Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2006 / 18 Shevat, 5766
The Tribe goes to Torino: Sketches of Jewish Olympic-Bound Athletes
By Nate Bloom
During his long career, Schneider has played for six teams and was named to the all-star team in 1996. He played for the United States in the 1998 Winter Olympics. However, an injury prevented him from playing Olympic hockey in 2002. Schneider is now the highest scoring Jewish player in NHL history.
Schneider was born in New York City and raised in suburban New Jersey and Rhode Island. His Jewish father, Sam, coached youth hockey teams. His mother is of French Canadian background. While his mother converted to Judaism, Schneider's parents were not very observant and Mathieu had little childhood religious training beyond attending High Holiday services. However, he told the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that his father always emphasized "living a good, clean life."
Schneider began to identify more strongly as Jewish in the late '90s lighting a Chabad public menorah and serving as a spokesman for Tay-Sachs testing.
The hockey star recently told the Forward newspaper that his religious awakening was influenced by a rabbi who frequently visited him when he played for the Los Angles Kings. Schneider also told the Forward that he made a point of welcoming Mike Cammalleri to the Kings when the then-rookie joined the team in 2002. (The current Jewish players in the NHL are Cammalleri, whose mother is Jewish; Schneider; and Washington Capitols team captain Jeff Halpern).
Schneider's wife Shannon, who he married in 1999, is studying to convert to Judaism. Schneider told the Canadian Jewish News that they attended Hebrew school classes together and that they are raising their children Jewish. (By the way, one of Schneider's good buddies is Jewish rock singer Adam Duritz, of "Counting Crows" fame.)
Staviski and Denkova finished 18th at the 1998 Olympics Games and 7th at the 2002 Games. They finished 2nd in the 2004 World Championships, but fell back to 5th in 2005.
GALIT CHAIT and SERGEI SAKHNOVSKY
Given the warm Israeli climate, the fact that it sends competitors to the Winter Olympics comes as a surprise to many. However, even more than with the Summer Games, the influx of athletes and coaches from the former Soviet Union has allowed Israel to send some world-class athletes to the Winter Games
The Israelis with the best shot at a medal, or high finish, are the ice dancing team of Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky, who were both born in 1975. Chait was born in Israel, but her father owns an international trading company, so she grew up in the United States and Israel and her first skating experience came at Rockefeller Center in New York.
Sakhnovsky was born in Russia and formerly competed for Russia. The couple met when Chait visited Russia, teamed-up in 1994, and began competing for Israel the same year. In 1998, they became the first Israeli ice-dancers to compete at the Olympics and in 2002 they became the first Israelis to medal in the world championships, finishing third. They finished sixth at the 2002 Olympic Games.
The team has not scored as well as some hoped since 2002, failing to medal at the European and world championships. However, they have won some smaller competitions this past year.
In something of a surprise, the Israeli ice-dancing team of Roman and Alexandra Zaretski finished high enough at the 2006 European championships to qualify for the Olympics. Roman, 22, and Alexandra, 18, are brother and sister and originally are from Belarus.
BEN AGOSTO , 24, and his partner, Tanith Belbin, 22, are the first-ranked American ice dancing team and are given a very good chance for a medal at Turin. The pair, who began skating together in 2000, finished first in the United States Championships last month and finished second in the 2005 World Championships (the highest finish ever for an American team).
The team almost didn't make the Olympics because Belbin, a Canadian, couldn't meet the requirements to become an American citizen by the end of 2005. However, late in December, Congress passed and the President signed a special bill granting her citizenship.
Agosto was born in Chicago and raised in a Chicago suburb. He and Belbin now live in the Detroit suburbs in order to be near Igor Shpilband, their Russian-American Jewish coach.
Ben's father, Angel, is Puerto Rican and Catholic. His mother, Miriam, is Jewish and her family originally came from Rumania and Russia. Ben's Jewish background is hardly known but Alina Sivorinovsky, aka Alina Adams, a Jewish novelist who also writes on skating, kindly informed me that she heard somewhere that Ben was "half Jewish." I told the editor of the newsletter Jewish Sports Review. He called Ben's very busy agent who finally got back to the Review editor and said that: "Ben was not raised in any faith, but is proud of being Puerto Rican and Jewish."
