Julian Edelman
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Julian Edelman

The real Jewish story, as far as I know it

Julian Edelman reads from “Flying High,” a children’s book that he wrote, at the JCC of Greater Boston on October 10, 2017. (Nikki Cole)
Julian Edelman reads from “Flying High,” a children’s book that he wrote, at the JCC of Greater Boston on October 10, 2017. (Nikki Cole)

What follows is just a partial list of list of superlatives I think of when I tell people about New England Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelman: He was the MVP of the last Super Bowl. He has three Super Bowl championship rings. He is now a shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He probably has the best work ethic of any player in the NFL. He was a college quarterback who remarkably learned whole new positions (receiver/punt returner) after he hit the pros. Edelman knew his relatively small stature — he’s about 5 feet 10 — wasn’t what pro teams wanted in a quarterback, so, taking his agent’s advice, he learned in months what it took other receivers years to learn.

How did he do this?

Through incredibly hard work and iron discipline.

How do I know about his discipline and hard work? Because Edelman told the world all about it in his 2017 autobiography, “Relentless,” which I recently had the pleasure to read.

I found the autobiography when I sought other sources about Edelman’s Jewish background. There is a lot of misinformation in the media about his Jewish ties. Read and see what I found. It’s based on solid sources, and I think most Jewish football fans will like my conclusion.

I have long been acquainted with two excellent sites that track Julian Edelman’s ancestry (“Ethnic Celebs” and “Geni”). They report the same thing. Edelman had one Jewish great-grandparent: Harry Edelman, his paternal great grandfather. Harry was born in Poland. He married Mabel Hennessey, a Roman Catholic woman of Irish heritage, who was born in England. The couple wed in England. Their son, John Henry Edelman, Julian’s paternal grandfather, was born in England in 1918. John Henry and his parents came to America in 1920. There are no other Jews in Julian’s family lines, maternal or paternal, going back to this great-grandparents.

His paternal grandfather, John Henry Edelman, is buried in a California veterans’ cemetery. His grave is marked with a cross. Julian’s father was only 3 years old when John Henry Edelman died. Julian writes in his memoir that the only memory his father, Frank, has of his father, John Henry, is looking down at his casket at his funeral.

I noted the essential facts of Julian Edelman’s ancestry when I discussed him in Noshes, my regular weekly column. I also made sure to say that Edelman had done a number of Jewish things (like a trip to Israel). I told my readers that I didn’t count or view him as Jewish, but they could make up their own minds about how they wanted to view him.

During the run-up to the last Super Bowl, a number of leading Jewish media outlets said the same thing: while Edelman wasn’t raised Jewish, his father is Jewish. Then they proceeded to list the times that Edelman seemed to say that he was Jewish — but all these sources had problems. One time he said he was “Jew-ish,” another time his response to a Jewish-related question seemed jocular, and so on.

I knew that Edelman, as I said, took a Birthright-type trip to Israel, and that at least twice he had gone to High Holy Days services at a Massachusetts synagogue. But does that make Edelman — who, in common parlance, is 1/8 Jewish-Jewish? Does it make him Jewish in the eyes of any rational thinking Jew?

Just before the last Super Bowl, I saw one major Jewish media outlet article that went on and on (erroneously) about how Reform Judaism recognizes as automatically Jewish someone with a Jewish father. The author then (erroneously) said that Edelman’s father is Jewish, and so it follows that Julian is Jewish by Reform standards.

The author did note that the Conservative and Orthodox wings of American Judaism would not view Edelman as Jewish (absent a conversion) because his mother is not Jewish.

Yes, it’s true: Reform Judaism recognizes someone as Jewish if his or her father is Jewish, the mother is not, and the person accepts Judaism and lives and celebrates as a Jew.

But Reform Judaism wouldn’t recognize as Jewish-by-birth someone, like Edelman, who is the son of two parents who don’t identify as Jewish—and his one parent with some Jewish ancestry is, in common parlance, one-quarter Jewish.

As you will read in the excerpt below, from Edelman’s autobiography, he says that neither of his parents is religious and it’s quite clear that Edelman’s father doesn’t identify as a Jew. His father simply is a secular guy with a Jewish grandfather.

A couple of months ago, I thought I knew enough about Edelman’s background to assign him to the “wish he was, but he isn’t Jewish” category and just resign myself to the misinformation about his background in other sources.

But I was stopped in my tracks in February, when I came across an Edelman tweet that was posted right after the horrible attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue last October. I didn’t see this tweet in the Jewish media coverage around Super Bowl time.

Edelman tweeted:

“My heart is broken for the families in Pittsburgh. It’s hard to even imagine such senselessness. As a Jew, an American and a human, I’m devastated. We are with you, Pittsburgh. #treeoflifesynagogue”

There is no ambiguity here. Julian Edelman is identifying forthrightly as a Jew.

