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The most notable happening in the pro wrestling realm of late was smashed flat by the Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone to-do on pay-per-view. But you should forget that silly set piecethe real news is Goldberg.
Last week in Atlanta, Goldbergjust plain Goldbergused his signature closing move, the jackhammer, on Hulk Hogan to wrest the World Championship Wrestling title from everybody’s favorite steroidal Aryan.
A Jewish pro wrestling champion? Oy, now that’s man bites dog.
Goldberg is the real surname of the 31-year-old, Oklahoma-born former football player. Before he began jackhammering people for a living, he had a few cups of coffee in the NFL as defensive lineman Bill Goldberg. At the start of his ring career, Goldberg considered a few nicknamesHybrid and the Mossad among thembut ultimately went with the one on his birth certificate. (Earlier this year, Goldberg dropped the first name, as Ric Flair would say, like third-period French.)
Though ethnic caricatures get flung around the pro wrestling world as surely as artificially tanned bodies get tossed around the ring, Goldberg hasn’t really flaunted his Jewishness along the way to the belt. The son of Jed Goldberg, a Harvard-educated doctor, and Ethel Goldberg, a former violinist with the Tulsa symphony, has never worn a yarmulke into the ring or stitched a Star of David into his tights.
But even without the religious iconography, it’s taken less than a year for him to become a very big deal in some quarters of the Jewish community. And now that the 6-foot-3-inch, 283-pound Goldberg stands atop the WCWthe Atlanta-based king of pro wrestling organizationshe’s only going to get bigger.
“Goldberg is very significant. There is deep meaning here,” says Seth Gitell, the Washington-based national editor of the Forward, a New York weekly for and about Jews. “So often Jews are thought of in exclusively intellectual terms. This is different.”
Last month, Gitell’s paper published a story by reporter Blake Eskin on the Jewish wrestler, in which Goldberg’s success in wrestling was put forth, tongue not fully in cheek, as a cultural anomaly similar to Tiger Woods’ in golf. And the fact that Goldberg can use his very ethnic handle without having to play some cartoonish Hebrew character for the fans is further evidence of progress, the writer argues.
But it’s the sporting side of Goldberg’s rise that is the most entertaining. OK, you say, it’s only pro wrestling, not a real sportnot outside the trailer park, anyway. And Jews are the first to admit that Goldberg or no Goldberg, pro wrestling is still regarded by most inside the temple as a “goys-will-be-goys” pastime.
But after taking so many punch lines that mock their athletic prowess (the bit about a book on famous Jewish athletes being the thinnest book available was a highlight/lowlight of the movie Airplane!), some Jews are ready to take their sports heroes anywhere they can get them.
Heck, they took a converted Rod Carew. They’ll surely take Goldberg.
Since Goldberg won his WCW title, the Forward offices have been deluged with calls and letters from excited readers across the country, including some from rabbis who want to know how they can use Goldberg to rouse their flocks from a cultural sleeper hold.
Gitell, for one, considered himself a jock, and even something of a rasslin’ fan, long before Goldberg ever jackhammered anybody. But the ascendance of a fellow Jew put his love of the sport over the top rope.
“To see Goldberg out there is personally inspiring to me,” says Gitell. “When someone triumphs on a level that is solely physical and athletic, there’s a special pride, something that appeals to the Jewish male. There’s also something to the way he’s doing itnot really playing up that he’s a Jew, not denying it, just being, well, normalthat is symbolic that Jews in America are now as normal as they have ever been, anywhere in world history. I really mean that.”
The burgeoning Goldberg phenomenon makes perfect sense to Lisa Rubin. Rubin is assistant director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum on Rhode Island Avenue, where later this year the Jewish American Sports Hall of Fame will open. (Rubin swears the Hall’s new exhibition won’t fit in a broom closet.)
“That stereotype, of ‘Jewish athlete’ being almost an oxymoron, that’s really the springboard for the Hall of Fame,” says Rubin. “That’s what we want to overcome.”
Kevin Heilbronner loves the fact that Goldberg is
jackhammering the stereotype. Heilbronner, a local pro wrestling promoter who happens to be Jewish, says he
grew up wishing he had more tribesmen to root for than
the occasional Sandy Koufax.
But Heilbronner says he knows where the blame lies for the lack of a Hebrew presence in the squared circle and everywhere else on the sporting scene. And he’s not looking outside the family tree.
“I blame it on Jewish mothers,” says Heilbronner. “When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to play hockey. I wanted to play hockey. Why wouldn’t she let me play hockey?”
Heilbronner’s mom probably didn’t want him rasslin’, either.
But, for better or worse, Goldberg will change that for future generations. Along the way, however, there will be victims. Jewish victims.
“You go to any Jewish summer camp this year,” Gitell says, “and you’re going to have some kid pretending he’s Goldberg, body-slamming all the other kids into the lake.”