Arts & Culture Addition of Jewish Jock Forces Religious Issues on Comic Coach

The funny pages are getting a little Yiddishkeit.

Syndicated comic strip “Gil Thorp” soon is featuring a storyline about star athlete David Green, an Orthodox Jew who joins his high school football team.

The strip, which has been published since 1959 and runs daily in more than 65 newspapers, focuses on the challenges of a high school sports coach. And life is about to get a bit more difficult for Thorp, who coaches football, basketball and baseball at imaginary Milford High School.

Adding the kipah-clad Green to the team forces Thorp to confront new issues, according to Gil Fried, a sport management professor at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, who provided the idea for the strip.

Problems arise because the school’s weekly games take place on Friday afternoon or evening and conflict with Shabbat. Green, an outstanding running back and defensive back, must leave the games.

The strip also will tackle other religious issues, including being Jewish in a predominantly Christian community, Fried said.

The new storyline is scheduled to begin Aug. 27. It will look at the issues from the positions of both the coach and the player, and will touch on Sabbath laws, anti-Semitism and religious tolerance.

The idea for the story came from Fried, an observant Jew who is a longtime fan of the strip.

Fried became friends with strip writer Jerry Jenkins four years ago when he pitched a story idea to Jenkins about risk management. Since then, Jenkins has taken a number of Fried’s plot lines.

“I thought it would be a nice thing to show Jews in a positive light,” Fried told JTA. “A lot of people think Jews can’t be athletes. Here’s a person dealing with this battle.”

Fried originally named the character Arieh, but the strip’s syndicator changed it to David Green, thinking it would find a wider audience among both Jews and non-Jews.

“I knew they had to reach out to a larger audience,” Fried said. “I understand that it’s a secular press, not a Jewish press.”

Jenkins, a best-selling author of sports biographies, including Nolan Ryan and Hank Aaron, also has written a biography of Christian evangelist Billy Graham.

Writing Green into his script was an extension of his own faith, Jenkins said.

“As a man of faith myself, an evangelical Christian, I share God’s love of His chosen people,” Jenkins told JTA. “I was happy to be able to portray a person of faith in a positive light, standing true to his beliefs.”

Green’s behavior in the strip may remind some readers of Hall of Fame baseball player Sandy Koufax, who chose not to play in World Series games that fell on Yom Kippur, and current college basketball player Tamir Goodman, who skipped a game and a half of a conference tournament last year in order to observe Shabbat.

Fried said his primary goal is education.

“I’m hoping that it educates people who think” Jews “can’t participate in sports,” Fried said. “They can take it to heart that a well-known Christian writer” is addressing the issue.

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