Jeff Pearlman

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Menachem Ickovitz

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He is the the greatest Cleveland-centric, New York-based Orthodox Jewish sports writer of the past 100 years. He is the only Cleveland-centric, New York-based Orthodox Jewish sports writer of the past 100 years. POSTED May 15, 2019

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Menachem Ickovitz is not your average sports writer.

Yes, a good number of us are Jewish.

Yes, a good number of us love covering the games.

Yes, a good number of us can break down the Odell trade.

But in my 2 1/2 decades in the business of writing about collegiate and professional athletics, Menachem is—hands down—the absolute greatest Orthodox Jew among us. And, ahem, the only Orthodox Jew among us. Which is something I truly love, because while the matches we chronicle are played by a diverse cross section of Americana, too often the press boxes are homogeneous odes to cookie cutter white men.

So, yeah, Menachem is different. He was educated in a Yeshiva; well-versed in Maimonides; as skilled reading the Torah as he is the Browns’ depth chart. He now writes sports for Big Play, with an emphasis on Cleveland Cleveland Cleveland Cleveland.

You can follow him on Twitter here, and read his work on Big Play here.

Menahcem Ickovitz—mazel tov. You’re the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Menachem, you’re a 35-year-old Orthodox Jewish man. You’ve devoted much of your life to your religious beliefs. Like, MUCH of your life. So here’s my question: Is it possible you’re wrong? Like, is it possible that maybe, just maybe, Jesus Christ is actually God’s son and the messiah? Or that, maybe, just maybe, there is no God, and this is all an accident? With all the religions, beliefs out there, why are you so dogmatic about yours? What if you’re simply incorrect?

MENACHEM ICKOVITZ: Coming in high and tight with the first question—love it! This is a difficult question but I will do my best to answer. Obviously, I believe that I am right. As you mentioned in the question, I have spent a lot of time and energy in my life following my beliefs and I am confident that they are correct. I say the ‘13 Principles of Faith’ from Maimonides on a daily basis and it brings me comfort knowing that the world is not random just because I don’t truly understand everything (or anything) that occurs. To me, that is what faith is all about.

That being said, let’s say, for hypothetical purposes, I am not right, I would have absolutely no regrets. I try to do good things because it makes me feel like a positive member of society. Being courteous, giving charity and helping others in need do not have to have religious undertones to them.

I think there are many people who look at religious people (from any religion) and do not like what they see. In terms of Judaism, I will say that one of the issues that I see is that people are not as good as they portray themselves and it is partially because of what schools focus on. There are different types of books to study in Judaism. The focus of many Jewish schools these days is the Talmud. The Talmud is difficult to fully comprehend and they spend hours upon hours on trying to understand every single word, I think this is commendable. However, when I was in school we also learned Mussar (ethics/character and behavioral improvement), which I think doesn’t get taught enough and because people are spending so much time on the Talmud and not enough time on Mussar, people have become more observant but less religious.

With former Browns linebacker Pepper Johnson

With former Browns linebacker Pepper Johnson

J.P.: We have good friends who are Orthodox Jews, and I’m pretty sure if one of their kids put religion behind, started eating bacon and married a woman named Christina Martinez-Cruz, their heads would explode and they’d rip a small black ribbon. What about you? Your kid decides, “Yeah, this just isn’t for me.” What do you do? What should one do?

M.I.: I probably would do what you described, sack-clothe and ashes and the whole bit. The knee-jerk reactions (which I would probably have) are what cause a lot of Jews who put religion behind them, to keep it behind them. Sometimes people need to try the alternatives and while it looks like they are leaving, it may just be a short sojourn. I had a friend who left because he were feeling pressure from his family and community and he just needed some time away to figure out who he was and what he really wanted in life and now he is back in the fold. Had his family and friends totally shunned him he may have never come back. In this case he did not get married to a non-Jewish woman. Had he, I’m not as confident that his family would have been as understanding as they were.

While I probably wouldn’t be able to do this, what should be done is the people involved should sit down and talk about what is best for the child. Parents who do not convey the message that no matter what their child does, the parents will love them are doing a big disservice. I hope that this is a test I never have to take as I am not sure that I would pass.

J.P.: You wrote for Cleveland Sports Talk, and now for Big Play—not a common pursuit of many Orthodox Jews. How did this happen? The sports writing? The affiliation with that particular outlet?

M.I.: I grew up as a Cleveland sports fan as my father grew up in Cleveland and he passed his fandom down to me. I grew up on stories of Leroy Kelly and Buddy Bell (my father’s favorite players). We would watch any games we could together whether it was an Indians playoff game or the Browns-Cowboys game from 1994 when S Eric Turner stopped TE Jay Novacek on the one yard line to preserve the win (didn’t have to Google that one, it is etched in my memory). Sports was one thing that no matter what was happening would bring my father and I together. Sadly he passed away almost 10 years ago yet I still feel very close to him when I watch games nowadays.

