Bear Down, Jewish Fans Of The Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears have one of the largest Jewish fan bases in the NFL. We look into why that is. Read More

By / January 19, 2011

As Marc Tracy pointed out yesterday at Tablet, I am part of the Chicago Bears Jewish fanbase.  And thanks to Marc’s post, my mom can now say that my name came up in her Google alerts for both “Chicago Bears” and “Jewish,” fulfilling two dreams she never thought would come true.

Tracy also points out that The Bears are also the team left in the playoffs with the largest Jewish fanbase.  He’s right.

Of course the Jets are a New York team that plays in New Jersey.  That means they’ve got not only the Upper West Side covered, but probably really Jewy places like Cherry Hill and Teaneck.

I don’t think that matters, and I’m here to back up Tracy’s assertion with the following:

Sid Luckman, the greatest Jewish football player ever, played on the Chicago Bears from 1939 to 1950.  When you really take into consideration the period’s rabid anti-Semitism, no other Jewish athlete – save for Hank Greenberg in baseball – was as much of a sports hero to the Jews as Luckman during that time.

Luckman and the Bears revolutionized the game of football with the famous T-formation. They’d go on to win several championships, and Luckman would set records that still haven’t been broken.

Luckman’s influence on the game hasn’t been forgotten, and his impact on Chicago Jews who were lucky enough to see him play is a lasting memory for many of them.   In an essay I’d been writing on Jewish culture in Chicago in the 20th Century, I was surprised at how many people I interviewed chose to talk about Luckman instead of the city’s perpetually awful baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. [I also count myself among the many people who love the perpetually awful Cubs]

Proximity did help the Bears capture the hearts of Windy City Jews.  For nearly 50 years – until 1971 – the Bears shared the Wrigley Field with the Cubs.  This coincided with the period when there was a massive influx of Jews from the West Side to the North Side neighborhoods of Rogers Park, Uptown, and then the eventual flight to the near-north suburbs of Evanston and Skokie.

While Chicago stadiums don’t boast much Kosher food, like New York or Los Angeles, the local Vienna Beef Company was founded by Jews, and offered a pork-free wiener that was readily available at Wrigley Field.

The fertile period also kept fans close to another Chicago Jewish landmark: Ashkenaz Restaurant and Delicatessen.  After a Bears game, it was normal to see bar mitzvah boys, just out of Sunday Hebrew school, maybe sitting next to Pulitzer Prize winning writers like Studs Terkel or Ira Berkow.

The Bears have had the most ambiguously Jewish roster in the history of football. You can’t fault someone for thinking current kicker Robbie Gould is, and yes, we even thought Rex Grossman was, but he turned out to be a false messiah of the worst kind. And if you ask any Chicago fan, Mike Ditka may not be Jewish, but in their eyes, he transcends all religions.  The same goes for legends like Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, Richard Dent and Gale Sayers; as well as guys from the current roster like Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester, Jay Cutler.  All of them would be welcomed into any shul in the Chicagoland area.

And if they beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, and make it to the Super Bowl, who am I to argue they aren’t also the chosen ones?

[Update: After a 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the fans of the Chicago Bears –both Jewish and non– will wander in the desert for another year.]