Joseph Aaron: Jewish women and sports: Chicago filmmaker’s inspiring new documentary

Jewish women and sports: Chicago filmmaker’s inspiring new documentary

By Joseph Aaron (09/07/2007)

It’s an old joke based on an old stereotype. What’s the shortest book ever written? “Jews and Sports.”

Jews, so the cliche goes, are the people of the book, not the basketball court or Olympic track. And that’s especially true of Jewish women, who, as the stereotype would have it, says Chicago filmmaker Shuli Eshel, “are all Jewish mothers who care only about raising their children to be lawyers and doctors, and for whom sports is the last thing on their minds.”

It was to “shatter that stereotype” that motivated Eshel to make her new documentary, “Jewish Women in American Sport: Settlement Houses to the Olympics,” which will have its Chicago premiere at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Sunday, Sept. 16.

Eshel is an award-winning producer and director of a number of documentaries on a wide variety of topics. Perhaps best known to Chicagoans is her film “Maxwell Street: A Living Memory,” which tells the story of the once famous Chicago market created by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many of her films have focused on women because, says Eshel, “my activism as a feminist has been the driving force in selecting the subjects of my films.” So dedicated is Eshel to women’s issues that when she was living in Israel, she ran for the Knesset on the Women’s Party ticket. (She dropped out when the party needed someone to make their TV commercials and Eshel decided “I would rather use film to influence peoples’ thinking than be a politician.”)

Her latest project began when she was approached by Linda Borish, a professor at Western Michigan University who has written extensively about Jewish women in American sports and wondered if Eshel would be interested in making a film about what she had learned. Much to her surprise, Eshel discovered that no one had ever done a film on the topic. And so, as “someone who has always been an advocate of Jewish issues and of women’s issues,” Eshel decided to make the film. She, Borish and Chicago journalist Roger Schatz co-wrote the script. Sharon Karp served as the film’s editor. In all, Eshel would devote about three years to the project. First, she had to find out if there was enough archival footage available, a key to making a good documentary, she says. She found there “was not a lot, but enough.” From there, it was traveling to several places in the United States, Israel and Mexico to interview as many Jewish women as possible who had been involved in sports in the early days. Using Borish’s research as a guide, she was also assisted in her voyage by historian Hasia Diner and by Steven Riess, a sports expert and professor at Chicago’s Northeastern University. What she found was women who had to overcome ethnic and gender constraints, women who “changed American society.” Women who started out in the settlement houses of the 1880s, where new immigrants were taught American skills, and who would go on to compete at the highest levels, including the Olympics, with some winning gold medals, including Lillian Copeland who won the gold in discus at the 1932 games, setting a world’s record. One of the most remarkable women Eshel discovered was Charlotte “Eppie” Epstein, an immigrant who founded the Women’s Swimming Association in New York back in 1917, and whose determined advocacy convinced the U.S. Olympic committee to allow both Jewish and non-Jewish women to compete in Olympic swimming events. Epstein also was very involved in the movement to win women the right to vote. Two of the many top swimmers trained by Epstein were Doris Kelman-Beshunsky, now 87, and Janice Lifson-Stuart, now 85. Both took part in the one of the first Maccabiah Games held in Israel before there was an Israel. Eshel interviewed both of the women and those interviews are among the most moving in the film. Another noteworthy pioneer that Eshel cites is Senda Berenson, a Jewish woman who created women’s basketball in this country. She learned basketball directly from the sport’s founder, James Naismith, and was the one who wrote the rulebook for the game, which differs from men’s basketball. She was the first woman elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. And there was Gladys Heldman who was the moving force behind the establishment of the women’s pro tennis tour. And Bella Unterberg who founded the Young Women’s Hebrew Association nationwide. And Elaine Rosenthal, the best women’s golfer in the country in the early 20th century, and someone who learned the game at the Ravisloe Country Club in the Chicago suburb of Homewood. What impressed Eshel most about these and all the other Jewish women of the past was “their strength, their courage. In the early 1900s, the settlement houses completely neglected women’s facilities, had none at all, and sought to be protective of women, to keep them from anything that felt like competition. Sports were all geared to young men. But here were these Jewish women speaking out, demanding to have places they could play sports. It was amazing to have these Jewish women, immigrants, stand up for women’s rights as far back as the 1880s.”

Interestingly, one of the first Jewish communities to treat women equally was Chicago where the Jewish People’s Institute on the West Side, which, beginning in 1915, provided Jewish girls gym and swimming facilities identical to those provided the boys. One of the main goals she has for the film, says Eshel, is to express “gratitude to the women of the past who paved the road for Jewish women and young girls today to enter the field in any capacity-as athletes, administrators, coaches, sportscasters.” And, indeed, more recent years have seen the likes of some Jewish women athletes as Olympians Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen, golfer Amy Alcott, Sara Whalen, who was on the women’s U.S. National soccer team led by Mia Hamm that won the World Cup, and ESPN’s Linda Cohn, among many others.

Another of her goals, Eshel says, is “to have women feel good about themselves, to give them a platform to express themselves, to show them that women contributed a lot to shaping American sports, and society. Sports was a vehicle that women used to fight for their rights. Women always have had stumbling blocks put in front of them and have always had to fight for their rights. Sports was one of the ways they did so.”

Back to the stereotype. Because she was aware of the jokes about Jews and sports, Eshel chose Chicago comedian Caryn Bark to narrate the film. The half hour documentary opens with Bark waxing funny on Jews and sports and ends with her working out.

No doubt Eshel’s film will do much to put an end to the stereotype about Jewish women and sports once and for all.

And perhaps the clearest sign of progress came when, in a moment captured in Eshel’s film, the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, for the very first time, honored 19 Jewish women athletes.

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