Formidable Matza Balls Frisbee squad floating to the top

No, PowerBar is not going to come out with a gefilte fish-flavored energy snack any time soon.

A team of Jewish Ultimate Frisbee players has already tried gefilte fish as in-game nourishment, and it turned out every bit as badly as you’d think.

In what could be described as the worst gastronomic decision since New Coke, the Matza Balls, an all-Jewish Ultimate Frisbee squad, opted to consume out-of-the-jar fish as a halftime snack after coasting to a big lead over an overmatched foe.

Unfortunately, the gefilte fish had been sitting out in the broiling Santa Cruz sun. And, frankly, imbibing mounds of compressed pike and whitefish smothered with a gelatinous glaze does not inspire peak athletic performance.

“Most of the guys felt really sick. We barely won in the second half,” said longtime Matza Baller Dennis Karlinsky, 31, who travels all the way from Seattle to play with the team each year.

“We learned our lesson after that.”

The team does, however, enjoy a good bowl of its ubiquitous matzah ball soup before chilly, early morning games.

Ultimate Frisbee, for those who haven’t wandered past a college quad in the past three decades, is an intensely high-energy sport resembling an amalgam of soccer, basketball and football.

Two teams of seven apiece whip a Frisbee disc around a 75-yard-long, 40-yard-wide field book-ended by 25-yard-deep end zones.

The grueling sport features all the sprinting of a soccer match and the tight defense and stop-and-start running of a basketball game. And players don’t just toss the disc backhanded the way ordinary folks do on the beach. Top “handlers” whip 70-yard forehanded bombs with an arm-motion resembling a stone-skipping toss. And their crowd-pleasing “hammer” throw, an overhand hurl, is reminiscent of a Sandy Koufax fastball.

Serious players — and the top-level guys are nothing if not serious — train year-round. Attempting to run, dive and leap all-out without proper training will often result in a player popping, straining or snapping something important, and being carried off the field, especially when his mid-20s are in the rearview mirror.

“No doubt ultimate beats your body down,” said Matza Baller Jason Seidler, 30, of Oakland. “You’re mostly throwing your body around, and there’s nothing to hit but earth.”

And no Matza Ball has been throwing himself earthward longer than 44-year-old David Barkan.

The team of “all-star Jewboys” — as a laughing Seidler put it — was the brainchild of Barkan, a San Anselmo consultant and veteran ultimate player. (If ultimate was as big a sport as basketball, teenage boys would have Dave Barkan posters on their bedroom walls.)

In the mid-1980s, some of Barkan’s friends had formed a moderately successful all-Jewish squad known as The Red Sea Pedestrians. But Barkan was living in Israel at the time, and much closer to the real Red Sea than ultimate tourneys in the States.

In 1995, however, Barkan decided he’d get the band back together, and called all the best Jewish players up and down the West Coast and even as far off as New York and Boston. Amazingly, every last one accepted and made the trip for the April Fool’s West tourney in Stanford.

“We were amazing. Just incredible. We clicked; no one could beat us. We played Seattle in the finals and they were, at the time, the top-ranked team and went on to be second in the country. We beat them in overtime with a very small, fast team,” recalled Barkan.

“That’s the makeup of the Matza Balls: short, fast and loud. We’ve got guys with a lot of chutzpah, but not much height.”

Of the 10 April Fool’s tournaments — which are now held in Santa Cruz — the Matza Balls have captured half of them while blasting Israeli folk music on the sidelines and dancing the hora between points. The squad made the quarterfinals in this year’s tourney.

While more than a few current Matza Ball stars happily joke about the movie “Airplane!” — a passenger asking for light reading is handed a book entitled “Jewish Sports Legends” — a surprising number of the sport’s top players have at least one Jewish parent.

“It was amazing to find out that all these people you had played against and really competed hard against in the field were Jewish,” said Karlinsky.

“That’s been a really big part of why the team is so good. We’ve become friends. I’d never miss one of these.”

In this year’s tournament, Karlinsky’s 18-year-old brother, Daniel, donned a Matza Balls jersey for the first time, part of a concerted effort to pass the torch to younger Jewish players.

With some luck — and, more likely, plenty of skill — the Matza Ball dynasty will last well into another generation.

“Every year I anticipate being together and dancing and meeting new people,” said Jeff Landesman, 43, a veteran Matza Ball who lives in Altadena and teaches elementary school in Pomona when he isn’t out on the grass.

“Any time at my age I get to play with great players like that, oh, it’s so much fun.”

And, as much as the games, Landesman looks forward to the camaraderie among a pack of Jewish men brought together by Barkan and a love of the disc.

Year in and year out, Landesman anticipates “just the huddling and the talking, when David goes around and asks what happened in the past year. And that doesn’t happen on a whole lot of teams. I’ve played with people for seasons, three to four practices a week for a couple of years, and known less about them than some of these guys I play with once a year.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.