In the show “Freaks and Geeks”, there is a scene where Neal Schweiber, the nerdy friend, is telling the one black kid at school how hard it is to be Jewish. He says, with all seriousness, “you don’t understand: last year I was elected school treasurer. I didn’t even run!” It’s a funny line and it’s played for laughs. We laugh because there is a touchstone in our culture, a stereotype that Jews are somehow drawn to money, that they are predestined to be accountants and bankers, forever working in the margins to maximize some sort of gain. The line works because we’ve all heard Jew jokes before, and we’ve all laughed.
For a Jewish teen growing up in a town with a sizable Jewish population, the line works on a separate level, for the setup of the joke holds truth. While I would never claim the Jewish experience in America is currently comparable to what black and Muslim people have recently experienced, there is prejudice there nonetheless, and there is a constant battle that one must wage to make and keep people aware of it. In my formative years, I can think of no singular cutting moment of hate; I was never beaten for my faith, nor spit on. I was never called a kike by a stranger as I went in to service. Instead, I was faced every day with a million tiny pin pricks, assumptions of my disposition and humor. People I called my friends felt free to make jokes about me lying when I told them I had no money to buy school lunch. Teen boys making the tasteless, edgy jokes that all teen boys in the late 90s made, centered on things like the holocaust, humor as a mechanism to cope and grapple with something beyond comprehension. People assume you aren’t athletic or that you’re a complainer and you realize as a boy that doesn’t quite fit in and desperately wants to be liked by the goyim, that you can’t speak up and say, no, please don’t say that. These little pricks are acceptable joke fodder in the minds and hearts of some, you see, because the reflective, self-loathing Jew is part of our pop culture landscape, and it’s hard to speak up when Jerry and George are on TV every night and Adam Sandler’s album is in everyone’s cassette player.
I started watching wrestling, really watching wrestling, in 1997 when a group of kids whom I wanted to think I was cool were talking about it in the locker room after gym class. I have no memory of what the upcoming pay-per-view was, and I wasn’t allowed to order it, but I watched Monday Night Raw and I had a dial up modem and I could bullshit with the best of them. We talked and compared notes and wondered aloud when we would see “Stone Cold” Steve Austin stun two people at the same time, which seemed an impossible dream to me but they all spoke of it with an assuredness that bordered on fervor.
I’d sit in the basement watching a thirteen-inch TV set up on the desk my mother’s parents got her when she moved to the United States for grad school and I’d flip the channels back and forth on Mondays, trying to catch as much wrestling as possible. The WWF appealed to me from a cultural standpoint, for I was at an age where the themes were just beyond my grasp and they made me lean in and watch closer, for the represented not only illicit excitement but perhaps on some level an opportunity to learn something, anything about what it was to be an adult. That being said, there were performers on WCW that resonated in a way no one in WWF could match. The first was Raven. The second was Goldberg.
Goldberg is obvious. He has my name. He was the first person other than Whoopi and immediate family I ever saw with my name. He was a shining unstoppable force wandering with his head down through endless hallways, surrounded by men who seemed there not for his protection, but for the protection of everything around him. He was some sort of insane Jewish land shark and I was proud. I remember driving to Baskin Robbins with my dad and telling him about this other Goldberg and getting him interested in wrestling for maybe the first ever time and in those moments even the mere mention of his name felt mystical.
To watch Raven as a thirteen year old who liked punk and comic books was perhaps the most transformative (and ultimately transient) experience possible, for he appealed to me on such a perfectly base level. He wore Sandman t shirts, a comic book that was probably the closest thing to real literature I had ever read. He liked underground music and bands and subcultures (note: he didn’t really but when you’re a 90s teen, Suicidal Tendencies totally counts as underground). When he spoke his voice was a marked contrast to the screaming intensity of his opponents, and he presented himself as a sort of grunge Jim Morrison, a drug addled and naturally gifted warrior poet who could only be bothered to try when the stars were perfectly aligned. I was in awe, and it didn’t matter that his poetry was terrible because to discuss the quality of his poetry is missing the point entirely. Raven is the first person I remember seeking out information about on the internet, digging in to his past and discovering things like ECW, reading stories of feuds that to me seemed lost to time, listening to old promos saved as wav files. I found out his name was Scott Levy. Another Jew. I was ecstatic, for Raven proved that a Jew could not only be successful as an athlete, but as a total fucking cool guy. Jews could have tattoos! This was important. I told my father about Raven being Jewish at a Cajun restaurant we would go to on Friday nights. He seemed less impressed.
