You want chopped liver? They had chopped liver--good, but not as good as Mama's. You want corned beef? They had corned beef to die for. You want sports heroes? They had sports heroes. You want speeches? Oy vey, did they have speeches.
You want stereotypes? There were plenty at Saturday's Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Dinner of Champions at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville. The whole night was like a big family dinner, assuming you can fit a few hundred people in your dining room. But it was also a chance to say that the phrase "Jewish sports hero" is not an oxymoron.
"People don't associate Jews and their accomplishments with sports," said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, head of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac. "Part of what a night like this does is break down that stereotype. One of my favorite quotes is, 'Jews are just like everyone else, except more so.' "
More than 580 people attended the center's eighth annual awards dinner, which honored Wizards owner Abe Pollin, D.C. United soccer star Jeff Agoos, world-ranked tennis player Paul Goldstein and Redskins announcer Phil Hochberg. Former players such as college basketball great Larry "Tex" Silverman, baseball pros Jim Wexler and Marc Heyison and local tennis champ Fulton Liss were also inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Sports announcer Warner Wolf served as emcee for the dinner, which raised $100,000 for the center's summer sports program for disabled children.
But first, can we talk about the food?
"At Jewish affairs, the most important part is schmoozing," Weinblatt said. "And food would be a close second."
The party started with appetizers: not dinky little finger food, but kosher hot dogs with all the trimmings, knishes, great big fries and beer. "You know how, before you run a race, you have to stretch?" said mortgage banker Clark Goldstein between bites. "So consider the pre-meal hot dog the equivalent."
Then it was on to the gym, where blue and silver balloons danced over tables waiting with chopped liver, pickles and soft drinks. But wait! The buffet lines included freshly sliced corned beef, pastrami, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, meatballs and much, much more--all brought down from Ben's Best deli in Queens.
"I've been waiting for tonight," said Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. "This is one of my favorite nights of the year because of the food. The sports are great, the special-needs camp is great, but the food is outstanding."
Duncan confessed to a weakness for the dinner's corned beef, which brought back memories of college days in New York--and a taste he can't quite match in Montgomery County. "I've been dying for a good Jewish delicatessen in the area," he said--a statement sure to bring either howls of protest or hand-delivered sandwiches from local deli owners.
The honorees didn't get much chance to eat. They were too busy being congratulated and hugged by friends and fans gathered to honor them as both sports figures and Jewish role models. In a culture that emphasized intellectual and practical endeavors, there are very few Jewish athletes who've become household names like Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax.
"Traditionally, families pushed education, education, education," said Wexler, who dedicated his award to his mother and father, "who let me play 'little boy' games." It's not that Jewish athletes weren't talented, he said, citing the thousands of high school and college stars. "They had the abilities," he said. "They just didn't go into professional sports."
That's changing, said Paul Goldstein. The 23-year-old professional tennis player, now ranked 90th in the world, was raised and trained right here in Washington under the watchful but accepting eyes of his parents.
"One of the biggest challenges was striking a balance between my tennis, my academic and my social life," he said. His family encouraged all three; Goldstein played for Sidwell Friends and Stanford, and is now the highest-ranking player in the world with a college degree.
But what really attracted the inductees to last night's dinner was the center's summer program, which enables disabled kids to participate in sports and camping activities. Even a nice Catholic boy from the Kennedy family like Mark Shriver couldn't pass up this invitation: "The JCC runs a tremendous summer program, so you have to come out and support it."
It's pretty hard to resist a kid like 11-year-old Aaron Kaufman, who struggled to the stage in a walker and then charmed the crowd by introducing a fund-raising video with his imitation of Wolf: "I know it doesn't sound the same coming from me, but lets ro-lll the videotape!" At times, it was hard to decide who were the evening's biggest heroes. "We are surrounded by people who serve as an inspiration to us all," said dinner chairwoman Barbara Goldberg Goldman.
One thing for sure: This crowd adored Abe Pollin. The Wizards owner was first inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992; this year he received its first humanitarian award for his philanthropic work. "I think the whole thing's embarrassing," Pollin said. "I haven't done that much more than anyone else."
He gets a lot more awards than almost anyone else, too, and so has developed a few thoughts about acceptance speeches: "I had a friend who told me, 'I never heard a three-minute speech I didn't like.' So I try to keep it short and to the point."
Oh, Abe! If only the other honorees had listened to you. The speeches were heartfelt. Touching, with lots of stories and dedications to parents and children. But long. Wolf, grayer but still feisty and funny, tried to keep things moving.
"Our first inductee couldn't be with us tonight . . . because he knew how long this event was going to be," he cracked.
Actually, Agoos was on his way to victory in the soccer playoffs and couldn't attend. He sent a nice, short taped thank-you instead. Liss, on the other hand, thanked his dad, his son, his fiancee, his pals . . . a few people woke up from catnaps and found him still onstage. After he sat down, Wolf couldn't resist: "Fulton, there's two guys outside you forgot to mention."
Ah, but it was still a sweet night. Like a family dinner: too much talking, too much food, but nice. Then everyone went home to sleep off the corned beef.