Okay, so there aren’t a lot of “big-name” Jews in the National Football League these days. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of passionate New Jersey (that’s how we prefer to think of them) Giants fans who shep lots of naches over the NFC champions’ rematch with the New England Patriots in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 — a.k.a. Super Bowl Sunday.
Despite the odds, the Giants — who finished the regular season with a 9-7 record — return to the championship game de tuti championship games. Their blood pressure-elevating quarterback Eli Manning orchestrated six fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season, as well as the 20-17 overtime win against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game on Jan. 22, a game in which the Giants trailed 14-10 late in the third quarter.
The Giants beat the Pats in Super Bowl XLII, 17-14, with some remarkable plays by Manning and wide receivers David Tyree, who famously used his head (well, actually his helmet) to secure a crucial pass, and Plaxico Burress, who scored the game-winner with 35 seconds left.
If all these stats mean nothing to you, try this: On Sunday we will gather with friends and family, serve lots of food, and, in a ritual shared by millions, root for over-achieving underdogs to defeat their historical rival.
You know — like every Jewish holiday.
Several area synagogues have held Super Bowl parties for years for game-watching and fellowship. Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange has hosted such events for about 15 years, according to Dan and Matty Goldberg, who cochair the annual Renaissance Group get-together with Linda and Joel Scharf. As the clock winds down to kick-off, the seniors’ group plays cards and table games, dining all the while on a dizzying array of dishes including “one cake for each team,” said Matty Goldberg. “We go to the end of the game; nobody dares leave.”
Always an exciting occasion, the Super Bowl has “so much more meaning this year,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s the economy or what, but it’s the local team and it’s so meaningful.”
Although the Renaissance Group is a club for older temple members, “Everyone comes out,” said Dan Goldberg, who described himself as a staunch Giants rooter. “Some of them bring their children and grandchildren. This year, it’s just magic.
“We were pulling for the Giants all along, and this certainly will make for a very exciting game.”
Jonathan Bressman serves as coordinator for the men’s club’s Super Bowl party at Temple Emanu-El in Livingston. The annual event draws upward of 200 football fans.
“It’s very family-oriented,” said Bressman, who acknowledged one of the problems of watching such a big game: “We have a lot of people who leave at half-time,” which often doesn’t get started until 8:30 and can last nearly an hour. “Kids have school the next day. Usually it’s just the guys left.”
Tickets for the Super Bowl are allotted to season ticket holders via a lottery. Within five minutes of the Giants’ win over San Francisco, Harvey Hershkowitz received a phone call saying he was not one of the lucky ones. (As of this writing, the average ticket price was just under $4,000 a pop.)
“In a way, it’s fortunate I didn’t win the lottery,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done.”
It would have been a tough call; Hershkowitz is part of an interfaith group from Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell and Notre Dame Church in North Caldwell that will be in Israel during the game.
“I told the rabbi when we were planning this long ago that the trip is overlapping the Super Bowl,” Hershkowitz recalled. Despite the conflict, the travel plans continued; this is when the fares are cheapest and the participating priests were available.
Hershkowitz, 76, a retired electrical engineer, saw his first Giants game in 1945 and has been a season ticket holder since 1963, when the team still played in Yankee Stadium. He will have a special vantage point when he watches the game — from Jerusalem.
On the one hand, the Montville resident is thrilled that the Giants are “representing.” On the other, “I’m a little annoyed because it will be 1:30 in the morning when it starts.”
The long-time Giants rooter said, “We had up years and down years. I saw Sid Luckman play in the Polo Grounds” (Luckman was a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Chicago Bears during the 1940s). Hershkowitz said that except for games that fell on the High Holy Days, he has probably missed fewer than 10 home contests in almost 50 years.
“When they were 7-7, I felt they had no prayer. Right now, with all the players pretty much being healthy, I think they’re as good as the 2007 team,” he assessed. “I think Eli is better than he was, the receivers are better, and the offensive line is phenomenal. So I’d say they have an excellent chance to win.”
