Arts & Culture

The Protocols: Are Jews to Aquatics what African-Americans are to Basketball?

I’m sorry. I really am. I had an entirely different column outlined for this week, all about interpreting the book and recent film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited through the lens of the twentieth century American Jewish experience (the striving, the … Read More

By / August 13, 2008

I’m sorry. I really am. I had an entirely different column outlined for this week, all about interpreting the book and recent film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited through the lens of the twentieth century American Jewish experience (the striving, the trying to fit in with people who don’t really see you as an equal, the getting by on sheer talent, the masochistic self-loathing); a piece of literary criticism that would have surely made the genteelly anti-Semitic Evelyn Waugh (who for years was desperately, unrequitedly in love with the notorious Diana Mitford Mosley, Britain’s most glamorous Nazi) turn in his grave. It was going to have a beginning, middle and end; it would have had a coherent thesis and concluding statement.

But that was before the Olympics melted my analytic mind, turning it into a messy, manic carnival of nationalistic synapses. And now, I’m too excited to write (or even think) about anything else.

Specifically, about anything but the Men’s 4×100 meter freestyle final on Monday, where the team of Michael Phelps, Garret Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, and Jason Lezak pulled out a gold medal win in what commentators are already terming one of the most spectacular Olympic races ever and bested the heavily favored French, who had been the very picture of snide Gallic arrogance in the days leading up to the race, talking what the American team delicately referred to as “stuff” to whomever would take dictation.

“We will smash the Americans,” declared world record holder Alain Bernard. “It’s what we came for.”

I don’t think I have to recount what happened, except that for once the commentators were right. I was jumping up and down in my living room, screaming my head off (albeit silently, like an actor in a piece of embarrassingly emotive experimental theater, so as not to wake up the baby that lives next door and condemn myself to a week of elevator harassment from said baby’s parents), as Jason Lezak surged on the anchor leg, completing the fastest 100 meter relay split of all time and dispatching the boastful Bernard with an expert touch of the wall. On the deck, Michael Phelps let out a primal scream of victory, his giant arms bulging before him. In my apartment, the phone started to ring like crazy.

“They did it!” I screamed, before the person on the other end could speak. “They did it, they did it, they did it!”

“I know!” My mother shouted back. “And they’re Jews!”

“Who?” I said, momentarily disoriented.

“Jason Lezak!” she shrieked. “And the other one, with the hyphen. Weber something”

There was a rustle as my father wrested the phone from my mother’s hand. My father was up past 9:30 on a Sunday night? This was an historic event.

“Amazing!” he cried, hysterical with glee. “They showed those frogs who’s boss!”

My father despises the French for the Dreyfus Affair, the absence of vegetarian options on their menus, and the fact that the intricacies of their language were responsible for the only “B” of his high school career, although not necessarily in that order. When I pointed out to him that Thomas Jefferson, one of his great heroes, was a committed Francophile, he simply sniffed: “Well. I guess they never made him pay to sit on a public park bench.”

“What a team!” Truly, my father was in raptures. “Two Jews, a black guy, and a porpoise. That’s America! I love this country!”

After a few more such platitudes, I hung up the phone. I still was too wound up from the race to go to sleep, so I did a little research on the swimmers in question. It’s true. Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale are indeed M.O.T.’s, as are Ben Wildman-Tobriner, part of the world record breaking team in the preliminary 4×100 freestyle, and Dara Torres, who at 41 is the oldest ever American female swimmer to participate in the Olympics (the 2008 Games are her 5th.) And let’s not forget the legendary Mark Spitz, the one who started it all, whose record seven gold medals in a single Games Michael Phelps looks likely to surmount.

So all this begs the question: Is swimming our sport? Are Jews to aquatics what African-Americans are to basketball? Is there something about us that makes us great swimmers? Lung capacity? Discipline? Our traditional love of fish?

An hour later, after delving a little further into the backgrounds of our newly minted aquatic heroes (and having crossed over into full-blown insomnia) I thought I had the answer. Jews are good at swimming for the same reason I used to be good at giving hand jobs.


I even learned that Garrett Weber-Gale had also attended a Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin; had perhaps swum in the same lake where I contracted the swimmer’s itch that sent me to the infirmary for a record three days. I am deeply honored to have shared a parasite with this newly minted Olympic champion.

African-American basketball greats hone their skills in neighborhood pick-up games. Countless soccer greats first learned to play in the favelas of Brazil. American Jewish kids get shipped off to denominational sleep-away camp for two months every summer (two months! An eternity!) and are made to swim. And swim. And swim. At my camp, it was the only activity that was strictly mandatory. Horseback riding you could skip, tennis was optional—you could even get out of the song sessions after every meal if you were inconspicuous and/or good at faking a severe stomach cramp. But swimming—no way. I still shudder at the memory of suiting up three times a day—once for the morning Polar Bear session, a dip in freezing water at the crack of dawn; the morning training lessons, when campers would be sorted according to ability and forced to perform feats of endurance, and the free swim in the afternoon, a feat of Darwinian survival when lesser specimens would be dunked, pushed, and held under water for terrifying lengths of time by their evolutionary betters.

Swimming was a pragmatic solution to several problems. On the days when we weren’t being drenched in torrential rainfall, the weather was unbearably hot, and a cold dip was a good way to cool down. Swimming was also physically exhausting. Force a bunch of rowdy campers into the water three times a day, and they were going to be good and tired by night, enabling their teenage minders to smoke cigarettes and go on beer runs without fear of waking them. Also, swimming is not a contact sport, with the rate of serious injury almost non-existent (unless somebody drowns, but that’s another story.) Even the kid with the glass eye could go swimming. When the orthodontia is safe, the Jewish mothers breathe a sigh of relief.

But after all those years of camp and lessons and Polar Bears, I still can barely swim to save my life–and I mean that in the most literal way. So what do I know?

I watched the medal ceremony again when I woke up the morning after the race. I watched our four swimmers on the podium as the American flag was raised and the anthem played. And I was filled with pride—not just for the two men on the podium who shared my religion; but for my country. Our internal divisions aside, the United States may be the only nation where two Jews, a black guy, and a porpoise can share a winning podium in front of the whole world. So maybe Jews are good at swimming, I thought. Who cares? So what? So maybe African-Americans are good at Track and Field, and Chinese are good at gymnastics, and Greek billionaire orphans are good at the Equestrian stuff. So what? Don’t call me anymore to tell me who is Jewish, Mom! That’s not what the Olympics are about! The Olympics are about putting what divides us aside and celebrating what we are together. It’s not about being Jewish, or black, or a Greek billionaire orphan* or even part Porpoise, but American. And Human! Morgan Freeman says so, in that Nike commercial!

We are all humans at the Olympics, I thought blearily, near psychotic from lack of sleep. And if the French, or any Europeans for that matter, are mad at the nice Jewish boys who just won the 4×100 meter freestyle, well maybe they should have been a little bit more hospitable to us 100 years ago.

And with that final defiant sentiment, I fell at last into bed.

* Athina Roussel, granddaughter of Aristotle Onassis and the Greek billionaire orphan to whom I am referring is not strictly American.