Jews and hockey isn’t the most common of pairings, but the benefits of exercise, teamwork and camaraderie of the sport has many middle-aged Pittsburgh Jews hooked.
Saul Markowitz is one. Even though he only started skating at 30, the self-described “PR guy” has been on the ice for nearly 25 years. And as Markowitz puts it, he has no signs of letting up in the near future.
“My goal is to play until I am at least 70.”
“I’ve played for 48 years,” noted Markowitz’s friend, Bob Gold of Squirrel Hill, who was introduced to the game as a 6-year-old at St. Edmund’s Academy. “They had a hockey rink at the school.”
The origins are not too different for Ralph Roskies, originally of Montreal, who also adopted the sport as a child.
“I started when I was 6 and played until I was 66,” he said.
After Roskies relocated to Pittsburgh decades ago, fellow Canadian Steven Fienberg introduced Roskies to the Senior League in Mt. Lebanon.
“By the time I stopped I was by far the oldest guy in the league,” said Roskies.
Fienberg surpassed Roskies’ record by playing until he was 70.
More than a decade ago, Steve Berman, an engineer and Squirrel Hill native, took to hockey after discovering that “running on treadmills for cardiac exercise proved frustratingly boring.”
Since then the game has become an integral part of Berman’s life. He regularly plays in four leagues around the area and participates in both Tuesday and Thursday night pickup games.
That sort of commitment “takes a certain type of character,” said Gold. The people who play hockey “tend to practice or skate early in the morning or late at night; you have to really want to play hockey to get up early or stay up late.”
But even so, “the sport has easy entry for Jewish people,” noted Berman. “It’s a friendly and open and receptive community of adult players. Beginners are always welcome; even if you weren’t a high school or college player you can still find a place where people will let you play.”
That doesn’t lessen the fear involved, said Markowitz, who remembers his mother telling him before each game, “Call me afterward, I want to make sure you didn’t get hurt.”
Fretting over injuries or even the chance of damage caused Roskies to finally tie up his skates.
“I started getting worried about getting hurt, and if you are worried about getting hurt you should get out of the game,” remarked the septuagenarian.
“For us, it’s just kind of fun to be out there and play,” said Markowitz.
And being Jewish only adds to the excitement, he added.
Bob Gold “[and I], we’re like the two Jews in the locker room, we call ourselves ‘the deli line.’ We took one guy who wasn’t Jewish and called him ‘Aaron.’”
But such religious recognition does not always occur.
“When I’m wearing a helmet nobody knows I’m Jewish. It’s not like I’m wearing a Magen David,” remarked Oren Levy.
Though a few years newer to the game than his fellow landsmen, Levy is no duster. As a child the native Hebrew speaker played floor hockey and eventually roller hockey in Highland Park, N.J., “on the tennis courts on North 8th Avenue.”
It was only after arriving in Squirrel Hill in 2013 that he gravitated to ice, Levy explained.
The transition was relatively easy, as “roller and ice hockey are really similar,” he said.
For so many Jewish players, what keeps them going is that “it’s just a bunch of really great, really nice people, who are doing our thing, and for one hour we truly believe we can play this game really well,” said Markowitz.
For Levy, the draw to hockey is a bit different.
“We’re breaking stereotypes,” he said. “People assume we are 5-feet-4, sitting behind desks with curly hair wearing glasses, but this is a new generation of Jews.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.