I don’t blame my father for not seeing the importance and the heroism of these men, for understanding how unique they were in my perspective. He grew up in a time when Hank Greenberg was simply a retired ball player and not a folk tale. When my father was a teen, Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball and skipped a World Series game to fast for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
For him, Jewish heroes were part of the mainstream, tied directly in to the fabric of his youth. For me, they were myths, men I had never seen performing feats that seemed larger than life. The closest thing I had to Jewish Sports heroes in my youth was a small hardcover book called “The Great Jewish Chess Champions” which I carried everywhere with me, reading again and again about Lasker and Reshevsky (my favorite, the book dubbed him the “Pious Prodigy”) and Fischer and trying to reconcile my own adolescent dreams of athletic superstardom with the idea that my best chance was apparently succeeding in a sport of the mind.
On April 19, 1998, I stayed up well past my bed time staring a website in order to get running commentary for a pay-per-view called Spring Stampede. Raven was in a US Title match against Diamond Dallas Page, my sworn enemy for the evening, and each time I clicked refresh my stomach would drop, assuming the worst, but my face remained stoic and I undertook this task with a severe solemnity. When Raven won the title, after an endless run of interference from his cronies and a DDT on a literal kitchen sink (fair in my mind, for the rules were agreed upon beforehand) I went to a different site to check the results again to make sure the internet wasn’t fucking with me. I celebrated silently, taking terrible back bumps on the carpet and DDTing a large stuffed animal, covering it nonchalantly as I counted in my head. I went to sleep proud, and I woke up self-assured, taking Raven’s victory as a sign of the superiority of my aesthetic. In gym class my friends of course complained that Diamond Dallas Page got screwed and that Raven would never win in a fair fight and I had no comeback other than the result.
That night I watched Nitro almost exclusively. Raven came out as champion but would have to face Goldberg, the unstoppable force. The outcome seemed without question. I was furious at the cruelty of it all, that something so hard won could disappear in less than 20 hours.
Michael Buffer announced the entrances and in my simple teenage mind, it signaled the end of anti-Semitism and I felt the pride my dad must have felt for Sandy Koufax and my granddad must have felt for Max Baer. When Goldberg came out, Larry Zybszko yelled at length of his super heroic accomplishments, not only in the ring, but claims of him moving mountains and leaping lakes and I suppose it looks silly to be typed on a computer screen but at that moment Goldberg was larger than life and I understood those claims as metaphor, and I understood for maybe the first time how the oral traditions of John Henry and Paul Bunyan came to be part of the lexicon, and at that moment I knew that Goldberg would live on forever in the mouths of people like me and a million others. As Goldberg shadowboxed and shuffled and Raven sat in the corner, I realized that they represented two divergent sides of my experience and myself. Goldberg was my ambition and my dreams of athleticism, a sign I was more than the jokes at the expense of a body that was fleshy in comparison to those of my peers. Raven was my future, a man who fit in amongst those who lived outside of the suburbs and the niceties, a man who fought with his words as much as his fists. Raven was a sign that I would find myself in something else.
The match itself was a formality, although I remember it fondly for there is a power in being invested in the moment and not the outcome. Raven begins on offense and throws a dropkick, a move outside his normal repertoire, showing how deeply he truly cares about his title despite his outward aloofness. I related as a teen, desperate to show people how I little I cared about caring but secretly terrified of people ever finding out the truth. Raven takes the match to the floor but Goldberg is too powerful. As the return to the ring, Goldberg hits a superkick for the first time and Tony Schiavone is awed, and Goldberg is the wrestling equivalent of the Raptors learning to unlock the doors in Jurassic Park. Raven uses weapons, a steel chair, and he fights back and for once “Raven’s Rules” feel not like an advantage but like a necessity. The Flock came to Raven’s aid but were dispatched in impressively short order. Raven tries to leave, the reaction of a man who is secretly a child, and a group of fans in the front row who looks suspiciously like local wrestlers stop him and throw him unceremoniously back. Raven is speared. Raven is jackhammered. Raven is no longer a champion.
I’ve thought about this match a lot in the past week, since Goldberg once again is champion almost two decades later. I am thirty two now, and my view of Goldberg is no longer as an ambition or dream, but as a road not taken. But strangely, in those twenty years, as I have changed, the world of wrestling has stayed much the same.
There are still young Jewish fans, unsure of themselves, yearning for heroes that can solve problems in ways normally reserved for their gentile friends. There are still young Jews who face those same quips I did every day, and struggle to convince themselves that the jokes are false in a world where they are accepted as truth.
Perhaps those young fans grew up with a dad telling them stories of Goldberg like my father told me of Koufax. In a world made of a thousand tiny pin pricks, Goldberg’s return is a myth realized, a conquering, proud athletic Jew in a time of great fear for so many. He is a reminder of my past, and a reminder of an optimism born of youthful ignorance. Perhaps for a new generation, he can be a vision of a possible future.