The previous week was somewhat challenging for me in terms of organization. I have a decent amount of secondary sources (10 book titles, multiple journal articles) that provide important information on specific areas of my project, but I’ve had trouble combining them to produce coherent, interesting ideas. For example, Peter Levine’s Ellis Island to Ebbets Field contributes a lot about American Jews and sports in the early 20th century, while Stark’s The SPHAS traces the history of the SPHAS as a team. Although both works are illuminating on their own, I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to discuss the SPHAS within the context of the leading scholarship on sports and Jews in America.
In order to break through this roadblock, I intend to zero in on a particular time in Jewish basketball history. Inspired by Ari Sclar’s work on New York’s 92nd Street YMHA (Young Man’s Hebrew Association), I plan on spending more time looking into the SPHAS break from their neighborhood YMHA. As highlighted by Sclar, the New York YMHA became concerned with basketball’s role in facilitating “unsavory” activities, such as fighting and gambling, in the early 20th century. I’m interested in finding out whether a similar debate occurred within the Philadelphia basketball community, and, if so, how it impacted the SPHAS.
Hopefully Temple’s “Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia” records, within the Jewish Archives Collection, will be able to shed some light on the SPHAS split with their local YMHA. Specifically, Ill be looking at a collection titled “Basketball League Meeting Minutes,” which spans the years 1922 to 1936. I think the split, and its potential results, could act as a catalyst for pushing my paper in a new, more focused direction.
In order to prepare for this week’s historiography assignment, I spent time figuring out what exactly has been said about Jewish basketball in Philadelphia in the past. Since the topic is pretty narrow, it was initially hard to get a broad picture of dominant questions and arguments within the field. However, rather than zero in on Jewish basketball specifically, I decided to expand my secondary source range to the broader topic of Jewish sports in America. Surprisingly, a fair amount of literature exists, mostly authored by scholars of history and/or religion. The Jewish athletic historiography is not huge, but comprehensive enough to include differing focuses and opinions.
Harold Ribalow’s The Jew in American Sports, Jeffrey Gurock’s Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports, and Steven A. Riess’s Sports and the American Jeware three works I came across in the past two weeks that have contributed a lot to my research. Although I still intend to focus on Philadelphia’s Jewish basketball history, expanding the source material has helped advance my research. Many in the field tie athletic participation to ideals of assimilation and belonging, which is what I initially tended to study. As of now, I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to put together the expanded literature with the history of the SPHAS, but hopefully I’ll be able to match events and trends identified in Jewish American sports history with the chronology of the team.
Following this week’s individual meetings, I looked into the work of Jewish historian Harry Boonin. Boonin’s book, The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia, focuses on the development and dissolution of a Jewish neighborhood in Old City Philadelphia between roughly 1880 and 1930. The Jewish Quarter was originally composed of Eastern European Jews who lived in poverty and worked long hours in crowded sweatshops. However, Jewish Quarter residents began to advance in the garment industry and migrated to surrounding outskirts and suburbs by the early twentieth century. Boonin argues that this advancement, combined with legal restrictions on Eastern European immigration, led to the collapse of the Jewish Quarter by 1924.
Boonin’s Jewish Quarter provides important information on not only Philadelphia Jewish history, but how the City’s Jewish population changed (socially and geographically) over time. The book coincides directly with the heyday of the SPHAS, who were active between 1917 and 1958, but experienced the most success and notoriety during the 1930s. Boonin’s work also adds another layer to the story of Philadelphia Jewish basketball, as it illustrates the environment and community structure from which most players, coaches, and managers came. Although Boonin is not specifically focused on basketball or athletics in general, I think his work will serve as valuable secondary source material for the final paper.
In addition to Boonin’s book, I also read an article published by Professor Rebecca Alpert, titled “Social Justice, Sport and Judaism: A Position Statement.” While the piece is thematically focused on the application of Jewish theological values to competitive sports, Professor Alpert makes the argument that basketball, more than any other sport, allowed American Jews to participate in American culture without abandoning religious connections. Although this sub-thesis makes up only a small section of Alpert’s article, the SPHAS are used as an example of a team that retained their Jewishness while adapting to American life. I plan on reaching out to Professor Alpert this week with a few questions about why basketball, in particular, allowed for this unique situation and to find out more about how teams like the SPHAS countered the popular stereotype of the weak, uncoordinated diaspora Jew.
Following the session in the library’s Special Collections Research Center I started to think more about the primary sources I want to use in my paper. Prior to the session I was somewhat nervous about how and where I would gather primary sources, as the preliminary searches I made didn’t turn up much. However, I’ve spent some time using the finding aids tool on the Special Collections website and found a collection of pictures from a former Philadelphia YMHA basketball coach, a record of Jewish community centers that includes basketball game logs, and an archive of the Philadelphia Jewish Times, a newspaper that covered Jewish basketball between 1949 and 1973.