I always enjoyed writing and usually when I would write it would be sports related. In high school when I was in 12th grade English the teacher gave us an assignment to write about “Magic” and while most wrote about Harry Houdini or David Blaine, I wrote about the magical powers that John Elway had over the Browns. Most of my classmates were surprised I didn’t write about Magic Johnson or the Orlando Magic but I felt that would be too obvious. Throughout my school life every writing activity somehow turned into a sports paper. I used the same book about Larry Bird for four or five biography book reports. Also, to get extra credit in a History class that I was struggling in, the teacher allowed me to write about “Baseball in Latin America” to raise my grade.

Then, a little over a year ago I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw that Cleveland Sports Talk was looking for some new writers. I applied and wrote an article about being a Cleveland sports fan in New York and they liked it enough to bring me on board. In a drop over a year I made some amazing friends and wrote more than 160 articles. Recently Cleveland Sports Talk merged with Big Play. So now I’m writing for them.

It definitely is not something that many Orthodox Jews are doing. My family and friends are ecstatic for me because they know how much I love sports. The rabbi in my synagogue likes when I email him what I write even though he is not a big sports fan. I think it is important for all people to do things that make them happy and writing sports is something that makes me very happy.

I will say there is a downside to being “out there” and Jewish. This is something that I have had to deal with a little bit and I know from following you on Twitter that you have had to deal with it as well. It’s the the uneducated anti-Semitic stuff that people will sometimes write. It does upset me very much but I’m learning to deal with it.

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With his mother.

J.P.: I’ve always felt, of all the sports, we Jews feel most connected with baseball. Agree? Disagree? And why? Is it a Koufax and Shawn Green thing?

M.I.: I have never really given it much thought until now, but yes that does seem right. The success of players like Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green definitely is a part of it. The amount of Bar/Bat Mitzvahs I have been to that includes a speech mentioning Koufax not pitching on Yom Kippur—well, it’s too numerous to count. Koufax not pitching is almost like a badge of honor for all of us. Throughout every generation of baseball there have been Jewish players for fans to identify with. Whether it was Hank Greenberg, Ryan Braun or Ron Blomberg, young Jewish fans can point to a player and say, “He’s one of us.” I do not feel like basketball or football have that many Jewish players on that level.

Recently, Israeli player Omri Casspi has gotten a lot of attention from Jewish fans. In many of the arenas where he has played there has been a contingency of Jews waving Israeli flags. It is a pretty cool sight to see. Also, at one point in his career he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers. At that time the team shop sold a Casspi jersey with his name in Hebrew. It was the best jersey I ever bought.

Also, something to consider about baseball’s popularity among Jews, is when Jews were coming to America in the early 1900s and moving into places like the Lower East Side in New York, they played stickball in the street because you didn’t need a basket or a big field to play basketball or football. I wonder if that would be a contributing factor as well.

J.P.: You wrote a piece headlined, THE REAL WINNERS OF THE 2019 NFL DRAFT. And here’s my eternal question—how the hell do we know, when no one has played a down? Maybe Kyler Murray is the next Blake Bortles and Nasir Adderley the next Ronnie Lott. So why do we all jump to pick winners and losers?

M.I.: Yeah, we have no idea! I actually spent the first paragraph of that article talking about how “Draft Grades” and “Winners and Losers” articles are mostly just to have something to talk about. I even used last year’s draft as an example. Last year the Browns drafted QB Baker Mayfield and CB Denzel Ward with picks No. 1 and 4. If you look at grades from then, they are somewhat low and they add comments like “Is Mayfield mature enough to play in the NFL?” or “How could they pass on DE Bradley Chubb?” Ask any Browns fan and these points are not a problem.

In my article I pointed out that the winners of the draft in terms of the Browns are defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and Special Teams coordinator Mike Priefer, as they were given many players. Only one pick, tackle Drew Forbes, was an offensive player. The idea in the article is that if the players who got drafted can step into their roles and play like the front office believes they can, both Wilks and Priefer will look really good, especially since last year the Browns defense and special teams struggled at points throughout the season.

I generally do not like the instant reaction-type stuff that you get from many and it is one of the very few things that I do not like about Twitter. I think it takes time to really understand things as they are meant to be, this goes for sports, politics, religion and life.

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(left to right) Shlomo Berkowitz, Menachem, Yehuda Minchenberg and Avromi Moldaver.

