Friday, December 14, 2012

Fascination With a New Yankee's Jewish Roots

Some Boston Red Sox fans were surprised
when they learned of Kevin Youkilis’s religion.
by Richard Sandomir
New York Times
December 12, 2012

It has been a game of sorts over the years — marveling when ballplayers turn out to be Jewish and straining to expand the parameters of the religion so that as many players as possible can be included.

For years, Kevin Youkilis has been a leading figure in this odd, but entertaining, sport that was elevated to on-air comedy in 2006 when the actor and comedian Denis Leary, in an extended bit of shock, wrestled with the startling fact that his beloved Red Sox first baseman, with a name like a Greek omelet, was, incredibly, a Jew.

“Now, Youkilis, is he a Greek kid?” Leary asked that night during a visit to the Red Sox television booth. When told that Youkilis was, in fact, Jewish, Leary reacted with manic glee. “That’s fantastic,” he said. “That’s one bottle of whiskey away from being Irish Catholic. They got the Manischewitz, we got the Jameson’s. It’s the same guilt, the same bad food. That’s fantastic. We got a Jewish first baseman!”

The Youkilis family story is as traditionally Jewish as you can get — filled with name changes and tales of persecution in Eastern Europe — and now that the hard-nosed 33-year-old veteran with the unusual batting stance has signed with the Yankees, his background should especially resonate in the New York market, where many fans are Jewish and have immigrant roots similar to Youkilis’s.

The Youkilis family was not originally named Youkilis. Far from it, although exactly what occurred on the other side of the Atlantic more than a hundred years ago is more spoken lore than documented fact.

“There are so many stories in the family,” Mike Youkilis, Kevin’s father, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But we’ve agreed on one.”

In that story, there was, sometime in the 1800s, a teenager with the last name Weiner, who is believed to have been Kevin Youkilis’s great-great-great-great-grandfather — give or take a great — and who lived in what is now Romania. Fearing the Cossacks, who were no friends of the Jews, and of being drafted at age 16 into the army, he fled to Greece.

“Apparently, there was a family friend there with a name like Youkilis,” Mike Youkilis said. “A couple of years later, he got homesick, and when he decided to go home, he couldn’t come back with the name Weiner or he’d be thrown in jail. So he took the Greek name. He met a lady and they married in Romania and started to have kids. And we kept the name.”

Edward Youkilis, Kevin’s uncle, could not recall relatives ever suggesting that the name be restored to Weiner. “We grew up with everyone thinking we were Greek, but never once did I hear a relative say let’s change it back,” he said by telephone. “It wasn’t something we thought was unusual in those days.”

Changing back to Weiner would have deprived Red Sox fans of shouting “Yoooouuuk!” at Youkilis after he emerged as a stalwart in the Boston lineup.

Mike Youkilis’s father, a jeweler, and his 10 siblings ultimately left Romania for the United States, all detouring first through Canada. Some settled in Cincinnati, where Mike owns a wholesale jewelry business, and where Kevin was raised. When Kevin was in the minor leagues and making little money, his father said that he told him, “I’ll put you to work here.”

“But he hated it,” Mike Youkilis added. “The joke was, ‘If you don’t start hitting, you’ll be doing this.’ ”

One aspect of the fascination with Jewish ballplayers — of whom there have never been many — is whether one’s mother is Jewish. That, by traditional Jewish law, makes one Jewish regardless of whether someone is observant of the religion, or oblivious. On that score, Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ star outfielder, is not considered Jewish by some because while his father is Jewish and was born in Israel and lost family members in the Holocaust, his mother is Catholic. Braun himself has embraced his Jewish identity.

Then there is Ralph Branca, who learned last year, at age 85, that his mother, who had raised him Catholic, was actually Jewish. That makes Branca Jewish, too. And yet Shel Wallman, a co-editor of Jewish Sports Review, said that Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers right-hander who gave up Bobby Thomson’s famous home run, could not be in his publication because he had followed a different faith all his life.

There is little ambiguity when it comes to Youkilis, though. While his mother, Carolyn, a West Virginian, was not raised Jewish, she converted after marrying Mike.

And there was never any doubt that Kevin would have a bar mitzvah at age 13, his father said.
Mike Youkilis said the ceremony was held in 1992 at Adath Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Cincinnati.

“Kevin was superb,” Mike Youkilis said. “We had a luncheon and a party the next night.”

And, he added, “None of us speaks Hebrew well, but Kevin can still read it — with the vowels.”

Irvin M. Wise, the senior rabbi at Adath Israel, was asked about his former student Wednesday and responded in an e-mail: “As you can imagine, he is quite the ‘man’ in Cincinnati in general and especially in our Jewish community.” He said he last saw Kevin at a baby-naming ceremony a few years ago but hopes to see him next at one of the monthly “Cincinnati nights” that are held at Edward’s, the restaurant in TriBeCa owned by Youkilis’s uncle.

Whether or not Youkilis becomes a TriBeCa habituĂ©, he is almost certain to be in high demand from Jewish groups. Scott Barancik, who runs the Jewish Baseball News Web site, said that Youkilis should handle the extra attention well. “He’s always worn his Jewishness proudly,” he said.

In fact, back in 2009, Ian Kinsler, the Texas Rangers second basemen, who has a Jewish father and, like Braun, embraces the Jewish part of his identity, said that Youkilis was always mindful of their shared heritage when they crossed paths on the field. “He’ll just say, ‘Happy Passover,’ or something like that,” Kinsler told Bloomberg News at the time. “He’s pretty into it.”

In New York, plenty of other people will now be, too.