What started out as a joke between friends fast became a million-dollar goal for a retired Jewish soccer player.
Ethan Zohn emerged as the sole survivor of the CBS show “Survivor” during the two-hour Jan. 10 finale, defeating Kim Johnson, a 57-year-old retired teacher from Oyster Bay, N.Y.
“I was happy to do our tribe proud,” Zohn told JTA.
“Survivor: Africa,” plagued this season by dwindling audience share in the United States, was recorded last summer in Kenya’s arid Shaba National Reserve. Sixteen contestants faced off in a variety of contests over 39 days, braving 100-degree heat, wild animals and conspiracies.
“It’s one of the most difficult games out there,” Zohn said. “It touches upon every part of one’s being, every part of one’s self — emotional, psychological, physical, social.”
Throughout his life, the curly-haired 27-year-old has held tightly to his Jewish faith, traditions and culture, seeking out synagogues to pray with during Jewish holidays when the soccer teams he played with were on the road.
“It’s a huge, huge part of my life,” he said.
A committed soccer enthusiast, Zohn’s journey into the harsh African terrain had a lighthearted beginning.
Zohn played goalie for soccer teams in Zimbabwe, Hawaii and Massachusetts and with the U.S. soccer team in the 1997 Maccabiah Games. Realizing that he wasn’t going to be the next soccer superstar, Zohn hung up his cleats in 2000 and took a job with a product-naming firm.
But a sudden hiring freeze ended his foray into full-time employment a day before he was scheduled to start. When he asked friends for job advice, they joked that he should try out for “Survivor.”
“We made the video, sent it in and the next thing you know, I got on the show,” said Zohn, who earned a reputation for being a nice guy and an introvert as the series unfolded. Like the winner of “Survivor: Australia,” Tina Wesson, Zohn emerged victorious without a single elimination vote.
“I’m not the guy who is going to stand up and bark orders and tell people what to do,” Zohn said. “I’m more the guy who is going to sit back, observe things — and then based on my observations I’m going to make my moves.”
Zohn has nearly gained back the 26 pounds he lost during the show’s filming and is getting back into shape. On Dec. 3, the show’s producers asked Zohn to regrow the beard he’d shaved off following his New York City homecoming for a surprise series finale.
When “survivor” host Jeff Probst revealed the winner live from a reconstructed “tribal council” set in Hollywood, the family-oriented Zohn called out to his mother, Rochelle, and two brothers, Lenard and Lee, in the audience, “I’m the favorite son now.”
Zohn’s win wasn’t a total surprise. Past “Survivor” winners Wesson and Richard Hatch had picked him to win during a Jan. 9 “Early Show” appearance, and Las Vegas sports book manager Andy DeLuca had Zohn’s win at 6-1 odds early in the game.
His rugged looks, reticence and honesty made him a fan favorite throughout the season.
“I wanted to play the game like I play life — be honest, be fair, play hard, play to win. It was important for me to come home from ‘Survivor’ with my dignity and my self-respect,” Zohn said.
But the lack of soap opera-style drama and conflict that characterized the first two seasons has reduced enthusiasm for the show. Television critics point out that the show’s audience is shrinking.
The first season’s finale drew 51.7 million viewers, while the second season’s pulled in 36.4 million. Despite the lower turnout of 27.3 million viewers, “Survivor” still helped CBS win the night, trumping NBC’s 21.6 million viewers.
“I think hundreds of shows would dream to have their ratings as ‘bad’ as this year’s ‘Survivor,’ ” Zohn said.
For Jews, Zohn’s pride in his faith and culture was a refreshing change from the evangelical Christians cast in the show’s previous seasons.
One of this season’s most controversial moments involved what appeared to be a blatantly anti-Semitic comment directed at Zohn.
Fellow contestant Tom Buchanan, a goat and cattle farmer from Rich Valley, Va., called Zohn a “Jew boy” after their team won a challenge. Instead of taking offense, Ethan looked on it as an opportunity to educate.
“He didn’t mean any harm by it and didn’t mean it in a derogatory term and he wasn’t being a racist,” Zohn said.
“Tom had never met a Jew before,” said Zohn, who also was the first Jew that contestants Clarence Black and Frank Garrison had met. “It was almost like a blessing. I got the opportunity to educate someone about Judaism.
“I’d tell him what it’s like to be Jewish. He’d tell me what it’s like to live on a farm, how to herd goat and sell cattle. It was a learning experience,” he said.
Zohn, who attended the Conservative congregation Temple Emunah while growing up in Lexington, Mass., fondly remembers his Jewish upbringing.
And despite the harrowing challenges thrown at Zohn by “Survivor,” none could rival the ultimate challenge this newly minted millionaire faced growing up.
It’s something Zohn, who freely discussed his Jewishness on camera, hasn’t talked about publicly — the loss of a parent to cancer.
After his Bar Mitzvah, Zohn’s involvement with the congregation slowed after his father, Aaron, was diagnosed with colon cancer.
The entire family switched to a macrobiotic diet in the hope of prolonging Aaron Zohn’s life, a regimen Zohn continues to follow.
Aaron Zohn died the following year, when Ethan was 14.
“I went and I did minyan for the year after,” he said. “It was important for me.”
In 1997, Zohn qualified to play for the men’s U.S. soccer team in the Maccabiah Games. Playing soccer in Israel was a dream come true, Zohn said.
“In my mind it was probably was one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve made in terms of my soccer,” he said. “We played Brazil, France, England and Denmark. It’s probably some of the best soccer I played in my life.”
He was slated to play in 2001 until the soccer portion was canceled when the Maccabiah was scaled back because of the Palestinian intifada.
Since 1998, the Vasser-educated Zohn has been the assistant coach for the Fairleigh Dickinson men’s and women’s soccer teams in Teaneck, N.J. He is considering a variety of other soccer options, including a youth-development program proposed during the “Survivor” finale and joining soccer’s upcoming World Cup in some capacity.
“Staying involved in soccer is important to me,” he said. “Being an ambassador to the game would be great.”
Zohn has kept in contact and visited with the other “Survivor: Africa” contestants since the series wrapped last summer, especially Johnson, Buchanan, Black, Teresa Cooper and Lex van den Berghe. Zohn’s visit to Buchanan in Virginia made an indelible impression.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I tripled the population of Jews when I walked into that place.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.