MELISSA GREGORY , 24, and her husband and partner, Denis Petukhov, 27, are the second-ranked American ice-dancing team. Melissa grew up in Chicago and early opted for ice dancing, which emphasizes choreography and team-work, rather than the sheer athleticism of solo figure-skating.
Gregory and her partner won the 1998 U.S. Junior Ice Dancing competition, but her partner quit the sport not long after. Like 'daters', skaters often turn to the internet to find a new partner and Gregory found one in 2000 in Kirov, Russia where Petukhov was then living. They e-mailed he came to the States they hit it off and the couple became skating and romantic partners. In 2001, they married. In 2002, Gregory and Petukhov finished third in the U.S. Nationals. For the last three years, the couple finished second in the same event. Their second-place finish in the 2006 Nationals, held last month, earned them an Olympics spot.
Gregory is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-practicing Catholic father. She now lives in Connecticut to train and Gregory recently spoke to the Connecticut Jewish Ledger about her religious background: "We [my brother and I] were brought up with the feeling that you have to believe in G-d. You have to believe in right and wrong. The rest they kind of left up to us. We celebrated everything-Christmas, Hanukkah, all the Jewish holidays, Easter. They taught us both traditions. Then when we got older they said whatever we chose and whatever we wanted was good with them. I identify that my heritage is Jewish. I feel proud of it."
JAMIE SILVERSTEIN , 24, and her partner, Ryan O'Meara, 24, are the third-ranked American ice dancing team. They began skating together during the last year, in a pairing orchestrated by their coach, Igor Shpilband. Silverstein's return to skating prominence is something of a Cinderella story. She grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb and, like most skaters, started young. In 1999, she and a partner won the U.S. Junior Ice Dancing championships. However, Silverstein suffered from bulimia, which she thought skating caused, and she quit the sport in 2003. She went off to Cornell University to study and, as her health recovered, she realized that skating was not the cause of her eating disorder and she wanted to skate again. She called Shpilband, her old coach, and he invited her to train with him at his skating center in Michigan. (She is now on leave from Cornell).
Silverstein and O'Meara did much better than expected when they finished 3rd at the 2006 U.S. Nationals. The bronze at the Nationals earned them a trip to the Olympics.
Jamie now lives with her mom in a Detroit suburb. Her mother belongs to a local Reform synagogue. Jamie says that among her ambitions is meeting Jewish comedian Jon Stewart.
WOMEN'S FIGURE SKATING
DEJA JEW, ALL OVER AGAIN?
Will 2006 be a very Jewish final?
Comparatively few knew in 2002 that they were witnessing a great moment in Jewish sports history: Cohen is Jewish, Hughes' mother is Jewish and Sarah was raised Jewish, and Slutskaya has a Jewish father (see below).
What are the odds against the final in the Olympics most glamorous event being "so Jewish"?
Sasha Cohen was born in Los Angeles to an American Jewish father and a Russian Jewish mother. (Her given name is Alexandra, but she uses the Russian nickname, "Sasha.") Her father grew up in an affluent California family, went to a top law school, and was a great college skier. Her mother had a much harder road.
Sasha's mother, Galina, studied gymnastics and ballet before leaving the Soviet Union when she was 16. Sasha says: "My mom and her parents had to leave because her brother had left and the government was really upset. They took away both my grandparents' jobs and they couldn't make a living. They had to sell all their things. They weren't allowed to take more than $500 out of the country."
Galina and her parents settled in San Diego and that is where Galina met Sasha's father, when both were students at UC San Diego. The young Sasha was sent to gymnastics class as a toddler and hit the ice at 7. In 2000, she won the silver medal at the U.S. National championships and silver at the 2002 Nationals got her into the Olympics.
