerous times in this column. Ford is the (lifelong) secular son of an Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother.

Robinson agreed to Rickey's request that no matter how much racist abuse he suffered during his rookie season (1947), he would not react in kind with strong words or by fighting back. Robinson let his talent do the talking for him. Winning the 1947 Rookie of the Year earned the respect of his teammates and millions of fans as he paved the way for other black players.

Depicted in the film is one teammate who wouldn't play with Robinson: Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman, 29). He's joined by players on other teams who directed racial slurs at Robinson or even tried to injure him: Ben Chapman, the Phillies' player/manager; and St. Louis catcher Joe Garagiola, now 87. Garagiola later re-invented himself as a genial sportscaster. They are played by, respectively, Alan Tudyk, 42, and Gino Anthony Pesi, 32.

Robinson's allies included Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a white Southerner; Dodgers' pitcher Ralph Branca, now 87; and Jewish Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg (1911-1986). Reese and Branca are played, respectively, by Lucas Black, 30, and Hamish Linklater, 36.

Branca, a devout Catholic who was the Dodgers' pitching ace during the 1947 season, found out in 2011 that his late mother was born Jewish. How this happened was revealed in an August, 2011 New York Times article written by Joshua Prager. In short, Prager wrote a book about a famous home run that Branca gave up that resulted in the rival New York Giants winning the pennant in 1951. In this book, he mentioned that Branca's mother, Kati Branca, had emigrated from Hungary in 1901 and her maiden name was "Berger." A reader asked Prager if she was Jewish. Prager contacted a family history expert and documentation piled up which proved that she was born Jewish and that many of her relatives died in the Holocaust.

For more on Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, their experiences breaking barriers in baseball, and their linked history, you might want to check out this book.

Subsequently, Prager found that that some of Branca's 16(!) siblings and other extended family members knew about Kati's Jewish background, but Ralph Branca never did. His ignorance of her origins is understandable: Kati was a regular Catholic churchgoer who was the main force in getting her kids to church, and she never directly disclosed to any of her children that she was born Jewish.

Here are just a couple of excerpts from that New York Times piece:

[Kati's sister, Fanni, who also came to America, remained Jewish. Fanni spoke to Ralph Branca's sister, Mildred, not long before Fanni died.] Fanni told [Mildred] that Kati had written their parents a letter from New York. In it, she had asked two questions. Would they allow her to marry a Catholic? Would they allow her to raise her children as Christians? Fanni told Mildred she had seen the letter and the letter her parents sent back. Yes and yes, they wrote. And so Kati had married John Branca, a trolley car conductor from Italy.

Kati raised her children to be open-minded, to accept the Jews, blacks, Irish, Germans and fellow Italians who packed the 4.21 square miles that made up Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Kati's tolerance lessons were completely absorbed by her son, Ralph. A year ago, Branca went up to the Boston Red Sox press box and spoke about Robinson to reporters. About meeting Robinson and his upbringing he told The Boston Globe:

"The day before we played Montreal in an exhibition game, the Dodgers played their farm club in Montreal," he said. "The next day we had a workout and I was in the locker room when Jackie walked in. I walked over and shook his hand. ‘Welcome aboard.'

"All I could think was can he help us win the pennant, can he help us win games. I didn't think about the color of his skin because I lived on a block that was the United Nations of all — four black families, about nine families of Italian extraction, two Irish, two German, two Jewish. So it was a League of Nations on my block. Blacks, I played with them. Went in their house, they came into mine. Seeing Jackie meant nothing special or different to me."
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg honors the Jewish baseball legend.

Greenberg, unlike the other players, above, is not depicted in 42. However, the details of his friendship with Robinson are found in many sources, including the really terrific 1998 documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

In 1947, Greenberg was the Pittsburg Pirates' first baseman (all his prior years were with the Detroit Tigers). During a May, 1947 game, Greenberg told Robinson, "Stick in there. You're doing fine. Keep your chin up."

