Posted by: cedarsurf | March 2, 2010

Fit What? Part 1

My sister was a tomboy, my goalie coach, a fastball pitcher and an athlete. She was
the first pick on the block when it came to choosing teams. Around 14, she began to wear hip huggers, smoke, hang out with girls interested in boys and began to downplay her interest in sports. I lost my first athletic influence and substituted a whole bunch of Canadian female track stars: Debbie Van Kiekebelt, Debbie Brill, Dianne Jones and Patty Loverock to name just a few. Track was raw and natural. The Olympics seemed the ultimate and adidas the connection to them. The shoes in the late ‘60s were available in three styles: ‘Gym’ at $6.99, ‘ROM’ at $14.99 and the lofty ersatz ‘Gold Mexicana’ at $24.95. I owned and worshipped a pair of ROM’s bought with paper route money.
These shoes made me, pigeon toed and all, an athlete.
In my neighbourhood there was a Math teacher, Mr. Levine. A smart man, who seemed to limit himself to classical music, marking papers and jogging, Mr. Levines’ wife, Freda had just begun work as a campaign manager for the Liberal party.
Mr. Levine’s jogs were the talk of a Jewish/Italian immigrant neighbourhood. Just what was this guy doing?
Mr. Levine’s first jogs were around the block. He wore sneakers, plaid shorts, and a defiant Pierre Trudeau — who was soon to become Prime Minister — chin. The brainy, Mr. Levine was pointing the way. The liberals were sweeping the nation and soon Governor General Roland Michener would be hopping and bopping in a track suit in the name of Participaction Fitness.
Further down our street were the Strauss boys, Danny and David. Their father, Maurice was a tailor from Belgium with a bald head, all thigh, bicep and smiles. Maurice was an Olympic weightlifter at the Macabiah Games: “The Jewish Olympics”. He would take Danny and David to the YMHA with him and they’d lift weights.
Early on my father had offered to take me to the ‘Y’ but it struck me as a damp hospital for old people with gas. There was an old guy in the locker room who’d terrorize you about using a lock, a towel and taking a shower before you went into the pool. There were these cots in tiny rooms you could sleep in after you took a “shvitz” – a sauna. (It was only later in life that I would grow to appreciate saunas-) The showers were moldy, the pool was all chlorine – the general feeling I got was one of being barefoot in a wet bathroom of toilets.
It wouldn’t be till I was a teen and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association had become the Jewish Community Centre that I became a regular.
As a youngster I was given a strong sense of being a Jew in sports – or at least it was imposed on me by both my parents and anti-Semites. Taking part in athletics was not something nice Jewish boys did One day when I was delivering the “anti-Semitic” Toronto Star David Strauss told me he had been to a hockey tryout. This was something I was interested in. I came home to tell my father about it. I don’t remember what equipment I used at that first tryout – but it couldn’t have been much. The tryout was at Woodbridge Arena, which at the time felt like a couple of hundred miles out of Toronto (maybe its downtown now, I don’t know).
I made the team. And that night my father, sister and I went to Soles sporting goods to buy goalie equipment. We would go ‘halves’ on all of the equipment. (This would be the case throughout my hockey days.)
Just a bit about the equipment – the blocker (non-glove hand) was made out of felt, my chest protector was a baseball bat catchers’. I wore used ‘forward’ skates (trying to suit my ankle mechanics to that of an obviously skating disabled other was a cruel form of torture and a first lesson learned-never buy your child used skates.) The team was Avenue Road Boys Sports Club and I would play with them for several years. The boys on the team I tried out for were 10 and I was 7. We were ‘Atoms,’ I believe. The next year David would move on and I stayed behind – the only Jew on the team. This would be the case throughout my minor hockey years. It was nothing I really thought about – but being a Jew and an outsider in sports was something that was reinforced in our home. Jewish athletes were identified and held up as examples. The shining example was Sandy Koufax the L.A. Dodger pitcher who didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur during the World Series. Move over Moses, now there was a mensch.
The incident that stands out in my mind was that of a stick-swinging fight between the Jew, Larry Zeidel and Eddie – Clear the Track-Shack. At the time Zeidel a marginal player was the only Jew in the sport that was my first passion-hockey. Shack was a bit of a doofus and a real crowd favourite. He was also illiterate: the anecdote about this being that he signed his contract with an ‘X’. I remember the picture in the ‘anti Semitic’ Star of blood rolling down both Zeidel’s and Shack’s face. Shack had apparently called Zeidel a “dirty-Jew.”
My father was of the opinion that the entire Leaf organization was anti-semitic. Conn Smythe, Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard will always be remembered by me -as reinforced by my father as anti-Semites. Needless to say, we were not Leaf fans. We did have Marlie tickets the junior hockey team) though and most Sundays after Hebrew school my father would pick us up and take us to the gardens. I remember Bobby Orr playing for the Oshawa Generals and squirming through listening to The Who sign See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me on the p.a. …this was obviously a dirty song and one I should not be listening to with my father.
In my childhood Toronto was not the multi cultural city that I return to (only occasionally) today. It was the Granite club-which didn’t allow Jews to join, the Leafs, Eaton’s – a wasp city.
I remember once coming back to my father’s car after a hockey practice to ask him what a ‘Christ Killer’ was. One of the Kettle boys had called me that. My father freaked out and we drove home in silence listening to the radio.
As I mentioned, my earliest inspirations of pure athletics were track stars (and Mr. Levine). In 1972 I watched the Munich Olympics with much interest. I’d call them my ‘first’ Olympics. ABC gave us its ‘up close and personal biographies’ of athletes. The thing I wanted to know most about these athletes was how they trained.
The next level of interest for me was athletic gear. What were the athletes wearing? And could I find it? Wearing the stuff would make me feel like an athlete. In the early ‘70s athletic gear was not mass marketed. My first tracksuit was an adidas. A stretchy nylon kind with a stirrup (which I found inexplicably stirring and sexy). I received the track suit for my bar mitzvah. The tracksuit was made in Germany.
In our family we were not allowed to buy German products. The only barely passable proviso was if it was made in ‘West’ Germany. My tracksuit was made in West Germany.
I’d watch the Munich Olympics in my West German adidas tracksuit. These were the games in which Germany would attempt to atone for its’ sins. The backdrop of forgiveness and reconciliation played upon our screens. I remember simply feeling bad that Germany’s history was a problem – as I was enjoying the games so much. Then, sometime in the middle of the games the Olympic village was raided and athletes held hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists. The games were suspended. It was then debated as to whether the games should continue or not. This took place during the high holidays and I remember Rabbi Erwin Shields of the Adath Israel congregation debating whether or not the games should go on. (I was quietly praying to a god whom I hadn’t paid much attention to up to this point-but there I was in shule-that the games should go on.) My father was of the opinion that Avery Brundage, at the time the president of the I.O.C was an anti-Semite and the games would be allowed to go on because Brundage wasn’t all that worked up about the Jews. The games went on.

Image from PLO Munich Masacre of 11 Israeli Athletes

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