Since 2002, Cohen has had her ups and downs. She has had injuries and switched coaches a few times, returning last year to her 2002 coach.
Cohen easily won the 2006 U.S. Nationals, with an injured Michelle Kwan sitting on the sidelines. She is considered to be one of the favorites for a Turin medal along with Slutskaya and Kwan.
Sasha's parents belong to a Reform synagogue, and her sister attended a Jewish day school for a time. However, Sasha confesses that she isn't observant and that the only Jewish holiday she really celebrates is Hanukkah.
EMILY HUGHES On Sunday, February 12, the injured Michelle Kwan relinquished the third women's figure skating spot on the United States team to Emily Hughes.
Emily, 16, is the young sister of Sarah Hughes. She grew up in Great Neck, New York and like Sarah, now a Yale University undergraduate, Emily is an excellent student.
A December, 2005 profile of Emily in the New York Times Magazine depicted a very-grounded young woman from a middle-class family with none of the 'prima donna' problems that plague so many figure skaters. Her parents were portrayed as supportive, without being overbearing.
Emily's father is originally from Canada and not Jewish. Her American mother is Jewish and the Hughes children (four girls and two boys) were raised Jewish albeit with a secular Christmas celebration. Emily's older brothers had a bar mitzvah Sarah was not bat mitzvah and we just don't know about Emily on that score.
Last year, Sarah told the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent that she always wore her Star of David while performing.
Emily had a great year in 2005, rising from the ranks, to finish third in the world junior championships. Early in 2006, she finished third in the United States National competition.
The injured Michelle Kwan didn't participate in the 2006 Nationals. Only the gold medal winner at the Nationals (Sasha Cohen) was guaranteed an Olympic team spot and the skating federation exercised its right to give the third Olympic team spot to Kwan and not to the third place Nationals finisher.
It looked like Emily, the designated alternate, would remain in the States, where she was preparing for the figure skating world championships this March.
Several commentators remarked that Emily took her "bump" from the Olympic team very maturely never carping about the third spot going to Kwan However, Michelle Kwan's injury re-appeared shortly after she arrived at Turin and the skating superstar gave up her spot to Emily Hughes.
As a consequence, there is a lot of misinformation and confusion out there about Slutskaya among both casual and avid Jewish sports fans. The following, to the best of my knowledge, are her basic biographical facts and her religious/cultural background. Call this an 'informational listing' (rather than an unequivocal statement that she is "Jewish") and an attempt to set the record straight.
Irina Slutskaya, 27, is the gold medal favorite going into the Turin Games. She has won 2 world titles, including the 2005 title. Last month, she won her seventh European championship. She was the first Russian woman to win an Olympic medal in figure skating and is considered one of the strongest and most poised figure-skaters of all-time.
Slutskaya's background is not untypical of many Russians with 'Jewish roots." Ethnic background, after seven decades of communism, is usually more important than religion. Slutskaya, whose father is Jewish, certainly does not hide her "Jewish half." She has traveled to Israel and enjoyed visiting with her Russian Jewish relatives who have settled in Israel. Several people who have spoken to her, in Israel and elsewhere, come away with the impression that her primary self-identification in a cultural/ethnic sense is as Jewish.
On the other hand, she sometimes crosses herself after completing a skating routine and married her husband in a Russian Orthodox ceremony. Alina Sivorinovsky, who personally knows Irina, tells me that the crossing is a 'superstitious habit' and that Irina, like most Russians, is not really religious.
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© 2006, Nate Bloom. Substantially similar versions of this piece appeared in the print edition of the Baltimore Jewish Times on Feb. 10, 2006 and) will appear in the print edition of the Detroit Jewish News on February 16, 2006. Bloom is also the editor of www.Jewhoo.com, a Jewish biographical site that will be re-launched in the next two months. Bloom wishes to thank the Jewish Sports Review newsletter (www.Jewishsportsreview.com) for their help with this article. The Review, a non-profit labor-of-love, is a terrific resource for those really interested in "who is Jewish" in sport.