A couple of days later, Robinson told reporters that Greenberg was his "diamond hero" and "Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg."

The Bleacher Report gives a fuller account of this game and the anti-Semitism Greenberg endured while playing pro ball.

In many respects, Greenberg was as important a role model for American Jews as Jackie Robinson was for African Americans. The fact that Greenberg supported Robinson when they first met on the baseball field, and that they became friends, is the type of story that often happens in the movies, but not in real life.

Well, this time it did happen in real life and it makes me happy whenever I think about it.

Jack Tapper

Check Out Tapper (While You Can)

Last month, Jake Tapper, 44, started as the host of a new CNN news program, The Lead with Jake Tapper(airs 4:00-5:00 p.m.). Tapper, the winner of many journalism awards, was ABC's Senior White House Correspondent from 2008-2012. The son of a Jewish father and a mother who converted to Judaism, Tapper attended a Philadelphia Jewish Day School. His wife, too, is a Jew by Choice, and his sister, a Conservative rabbi, presided over his wedding.

Sadly, Tapper's early ratings are anemic. The Lead is informative, but it is traditional, middle-of-the-road reporting. Programs with hosts with a strong point of view, like those on MSNBC and Fox News, are crushing CNN in the ratings.

Comedian Bill Maher, 57, recently boiled down these facts on his HBO program with this wry comment: "For the Left, there is MSNBC; for the Right, there is Fox; for airport lounges, there is CNN."

CNN has a pattern of recruiting seasoned, quite competent journalists from another network and then has them do a "down-the-middle" newscast that ultimately fails. This is what happened to Paula Zahn, 57, and Campbell Brown, 44. Both were heralded when hired as CNN program hosts, and then quietly let go for tepid ratings.

Zahn and Brown were previously profiled in this column. Zahn, who isn't Jewish, was married to a Jewish businessman for twenty years and their children were raised Jewish.[1] Campbell converted to Judaism shortly before marrying her Jewish husband, former Bush Administration spokesperson Dan Senor, 41.

Tapper appears poised to follow Campbell and Zahn's CNN career arc and that's a shame. Apparently, CNN's sister station, CNN International, appeals to overseas viewers by being perceived as non-political, and CNN makes a lot of money from that channel. Management is reluctant to turn the US-based CNN into an opinionated channel lest they cause "brand confusion."

For what it's worth, my opinion is that CNN has to re-work their US-based station model and allow reporters like Tapper a lot more leeway to comment on traditionally gathered news items. These hosts don't have to be "red meat" commentators like Fox's Bill O'Reilly, 63. But, by now, it is painfully obvious they cannot succeed as bland news readers.

Jorel Rocks! (Prepare to Smile)

The basic information in the following column item about a bar mitzvah video was previously noted in the IFF Network Blog by InterfaithFamily's Benjamin Maron. But in case you missed that entry, I thought I'd mention it again, here. I've added the first half of the rave review that video got in The Wall Street Journal's blog.

This month, Toronto resident Jorel Hoffert is scheduled to have his bar mitzvah. In the words of The Wall Street Journal:

He conscripted his parents and grandparents to make a truly mind-blowing [bar mitzvah] video invitation, which has to be seen to be believed (and beloved). The video features young Hoffert throwing down serious East-West swag: Crooning a reskinned "Bohemian Rhapsody," showing off serious air-guitar and actual-piano chops, and finishing off with an epic Gangnam-style finale. And the lyrics are hilarious, with lines like "I'm half a Jew/Learned Hebrew/I'm half Asian and proud of that too."

The video has gotten over 500K views on YouTube and has turned Jorel Hoffert into a minor celebrity.


[1]Zahn and her husband, businessman Richard Cohen, filed for divorce in 2007, after 20 years of marriage. I previously noted in this column that there was talk of reconciliation. Well, that didn't work out and the couple finalized their divorce in 2010 or 2011.

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." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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