Originally I planned on relying on Philadelphia Inquirer historical records as a major primary source bank for my project. Finding new non-Inquirer sources encouraging, as I honestly was not sure what kind of primary source material would exist for such a specific topic. Additionally, Audrey provided a really helpful journal article in her peer review, titled Social Justice, Sport and Judaism: A Position Statement. The article explores Jewish responses to anti-Semitism through athletics (and specifically discusses the SPHAS), and was written by Temple professor Rebecca Alpert. I’m excited about Social Justice, Sport and Judaism, as it examines Jewish involvement in sports in a way that I hope to emulate.
This week I focused on establishing a more detailed background about Jewish basketball in Philadelphia in order to develop a solid research question. So far, my main questions revolve around why Jews gravitated toward basketball, how their participation reflected their status in the city, and why their connection to the game eventually dissipated. Although I’m still attempting to understand the full chronology of my topic (in terms of when major changes occurred), I think focusing on the first half of the 20thcentury seems to be a good time period. Additionally, I spent time seeking out new secondary sources. The two I’m most excited about are Voices from Marshall Street, which explores the history of a Philadelphia Jewish neighborhood between 1920 and 1960, and Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience.
In addition to solidifying a research question, the progress I’ve made this past week will help to tie somewhat disparate sources together. As I noted in my research proposal, I’ve found some good books (and a few journal articles) on either Jewish life in Philadelphia or Jewish participation in sports, but not many sources tie the two together. Douglas Stark’s The SPHASacted as the starting point for my research, but I want to avoid becoming overly-reliant on his work. Instead, I hope to continue searching for specialized sources and synthesizing them to form a cohesive picture of Philadelphia’s Jewish basketball history.
As of week 3, the sources I’ve found are helping to continue move my research along. For this coming week I hope to set up an appointment with the Temple’s Philadelphia Jewish Archives collection to search for more information. At this point I think I have enough information about the key figures and locations of my topic to find at least a few interesting primary source pieces.
So far, the most helpful source I’ve turned to is a book on Jewish basketball in the interwar years titled The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team (Stark, Temple University Press 2011). The book provides a chronological account of Jewish basketball in 20thcentury Philadelphia and explains the roles of pivotal team members, managers, and coaches. While the first few chapters primarily focus on the establishment and maintenance of the SPHAS, later chapters detail the social and cultural implications of basketball’s importance to Philadelphia area Jews. Chapter 7, “Saturday Night SPHAS Habit,” explores basketball as an activity capable of uniting a group that often felt alienated and removed from mainstream society. Additionally, chapter 10, “Basketball and War,” describes the struggle of maintaining the SPHAS as a team during World War II, as well as the postwar rise in basketball’s national popularity. Although The SPHAShas contributed a broad overview on the evolution and decline of basketball as a Jewish sport centered in Philadelphia, I’ve turned to digitally archived Philadelphia Inquirer issues for primary source information. Many Inquirer articles published throughout the SPHAS existence (1918-1959) simply report scores with a brief write-up of the game, making it hard to uncover any thematically important anecdotes. In terms of newspaper articles, I will likely have to continue combing through articles to find longer, more in-depth information about the team and its role in Philadelphia Jewish life. The image attached is a typical box score/game summary from an April 12, 1942 edition of the Inquirer.
My name is Jonathan and I’m a senior planning to graduate in May. I entered Temple as a political science major but decided to add history as a second major after taking an introductory American history elective during my sophomore year. In political science I’m particularly interested in the intersection of media and politics, which I explored in my junior Research Prep seminar (Media and Politics in American Society). Additionally, I like to follow local politics in and around Philadelphia, although I’ve never taken a course in this area. Within history I’ve really enjoyed the U.S. history courses I’ve taken (U.S. History to 1877, U.S. History since 1877, Early U.S. History 1787-1846), the Vietnam War, and Jewish Power and Powerlessness in America. Jewish Power and Powerlessness sparked my interest in Jewish American history, specifically in regard to the ways in which American Jews have related to Israel since the State’s formation in 1948. In terms of career goals, I’m not entirely sure what I’d like to do but I definitely want to find something that allows me to combine my interests in politics and history.
For my capstone project I would like to explore Philadelphia’s Jewish history. Despite being home to over 200,000 Jews, Philadelphia receives little mainstream attention compared to New York’s much larger Jewish population. I’m particularly interested in the place Jews occupy in society in terms of class and race, and how they have (or have not) assimilated into American society. Within this broad topic, I would like to find out more about the historical relationship between Jews and non-Jews within the city, and whether this relationship skews toward either inter-group solidarity or isolation. Although Philadelphia possesses one of the oldest operational synagogues in America (congregation Mikveh Israel), I would like to focus on the period of time ranging from the conclusion of World War II to the present. However, I hope to narrow this time period down as I progress in my research.