Taking refuge in rugby &mdash from Scotland to Israel to Oakland

At Paul Berman’s all-boys high school, students were shaken awake for a 6:30 a.m. run every day of the week. And, no matter how low the temperature dropped in the Scottish Highlands, you were never, never allowed to wear a shirt.

In fact, on Berman’s very first day at Loch Rannoch, all the first-year students were hustled onto the playing field and forced to participate in the school’s organized mania: rugby. None of the lads had even so much as handled a rugby ball, and the highlight of the afternoon was the kid next to Berman getting his front two teeth kicked in, which he swallowed.

Ah, high school memories.

Berman, perhaps the only Scottish Jew in all Oakland, still has a full set of teeth, which he demonstrates amply with his frequent smile. And that’s no small accomplishment, because Berman and his classmates were hustled out on the playing field the next day and the day after that — for the next five years.

And it soon became more than a game for the young Berman, who, even when his growth spurt was complete, would, in stature, more closely resemble Joe Morgan than Joe Montana. (In other words, he comes up to your prototypical rugby player’s armpit.) Rugby grew to be a refuge for the only Jew in the school.

“There was a lot of racism from the kids, particularly the white African kids from countries like Kenya or Zimbabwe. So rugby was an escape from prejudice,” said Berman, 42, in his unmistakable Glaswegian brogue.

“So, I started playing on the wing. And I was fearless.”

And Berman would continue to play fearlessly, on the team West of Scotland, under the unforgiving Israeli sun and, finally, here in the Bay Area, where he’s a highly respected coach and referee among local ruggers.

After Berman’s time at Loch Rannoch playing rugby, running in the snow with nary a shirt and avoiding canings in the headmaster’s office came to an end, Berman decided to keep playing rugby. In Israel, for a change.

He began playing with South African Jews on his kibbutz, and then with the Hebrew University team. He became something of a rugby ambassador, and began pulling big guys off the bus or out of the shopping center if he thought they looked like they might have a knack for rugby.

“It’s not just the size, it’s the attitude; French Jews, South African Jews. I used to grab them right off the street,” recalled Berman with a laugh.

And at least two of the men he pulled off the tram or out of the produce section went on to play for Israel’s national team.

Berman studied archaeology at Hebrew University and paid his way through school as the doorman for the Sheraton Plaza and, later, the luxurious King David Hotel. Things were going well enough that he opted to become an Israeli citizen — and, promptly, received a draft notice to fight in the Lebanon War.

When Berman’s army hitch was up he returned to Hebrew University to finish his degree and become the coach and captain of the rugby squad. But then his “summer romance went tragically wrong” — he met and married Ana Abraldes, a Cuban American studying at U.C. Berkeley and in Israel for a dig.

By 1988 he was living in the Bay Area, home of collegiate rugby’s perennial champion, U.C. Berkeley, and scores of alumni (and others) who provide enough fodder for dozens of weekend teams. It seemed natural that rugby would maintain its continuous presence in Berman’s life, but then his lifelong romance with the sport really did go tragically wrong.

“I went to watch a game at the Polo Fields in San Francisco, and I was shocked. The game seemed to be very physical, but not very organized. It was not anything I recognized as rugby. It seemed to be a little bit brainless,” he recalled, shaking his head.

He pretty much didn’t pick up a rugby ball for 16 years.

But then, in 2002, a woman spotted his English rugby jersey in a Piedmont Avenue store and convinced him to enroll in a refereeing course. With connections he picked up through refereeing, he began coaching several men’s and women’s teams on both sides of the Bay. Once again, Berman is snatching promising players off the streets or out of the buses. And any Jewish players he sees are pushed to try out for the Maccabiah Games (San Francisco’s Joel Drescher, a key member of the United States’ silver-medal squad at the games was a Berman find).

In fact, earlier this year, Berman’s refereeing made him a minor national celebrity for a couple of days. He was the ref attacked by the brother of the coach of the Rohnert Park Girls’ Rugby Club during the Rohnert Park-Alameda High School match.

When Alameda coach Craig Stewart subdued the attacker, the Rohnert Park coach led a group of parents in a mob that attacked Stewart and assistant William Travis, beating the Alameda coach unconscious.

But Berman was less concerned with his own black eye than one for the sport that contributed so much to his life.

“I try to explain to a lot of guys that, on the field, rugby is a form of warfare. Then the armistice is signed at the end of the game. And, in what we call the third half in the pub afterwards, the peace agreement is signed. You sit and eat and drink together; it’s the responsibility of the home team to feed and water the other team. And you sing together, rugby songs going back over a century. So it’s really sad how this got all the attention.”

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.