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Goldberg: A David in Goliath's Shoes

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 1999; Page C01

With the advent of Hanukah, a time when Jews celebrate an ancient triumph over menacing adversaries, it's worth noting a grand historic coincidence: One of the most celebrated American Jews at the moment is a guy who also specializes in kicking goyishe tuchas. Bill Goldberg makes his living spearing other large men with his bullet-shaped head, lifting them bodily, and slamming them upside down. His work uniform is a ferocious scowl and a pair of black spandex briefs.

This guy is Jewish?

Goldberg--just one name only, please--is the star attraction of World Championship Wrestling, one of two wrestling circuits that have rocketed in popularity over the past few years. A hulking (6 feet 4, 285 pounds), neckless, rippling son of Jacob, Goldberg has triumphed (thanks to the WCW's carefully choreographed scripts) in dozens of matches against the likes of Hulk Hogan and Diamond Dallas Page. In wrestling industry parlance, he is a "baby face," a good guy who whups the "heels," or villains.

He is also, as his name makes plain, a Jew. This striking fact hasn't been lost on wrestling fans, who often greet his appearances with signs bearing the Star of David and messages like "Shalom," or "Goldberg, a Nice Jewish Boy."

To many Jews, Goldberg has become a latter-day Sandy Koufax or Mark Spitz, a visible success in a field in which Jews--at least identifiable ones--haven't succeeded before. His rise has been enthusiastically chronicled in the Jewish media, drawing appreciative reviews across the United States, Canada and Israel.

He is also, it seems, a metaphor in tights.

Some Jews see Goldberg as a strapping symbol of acceptance, a breakthrough figure in the 400-year history of Jews in America. "Is it good for the Jews?" asks Rabbi Charles Sherman, echoing an ages-old question. "I think the answer is yes."

Sherman, who presided at Goldberg's bar mitzvah at Temple Israel in Tulsa 20 years ago, says, "This is not the cerebral-student-image stereotype of Jews. For me, as a teacher of Judaism, anything that undercuts stereotypes and makes people understand that Jews come in all sizes, shapes, interests and abilities is good."

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin sees Goldberg as a more overtly powerful figure, both literally and figuratively, than Koufax or Spitz. Salkin, the author of "Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World," looks upon the wrestler's muscular exploits as the antithesis of Jewish victimhood, as a fine analogue of Israel's formidable military strength. "The symbolism," he says, "is that we as Jews are not only wedded to the Word or the marketplace, but that we use our bodies."

He adds, however, that Goldberg is not a perfect role model: "Yes, he shows Jewish capability and normalcy. But he runs the danger of showing that Jews are capable of great brutality as well. That's the double dance. We want to be normal, but not normal [in unsavory ways]. The Jewish role is to uplift society, not to dip down into its abyss." (He's also got a bit of a problem with Goldberg's tattoo. Jewish law prohibits disfiguring the body.)

Son of a Harvard-educated obstetrician and a concert violinist, Goldberg, 32, was a star defensive tackle on the University of Georgia football team during the late 1980s. He played for three years in the NFL, with the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams, before a torn stomach muscle ended his football career. His rise as a wrestler has been stunningly swift: Goldberg made his debut just over two years ago, and was a leading light within weeks.

Both Sherman and Salkin say it is significant that Goldberg didn't change his family name. For earlier generations of Jews, adopting an Anglicized name was the price of mainstream acceptance. To some extent, it remains true: magician David Copperfield was born David Kotkin, Winona Horowitz became Winona Ryder, and Barry Alan Pincus is now better known as Barry Manilow (pro wrestlers Dean Malenko and the Raven, a k a Scott Levy, are also Jewish).

"When you go into an arena to watch him, as I did in Denver, and hear people chanting 'Gold-berg! Gold-berg!' it's a profound thing," says Rabbi Irwin Kula, head of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York and a Goldberg family friend. "Here, the Jew is no longer the victim. He can stand out, in the middle of the ring, fully exposed, and people know this is a Jew." To hear gentiles applauding a Jew who uses power "affirms that America is a fundamentally different, fundamentally accepting place."

Goldberg said yesterday that he never thought about hiding his family name or religious affiliation. "The stupidest question I get is 'Is Goldberg your real name?' " he says. "I tell people, 'No, my real name is Killer, but I wanted a much more menacing name, so I picked Goldberg.' "

In fact, Goldberg briefly considered using the stage name "Mossad," after Israel's secret service, but rejected it ("People might think it's a militant group or something") in favor of his own. Like Koufax, who famously refused to pitch in a World Series game on the sacred Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, Goldberg recently declined to wrestle on Rosh Hashana, another High Holy Day.

"I had three intentions when I became a wrestler," he says. "One was to keep my integrity. Two was to give pro wrestling a more respectable image. And three was to be a role model to Jewish kids, who may not have thought they could do what I do. I've got a lot of people I'm carrying on my back, but it's a light load because I take a lot of pride in who I am and where I came from."

What may be most extraordinary about his rise is how infrequently his Jewishness is remarked upon in wrestling circles. His religious background isn't mentioned in his official WCW biography, and it's never come up during WCW matches carried on TV, according to Wade Keller, longtime editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch, a newsletter. Goldberg says fans mention it now and then (one wished him a happy Hanukah weeks before Hanukah started) but he cannot recall a single instance of antisemitism in the ring or around it.

It's not lost on both Jewish observers and academics that professional wrestling traffics in myth--good guys, bad guys, honor, redemption. But they also note its more contemporary role as masculine melodrama, "reflecting the preoccupations and tensions of the social canvas," as Bernard Beck, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, terms it.

As such, race and ethnicity have played important parts in pro wrestling since at least the 1950s, says Henry Jenkins, a media studies professor at MIT. Multiracial tag-team pairings began soon after the civil rights era of the 1960s, he says. Wrestlers like Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd and Bobo Brazil were early African American favorites, Bruno Sammartino was a hero among Italian Americans, and Pedro Morales was embraced as an idol by his fellow Puerto Rican Americans. Depending on the political climate of the moment, Russian, Asian and Arab characters have been cast as "heels."

"Does [Goldberg's popularity] suggest we've gotten over antisemitism? That's an optimistic reading," says Jenkins. "Does it mean he's marked as the little guy who wins? He's so big and muscle-bound that it's hard to argue that."

Instead, Jenkins thinks Goldberg's rise might say something about other immigrant groups' relationship to the mainstream. "As more exotic groups come to America, as society creates more extreme cultural difference, the Jewish-gentile difference seems less and less important," he says. "People are going to school now with Africans, people from India, Malaysia, what have you. This [a Jewish wrestler] just isn't very exotic."

For some, the most interesting chapter for Goldberg may still lie ahead. What happens, some Jews ask, when--or if--the WCW decides to transform him from "baby face" to "heel?" In the Jewish Exponent early this year, columnist Jonathan S. Tobin commented that if that happened, "I don't doubt that a portion of the Jewish community would be up in arms over the 'antisemitic' nature of the wrestling tour."

The role model, in a new role? It might be the best test of Bill Goldberg, and America, yet.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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