Moreover — and this has been well reported — Edelman showed his support for the victims of the synagogue shooting by wearing a pair of customized cleats with the hashtag #strongerthanhate printed on them in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 16, 2018. Edelman shared a photo of the cleats on Instagram and listed the names of all the victims in the photo’s caption. The cleats were auctioned off with the proceeds — $10,000 — going to the victims’ families.

Shortly after reading the tweet, I became aware  that Edelman had written an autobiography, and I got a copy. In his book’s epilogue, Edelman sets forth, in clear terms, how he came to embrace a Jewish identity and began to more than dip his toe in the study of Judaism. Here it is from Edelman himself:

“One thing I explored that my family didn’t is our Jewish heritage. I used to describe myself as Jew-ish, as in I knew that ‘Edelman’ was a Jewish name, but I wasn’t really in touch with the faith. But I’ve always been interested in where I cam from, and a few years back, I went on Ancestry.com and researched back through my paternal grandfather. What got me more involved was a chance meeting I had in an L.A. restaurant with a guy I met through mutual friends, Erik Litmanovich. I was introduced to him and he didn’t even say hello. He said, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I said, ‘Well my grandfather was, but I don’t really know. I didn’t practice growing up.’

“The guy then starts rattling off all my stats from the Patriots, all my stats from Kent” — that’s Kent State University, where Edelman played football his junior and senior year. “He’d been following me since college because of my last name. We began to form a friendship, and he introduced me to Rabbi Yossi in Los Angeles, who I pray with every Friday during the season by phone. Between Erik and David Rosenberg, a friend of mine from Swampscott, Massachusetts, who owns the Prime Auto dealership, I’ve gotten more attuned to the religion and history. During the 2014 NFL season, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, was in our locker room as a guest of Mr. Kraft and put a US-Israeli pin on my hat. I wore it the rest of the season and things went well for us. In June, 2015, Mr. Kraft helped set me up on a trip to the Holy Land. It was incredibly moving to feel the history and meet the people in Israel. They are so full of life and faith even though there’s a lot of hate for them. There’s a lot to admire about them. Now, when I see Mr. Kraft on Friday, I’ll say, ‘Shabbat Shalom.”

“One word that attracts me is avodah, which is the Hebrew word for work. A rabbi told me that we are put on Earth to work, and that working hard is honoring who you are and your family and God. That is an important idea for me.

“My family is kind of amused by all the Jewish awakening stuff. We weren’t religious at all, so they wonder what’s going on. I’ll try to push them to explore it and they’ll say, ‘We don’t know anything about this!’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, why don’t you just start?’ But it’s a personal decision. It’s faith. I still think Dad practices avodah every day, though.”

After I read this, I realized that Julian Edelman is on a journey or spiritual path that differs from other celebrity athletes I have covered. Yes, a number of pro athletes have converted to Judaism. However, I can’t think of a case in which this was not associated with marriage to a Jewish spouse. I know that many, perhaps almost all, of these conversions are sincere, and that some of these converts are more observant than most born Jews. But Edelman’s path toward Jewish identification was not started via a romantic relationship.

There are quite a number of Jewish pro athletes who have one Jewish parent. Those who were raised secular usually are flattered and surprised by the attention from Jewish fans and almost all are nice about it. They say things like they want to be role models for Jewish kids. I have seen many of these athletes become more culturally Jewish as they interact with Jewish fans, and I know at least one has become religiously Jewish.

But that’s not Edelman’s situation. He had no Jewish ties, really, in his childhood home. No parent who identified as Jewish.

Something in the Jewish experience and Judaism has touched Edelman. It probably was sparked by his Jewish heritage and by working for a very Jewish owner, Robert Kraft, who is very good to his players. But those things were at most just a spark.

There’s something in Edelman’s heart and mind that has moved him to call himself a Jew, and whether or not you consider him a Jew it is very flattering to the Jewish people and Judaism that a first-class person like Edelman wants to be called a Jew.

There is no conceivable financial or other consideration that I can think of that would make Edelman, a very famous and very well compensated athlete, choose to identify as a Jew. It’s something, at least for now, he has chosen. I don’t know if he has begun, or will ever begin, formal conversion studies, and make his claim of being a Jew universally recognized.

But I will greatly respect him whatever he chooses to do. I place him in his own category. At the very least, he is a great friend of the Jewish people. I don’t care if he calls himself Jewish, because that self-identification comes totally from the heart, and at least now, it appears to be a step toward making that identification official via conversion.

For now, I’ll continue to asterisk him when I write up a list of NFL Jewish players. But I’ll always root for him, and hope that one day he’ll decide to become officially Jewish.

In quasi-football lingo — I hope that Julian Edelman gets off the practice squad, and chooses to formally join the Chosen. Our Tribe needs more mensches who also happen to be great wide receivers. If there was a Jewish team draft, he’d be my first pick.

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