JTA Boston — If New England Patriots star Julian Edelman retires from the NFL anytime soon, he clearly has a promising second career as a Jewish children’s book writer.
In front of about 400 children and their families on a recent Tuesday night at the Newton Centre flagship of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston, the 31-year-old wide receiver and Super Bowl hero read a special edition of a children’s book he co-wrote last year.
Unsurprisingly Edelman, who has Jewish ancestry on his father’s side and has identified as Jewish in recent years, was treated like a rock star.
“He’s a really good receiver and I hope I like his book,” Ilan Sherman Kadish, one of Edelman’s many young fans in attendance, said before the player spoke.
The event was organized by PJ Library, the Massachusetts-based global Jewish children’s book giveaway program supported by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in partnership with other philanthropists and local Jewish community organizations. Twenty-five thousand copies of Edelman’s book, “Flying High,” a semi-autobiographical story about an endearing squirrel named Jules who is determined to play football, are being mailed this week to 5-year-olds in Jewish homes across North America through the PJ Library program. (Since its inception 12 years ago, PJ Library has delivered more than 10 million books to families of diverse backgrounds who are raising Jewish children.)
Before Edelman read his book, the audience was shown a video with footage from his rollicking visit to Israel in 2015 (which was co-sponsored by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston). The crowd cheered loudly after the video as Edelman, wearing a brace from a preseason knee injury that has kept him from playing this season, made his way onto the stage.
Edelman said onstage that the story of Israel reminded him of his own struggles to push past those who overlooked him. He was picked in the seventh and final round of the 2009 draft by the Patriots and was not projected to succeed in the league. But he has notched over 400 career receptions, helped the team win two Super Bowls and become quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite target.
“I fell in love with the people of Israel,” Edelman said, noting his admiration for how the small country thrives despite being surrounded by unfriendly countries.
It’s a theme he said he wanted to convey in a children’s book, especially after the birth of his daughter, Lily, in November, to whom he dedicated the book.
The new PJ Library edition of “Flying High” includes extra material on the front and back flaps that emphasizes the story’s Jewish content and values. There is also a new reference to Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. The dedication page includes one of Herzl’s most famous quotes: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
The quote shows up in illustrations throughout the story as its young squirrel protagonist trains hard and perseveres against his detractors — a group of animals that includes an eagle, a buffalo and a bear who ridicule him for being too weak, slow and small.
The idea for the quote came from the Israeli-born Assaf Swissa, Edelman’s co-author. Edelman told JTA after the event that while the quote was not central to the original book, it turned out to be a good fit.
“It definitely has meaning for me,” he said of the Herzl quote.
A second “Flying High” book is due out in November, in time for Chanukah, Swissa told JTA.
Edelman has become an object of Jewish fascination since he publicly identified himself as a member of the tribe in a 2013 interview on the NFL Network. He has tweeted about Jewish holidays, wore an Israel pin during a game in 2014 and was named one of the best Jewish football players of all time by the American Jewish Historical Society last year.
PJ Library’s founder, Jewish businessman Harold Grinspoon, and his wife, Diane Troderman, both philanthropists, attended the event along with their grandchildren and other members of their family.
Edelman is “an amazing guy. He’s a heimische guy. He’s so real,” Grinspoon told JTA, using a Yiddish term meaning friendly and down to earth. “I love the [‘Flying High’] story because it’s so true to who he is.”