J.P.: I know you’re 35, I know you’re from Rockland County, N.Y. But what was your path through life thus far? Were you raised Orthodox? Were you raised a sports fan? How did this happen?

M.I.: I was raised Orthodox. I grew up in an area that was mostly Jewish but I had plenty of neighbors and friends who were not Jewish. They did not understand why I was wearing a suit on Saturdays and not playing basketball or football in the park with them. I went to a co-ed Modern Orthodox elementary school where I feel I got an excellent religious and general studies education. I had rabbis and teachers who made the process of learning fun and productive and some of them I am still close with to this day.

The high school I went to was a boys only school where the religious studies were emphasized a little more, but we still had some excellent general studies teachers. We took regents, which were annoying but were taken seriously. After high school I went to learn in a Yeshiva in Israel for a year. It was an amazing experience that I am glad I was able to have. Then I came back to America and went to a Yeshiva for part of the day and went to college for part of the day. At that point I got a part-time job as a tutor in an Ultra Orthodox elementary school and eventually I became a full-fledged teacher there. I’ve had many students who I have gotten to see great results with over the years and that is something I am very proud of!

As I mentioned earlier, I was raised a Cleveland sports fan. I also played sports, not well, but I played. I played in Little League as a kid and I was on my elementary school’s basketball team when I was in 8th grade where I lead the league in fouls. While most of the kids went for numbers like 23, 33 or 50 to “be like” Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing or David Robinson I wore number 43 because of Cavs center Brad Daugherty.

These days I throw the football around during recess with my students. The other day I actually played volleyball for the first time in a while with them. I am the only teacher who actually enjoys playing by recess more than the kids do.

J.P.: Of late some New York Orthodox communities have come under fire for refusing vaccinations. What says you? And how do you explain the reluctance from some in the Orthodox world?

M.I.: I am for vaccinating, which I think any thinking individual should be.

I do want to point out that it is not only people from New York Orthodox communities who do not vaccinate. I am sure you know this, but I’m not as confident with everyone reading this knowing that fact. There are communities in the Pacific Northwest near Portland, in the Midwest near Detroit and smaller affected areas in California, Texas and Illinois that are also having issues with measles, not to mention the places outside of the United States where there are outbreaks.

With my limited knowledge on the subject, I have seen that there are three reasons why parents don’t vaccinate their children. The first is for medical reasons like the child having a weak immune system. The second is philosophical reasons and the third is for religious reasons. Almost every state in America allows people to not vaccinate based on religious reasons.

I have no idea what in Judaism would make people think that they shouldn’t get vaccinated because of religious reasons. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a Mitzvah to “protect one’s life” and while I am not a rabbi, I would say anyone who does not vaccinate their children is going against this Mitzvah.

I will end this part by saying, the school I teach in, which is an Ultra-Orthodox elementary school, has worked very hard to make sure all the students and teachers are safe.

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With Josh the Lazer Tag guy.

J.P.: Maimonides encouraged Jews to procreate at large rates, writing: “Although a person has fulfilled the Mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying, he is bound by a Rabbinic commandment not to refrain from being fruitful and multiplying as long as he is physically potent. For anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he built an entire world.” And while I get this—we live in a world with decreased resources, increased problems, RE: survival. I feel like maybe, just maybe, Orthodox Jews need to reconsider this idea of repopulating the world with tons of kids. Am I wrong?

M.I.: That is an interesting point. I do not usually think about it as I am an only child, so to me a family with two or three kids seems like a lot. Jews make up about 0.2 percent of the world’s population so maybe the other 99.8 percent should be curtailing themselves. It seems like there are so many Orthodox Jews around because there is a strong sense of community among the Orthodox Jews. Certain prayers can only be said if you have 10 men present so it is going to be rare to find one Orthodox Jew living in a rural area.

I do think there is a bigger lesson with what you quoted from Maimonides. There are two ways a Jew can have their presence felt. There’s the physical way, which a case can be made that there should be some concern for the world’s resources.

There is also the spiritual way. Now I am adding a lot to what Maimonides said and quite frankly I am in no position to actually do that, but here it goes: Perhaps one way to achieve what Maimonides is explaining is by doing good things and helping Jews who are not on the right path come back to Judaism, you build an entire world. In the Torah there is a verse that says, “These are the children of Moses and Aharon…” and then the Torah proceeds to mention only Aharon’s sons. The commentaries explain that because Moses taught them Torah, he was like their father. There are many Jewish outreach organizations that do just this. Whether it be a place like Oorah, Chabads throughout the world or Hillels on college campuses, the people who run these groups are helping build worlds as they teach people Torah and help them perform Mitzvot.

J.P.: You’re a Cleveland sports guy from New York. The Odell trade—happy? Sad? And how do you explain what the Giants were thinking?