Big Blue’s crews
Larry Markowitz is in charge of all things sports-related at the YM-YWHA of Union County — recreation, aquatics, and athletics — and he is a lifelong Giants devotee. The family loyalty runs deep: His uncle, Morris Spielberg, was one of the fans who, in 1978, organized for a plane to fly over the Meadowlands stadium back when the team had been losing for way too long, with a banner expressing the sentiment, “20 years of losing — We’ve had enough!”
Things turned around after that, Markowitz said. The next generation of fans, represented by his two sons, is even more passionate than he is. However, the extended family passion complicates things. Markowitz, a resident of Springfield, said he has to watch the game both at his brother’s in Elizabeth, and with his wife at her sister’s in Union. Fortunately, they’re not far from each other. “I’ll make the switch at half-time, and I shouldn’t miss anything,” he said.
Jeff Strauss, a Scotch Plains resident, is an attorney who cares a great deal about his community; he served on the local town council for four years. But he also cares a great deal about his team, as does his brother-in-law, Rich Baumwoll, who lives nearby. That makes for great shared game viewing during the regular season, and should again for the big game.
“I grew up with the Giants as the team to follow,” said Strauss. “I am a bigger Yankees fan and the Giants are a natural extension — and closer. I know the Jets are local, as are the Mets, and I wish them well, but I like [Giants] blue and [Yankee] pinstripes more.”
As a sports professional, Ian Eagle — who makes his home in Essex Fells — is a bit more sanguine when it comes to expressing any sort of preference. Covering pro football and college basketball for CBS and serving as the voice of the New Jersey Nets keeps him constantly on the go. Shortly after speaking with NJ Jewish News, Eagle was flying to Indianapolis, not for football but to work on the Jan. 31 Nets game with the Indiana Pacers.
“This Giants team reminds me so much of the [Green Bay] Packers from a year ago,” said Eagle, who has been working on NFL games for various outlets for 15 years. “Their path to get to this point, the fact that they’ve basically been in playoff mode for six weeks, and they get better every single week. When the Packers finally got to the Super Bowl last year, they looked like world beaters and I’m getting the same feeling about the NY Giants.”
Eagle said it has been an “interesting metamorphosis” for quarterback Eli Manning, who already has a Super Bowl victory under his belt.
“If he wins this game, he will move into a select group of athletes that can do no wrong in New York sports history: Joe Namath, Mark Messier, Derek Jeter,” said Eagle. “There’s only a chosen few that no matter what they do the rest of their career, they’ll be considered part of a pantheon of New York sports stars.”
Eagle, who hosts an annual sports broadcasting camp with Livingston native and fellow sportscaster Bruce Beck, will be hosting Nets games on Friday and Saturday night and a CBS studio broadcast on Sunday. “I will have an action-packed weekend, but I will be home to watch the game with my family, so that’s the positive.”
Ever the professional, Eagle said he would not root for either team. “I will be a very interested observer, knowing what’s at stake.”
Veteran Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg makes his home in Nevada these days, but he already had his ticket for Indianapolis. Izenberg, who is putting the finishing touches on a massive biography of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, has attended every Super Bowl since it was a single Roman numeral in 1967.
The media makes much about the coaches’ philosophies, but Izenberg discounted that. The coaches’ influence “ends on Saturday night with the last talk to the team,” he said. “All the training in the world can’t account for a bouncing ball that just touches a punt returner in the leg” — a muff which set up the Giants’ go-ahead score in the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship game.
“I don’t get excited about a lot of things now in sports, but I am excited about this game,” said the 81-year-old Izenberg. “I think it’s gonna be fun. Eli is going to play the game in the house that his brother built.” Peyton Manning, a quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts, is a four-time MVP with two Super Bowl appearances; their father, Archie, was also a quarterback for the New Orleans Saints and two other clubs from 1971 to 1984.
“I’d like the Giants to win it. I’d like it to be a close game,” Izenberg said.
NJJN staff writer Elaine Durbach contributed to this article.