Ballplayers kashering the pigskin

On many Friday nights at the Berkeley High School football field this fall, a Jewish center snapped the ball to a Jewish quarterback, who then threw the ball to a Jewish wide receiver.

A denominational oddity? Definitely.

In fact, a total of five Jews played and started for Berkeley's varsity team this year. Elishama Goldfarb, Sam Hollander, Sam White, Ben Schooler and Ariel Herzog were the five players. Not only did they represent something unusual — Jews are comparatively rare in the sporting world — they were also very much the heart of the team.

Goldfarb, the quarterback, and Herzog, perhaps the Bay Area's top receiver, produced much of the offense for the Yellowjackets. Meanwhile, White, the 275-pound center, and Hollander, the team captain at guard, anchored the line and Schooler directed the team's defense as middle linebacker.

As Goldfarb said, "We've got the whole Jewish connection."

It was a connection that Berkeley coach Joe Martin was especially pleased to have. "They're all super kids and their families are fantastic people," he said. "They all have 3.0 GPAs or better, they never missed a meeting or practice and they're excellent examples of what we're trying to develop in our student athletes."

With such a large group of Jews on the team, it was only natural that they would band together. "It's not like it separated us from everyone else, but on the other hand, it's another thing that was important to us," Hollander said.

Most of the time, the group's Jewishness manifested itself through jokes. "We have jokes that perhaps other people wouldn't," Goldfarb said. "They're probably non-PC, and probably shouldn't be printed in the Bulletin."

One of the humorous moments during the season emerged in connection with one of the team's Thursday-night meals. Martin had made a tradition of having the team gather at one of the players' houses each Thursday before a game. And it happened that the scheduled cook was Hollander's mother.

"She was threatening to serve gefilte fish and matzah balls," Martin said, "and the black kids were getting nervous."

Hollander's mother, who is Chilean, wound up serving a South American dish — "We had some stuff that blew our [brains] off," Martin recalled.

Another funny episode occurred when Martin picked Goldfarb to lead the team prayer before a game.

It seemed an apt choice, considering that Goldfarb, a junior, is the son of Berkeley spiritual leaders and is an observant Jew himself.

So imagine Martin's and the team's surprise when it came time for the prayer, and Goldfarb let loose a stream of profanity-laced invective to fire up the team.

Said Martin, "[After he gave the prayer], I said, `Elishama, that's not quite what I expected out of you.'"

All joking aside, the five Jews all take their religion seriously. Hollander and Goldfarb, the most observant Jews of the bunch, have toured Israel, celebrated bar mitzvahs and now attend the East Bay Midrasha high school program at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

Said Goldfarb, "[Judaism] is a huge part of my life. Most of my friends are Jewish, and those who aren't know it's an important part of my life."

Goldfarb, Hollander and White found themselves severely tested this season when one of the team's games fell on Kol Nidre. Only Goldfarb, however, chose not to play in the game, which the team lost.

The decision wasn't easy for Goldfarb. Had he decided to play, it would have been his first start at quarterback on the varsity squad.

"I wavered a bit, but I went to services," said Goldfarb. His father, Reuven, serves as a fill-in spiritual leader for the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley and his mother, Yehudit, is also one of the founders. "[I went] probably because my dad wanted me to go. It was probably a good decision."

Hollander's dilemma was somewhat more complicated. As the team captain and a senior, his absence would have been a serious blow to the team.

"That was a really hard decision for me," he said. "I discussed it with everyone who wanted to talk about it. I ended up playing, but I'm still not sure it was the right choice."

White, too, faced a similar problem. Also a senior, he was another important player on the offensive line. He decided that he didn't want to hurt the team by sitting out.

The team, which is in a rebuilding stage, finished the year with a 2-7 record. Still, four of the five Jews — White, Hollander, Schooler and Herzog — were named to the all-East Bay Athletic League team. The three seniors, too, appear to be headed for even more success in the future.

Herzog, whom Martin called the top receiver in Northern California, is being scouted by several Division I universities. He'll play football in college while pursuing a degree in sports broadcasting.

White will probably also continue his football career. He's looking at four Ivy League schools among his choices, and he wants to major in philosophy or psychology.

Hollander, senior class president who has a GPA near 4.0, will continue playing football only if it doesn't interfere with his studies. He's looking at Columbia, Harvard and the University of Chicago, with possible majors in classical civilizations or economics.

The graduation of these three will leave Berkeley's team with just two Jews next season, unless Goldfarb has any luck recruiting some friends to the team.

The biggest question is — will Martin ask Goldfarb to lead the team prayer again?

"I'm not good at leading prayer," Goldfarb said. "I didn't know what he wanted at the time."

Maybe next year, given a second chance, he'll recite the Sh'ma.