M.I.: Thrilled! I have had New York sports fans in my synagogue cry about losing him as well as some who have laughed at me and said, “Good luck, you’ll need it!” I cannot wait to watch Baker Mayfield throw touchdown passes to Odell Beckham, Jr. It is going to be fabulous!

In terms of what the Giants were thinking, it seems like Giants GM Dave Gettelman has historically moved on from top-of-the roster players he felt were getting too big for their britches. Before doing it with Odell, he did it with wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive back Josh Norman in Carolina as well. I do think they got a solid haul back in the two picks and safety Jabrill Peppers. Peppers had a less-than-stellar rookie season but was playing what then Browns defensive coordinaroe Gregg Williams referred to as the “angel” position, lined up very far away from the line of scrimmage. Last season he went to a more natural spot closer to the line of scrimmage and played much better.

Peppers has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player and I would not be surprised if when we look back at this trade in two or three years it will look a lot more even than it does now.

J.P.: Donald Trump has an … eh … odd relation with the Jews. Tweeted out image of Hillary atop a pile of money with a Jewish star—WTF? Moves embassy—popular. Says both sides in white supremacist march are to blame—bad. Israeli settlements are great—popular. What do you see/hear among your peers? And what do you think?

M.I.: As a general rule I don’t usually talk politics with my friends (anymore). I think what I think, they think what they think and nobody is going to change anyone’s mind. Additionally, somehow talking about politics usually ends with raised voices and names being called, which is totally silly in my opinion.

I do think you do a good job outlining what should be thought of how the president has been. Some things good and some things bad. Tweeting out pictures that are anti-Semitic/racist whether it be from the president, a news outlet or low-level scum of the earth is never called for. I happened to have not seen the tweet you are referring to but only because I have muted many politicians on Twitter including Trump.

There are some members of my synagogue who are very outspoken when it comes to politics (both for and against the president) and I just roll my eyes at them. They have this herd mentality where they repeat the talking points from whatever cable news show they watched to sound smart. I don’t have patience for that.

In my school, when we read current events articles about politics I do my best to stay in the middle and not give any personal opinions as I feel that is definitely not the place for them. I enjoy when the kids get involved in the conversation and say what they think about whatever the topic is, sometimes I get some really interesting answers from them.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MENACHEM ICKOVITZ:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Kevin Mack, Nick Pedone, Purim, free samples at Costco, flying less than two hours, egg matzoh, Twitter, Greedy Williams, attending a bris, soy products, the music of Taylor Swift: Purim, Kevin Mack, Nick Pedone, attending a bris (although, depending on the food situation, it could be #1), Greedy Williams, Twitter (depending on the day), flying less than two hours, free samples at Costco (not all samples being Kosher drops it down the list a little), soy products, egg matzoh, the music of Taylor Swift.

• As Jews are we required to like Matisyahu?: Required, no. Suggested, yes.

• Three things we need to know about your mother?: 1. She has been a teacher in a Yeshiva in New Jersey for over 30 years; 2. She loves the TV show This is Us; 3. She helps others whenever she can. As an example, when someone she knows (not just really close friends) is sick or sitting shiva she will make meals for them to make things even slightly easier.

• What’s the most underrated Jewish delicacy? Overrated?: Underrated: Matzoh Ball Soup, with the caveat that it has plenty of chicken in it. Overrated: Chopped Liver. I like it, but I need to be in the mood for it.

• Five worst uniforms in pro sports?: I have quite the jersey collection (and not just Cleveland ones) and I happen to like most of them. The ones that most people do not like are the ones that I usually find interesting. My five worst would be the New York Jets (the new ones), Toronto Raptors, Miami Marlins, Denver Nuggets and Tennessee Titans.

• Could the AAF have worked? If so, how?: I was hoping it would. I enjoyed the XFL back in the day and was really looking forward to the AAF. It seems like if it had the money it could have worked. Maybe a telethon could have helped or get the lady from Back to the Future to collect to “Save the AAF.”

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No.

Celine Dion calls—she will donate $100 million to the charity of your choice. In exchange, you need to spend the next 365 days eating ham sandwiches with a side of whole milk and some bacon bits while living in the back room of a strip club. You in?: As enticing as that sum would be, I’m going to have to say no.

• What happens after we die?: I do not know and I hope not to find out for a long time.

• The weirdest question a student has ever asked you?: I don’t get a lot of weird questions but kids do sometimes say really funny things to me. On the last day of school last year a boy walked up to me as he was leaving and said, “Thank you for teaching me how to throw a football.” I smiled, thanked him and thought, “At least I taught him something useful.”

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life