The Ba’al Guf and the Ba’al Teshuva
A promotional flier announced the evening’s subject as “Super Bowl to Super Jew.” There was truth in that advertising. Mr. Veingrad goes these days by his Hebrew name, Shlomo. He wore a black skullcap and the ritual fringes called tzitzit; he wore the Super Bowl ring he won in 1992 with the Dallas Cowboys and the Rolex watch that was a gift from Emmitt Smith, the team’s star running back.
Within his 6-foot-5 frame, Mr. Veingrad embodies two Jewish archetypes that do not often meet. He is the ba’al guf, the Jewish strongman, and the ba’al teshuva, the returnee to the faith. While two Jewish boxers on the scene now — Yuri Foreman and Dimitriy Salita — also are prominently observant, Mr. Veingrad may well be the only Orthodox athlete from the United States’ hugely popular team sports.
“I believe I played in the N.F.L. and have that ring so I can share my story with other Jews,” Mr. Veingrad, 46, said shortly before the U.S.C. event.
During it, he told a spellbound capacity audience, “The Torah is a playbook for how someone can live their life.”
Sports, America and the Golus Yid
For Jews, abundant as fans but uncommon as top players, the visibility of a Shlomo Veingrad serves both reassuring and cathartic roles. Having a Jew to root for — whether Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax or the Israeli N.B.A. rookie Omri Casspi — “has a lot to do with our desire to define ourselves as Americans in the most American way, which is sports,” said Jeffrey S. Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and the author of “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports.”
At a deeper and more anxious level, American Jews continue to grapple with the stereotypical view of the Jew as egghead, nerd, weakling. That dismissive portrayal was a staple not only of anti-Semites, but also of early Zionists, who envisioned their “new man” with his plow and rifle as the antidote to the “golus Yid,” the exilic Jew unable even to defend himself.
“I don’t think those feelings are as conscious as in prior generations, but they still have some resonance,” Professor Gurock said in a telephone interview. “So there’s a residual pride of someone achieving in this very secular world of sports.”
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