A Tribal Super Bowl

A Tribal Super Bowl

OK, so there’s no Marv Levy (Bills coach), Alan (now “Shlomo”) Vinegrad (Cowboys offensive lineman), or Robert Kraft (Patriots owner).

But the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers will play Super Bowl 50 on Sunday at a “Jewish” stadium.

Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., near San Francisco, is the only arena with a Jewish name that hosts teams of the four major sports — football, baseball, hockey and basketball.

The 68,500-seat home of the San Francisco 49ers, it is named for Levi Strauss, the founder of the company that makes the ubiquitous blue jeans bearing his name. A native of Germany, Strauss came to the States at 18, settled in New York, then Louisville, then became West Coast representative of his family’s dry goods business. He moved to San Francisco at the height of the California Gold Rush.

That’s where he found his fame and made his fortune, partnering in 1853 with a customer who had designed riveted denim pants.

A lifelong bachelor, Strauss died in 1902, leaving his fortune of about $6 million (more than $150 million in today’s dollars) to several charities, including the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum.

The fact that an NFL arena with a Jewish name merits no comment in wider society is not surprising, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University; in northern California, Levi’s is a familiar name, and nationally it’s a well-known brand.

“Jews were pioneering citizens of San Francisco and have long been respected there,” Sarna told The Jewish Week in an email interview. “Many of the distinguished merchants and bankers of the great 19th-century city had Jewish names. Levi’s, pronounced LEE-vi rather than the more traditional LAY-vee, does not strike locals as particularly Jewish.”

“Nationally, of course, this disinterest is just more evidence that Jews are more and more at home in America,” he said.

And speaking of being at home in America, a native of Denver and lifelong Broncos fan, Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, thought he was on safe ground, sports-wise, when he was negotiating recently to become senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte. While the Panthers seemed Super Bowl-bound, his Broncos, suffering through a midseason slump, did not (QB Peyton Manning was injured, then benched).

Rabbi Knight’s loyalty to the Broncos would remain untested, he thought. “I can be perfectly comfortable in my Broncos fandom.”

Then both teams made it to the big game.

So who’s the rabbi rooting for? He’s heard that question in the last fortnight from old friends in Denver, from congregants in Dallas, from “future congregants” in Charlotte. Even from pro-Panther board members when he was interviewing for the job at Temple Beth El.

His answer, in all cases: Denver.

“I have remained a Broncos fan, I still watch the team,” Rabbi Knight, 37, said in a telephone interview this week. “I didn’t feel a sense of conflict. I’m a Broncos fan through and through.”

The game also has led to a friendly wager between Denver’s Temple Emanu-El, the congregation where he grew up, and Charlotte’s Temple Beth El, which he will join this summer.

They’re both raising money for a pair of local charities, two-thirds of the combined totals to go to the one in the city whose team wins on Sunday, the rest to the losing side. The “United in Orange” (Denver’s color) campaign had reached $2,400 this week, with a goal of $3,600, said Rabbi Knight, who made a contribution to the collective cause but does not bet on games.

Rabbi Knight said his loyalty will remain unwavering once he moves to Charlotte. “But,” he said, “if my children grow up as Panthers fans, I’ll be perfectly happy.”


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