A spiritual force: Cowboys' Igor Olshansky takes a fierce pride in his Jewish faith

Sept. 26, 2009 at 4:26 a.m.


By Barry Horn

The Dallas Morning News


DALLAS — It is a good bet that in the 50 years Cowboys history has overlapped the 5,770 years of Jewish history, no player ever before uttered the word "Elohim" inside the team's training facility.

That streak ended last week when Igor Olshansky dropped the word in a discussion about his religious faith. Toweling off beads of sweat outside the weight room, where he had just finished inordinate repetitions with almost inhuman numbers of pounds, Olshansky mentioned Elohim.

It was a conversation stopper. Time for one more repetition.


"Elohim," Olshansky replied.

"Elohim" is the third Hebrew word in the Bible. It is repeated often throughout the Old Testament as well as Jewish prayer services. It means "God."

"I don't try to please Elohim with everything I do; Icouldn't," Olshansky said. "If I did, I wouldn't be playing sports, I couldn't be playing sports."

Olshansky, a 6-6, 315-pound run-stopping defensive end whom the Cowboys last spring imported as a free agent, doesn't claim to be an observant Jew. He will not be in synagogue on Monday, which is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a time for prayer and fasting. Rather, he will be preparing to battle the Carolina Panthers that night on national television.

But he is a proud Jew. The identical Stars of David tattooed along his massive clavicles bear witness. In a sports world with relatively few Jewish athletes, and fewer who talk openly about their religion, he has become a role model of sorts to Jewish children. That's what happened back in San Francisco, where he grew up, and in San Diego, where he played the last five seasons for the Chargers. Perhaps it will happen in Dallas someday as well.

"I am who I am," Olshansky said. "I am a Jew, a spiritual person who has my own personal relationship with God. I try to be a good person . . . and although I never chose to be a role model, I don't mind it."

For Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, dean of San Francisco's orthodox Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy, the Soviet-born Olshansky is not only a good Jew but a proper role model. Lipner was Olshansky's teacher.

"He's a mensch," Lipner said, choosing a Yiddish word that roughly translates into a person of integrity and honor.

Olshansky attended the Hebrew Academy after his family immigrated to San Francisco in 1989.

His parents sent their 7-year-old Igor and sister Marina, seven years older, to the school not to learn about the religion they couldn't practice in the Soviet Union, but because it wasn't far from their apartment, it was relatively inexpensive and it offered scholarships to children of Soviet emigres.

It would prove to be a life-altering experience. Not only did Igor learn English while wearing a traditional skull cap — yarmulke — and tasseled fringes — tzitzit — under his shirt, he also prayed daily and studied Hebrew, the Bible and Jewish ethics. And most important of all, he met his future wife, Liya, a fellow Soviet emigrant there.

For many children, the transformation from the Soviet Union to the religious school was difficult. They left after a semester or two, as

Liya did. Igor stayed four years until he completed the eighth grade.

"I liked the school," Olshansky said. "It was all so new to me. I was really interested. I learned a lot."

Unusual journey

Igor Olshansky, 27, is hardly the first Jew to play in the NFL, but he is the league's first Soviet-born player. It's a fact that he is proud of. It has been an interesting sojourn from Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial city of 1.2 million in Ukraine about 800 miles south of Moscow.

Both grandfathers — large, powerful men whom Igor knows only through family lore — fought with the Soviet army in World War II. His maternal grandfather is said to have been wounded 11 times.

His father, Yury, a solidly built butcher back in the Soviet Union, played basketball while in the Red army. His mother, Alexandra, was an accountant. Life wasn't horrible in the Soviet Union, but the Olshanskys were forever reminded they were Jewish and suffered indignities that included difficulties in job advancement.

It was during a trip to visit her sister in San Francisco in the mid-1980s that Alexandra Olshansky decided she had found a better place to raise her children. She had only to persuade her husband, content with the status quo, to leave everything behind.

In 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union imminent, the Olshanskys left their homeland. They went to Austria and then onto Italy, where they waited for the proper paperwork to immigrate to the United States.

By the time the family arrived in San Francisco, there was $500 left in savings and six suitcases filled with their life's possessions. They lived in the apartment of Igor's aunt. Yury eventually settled into a job in a chocolate factory. Alexandra found a job in a bank.

Basketball, taught by Yury, was Igor's first sport. Bigger and stronger than most others his age, Igor excelled playing mostly at the local Jewish Community Center.

When the time came for high school, the 6-4, 200-pound Igor left the Hebrew Academy for St. Ignatius Prep, a Jesuit school with more than a handful of Jewish students. The school offered a scholarship to the budding basketball star.

"He left to play ball," Rabbi Lipner said with a sigh. "You know, we are not very much into sports here at our school. . . . By the way, did you know that Edward Teller, one of the fathers of the atom bomb, taught physics at our high school for 20 years? Scientists and doctors we turn out. We don't turn out many ballplayers."

Igor explained the unusual experience of moving from an Orthodox Jewish school to a Catholic high school to the San Diego Jewish Journal: "I went to mass and I'd go to churches, but I wasn't forced to pray or act a certain way . . . I just observed and learned. I appreciate the culture, but I definitely get myself as Jewish."

Somehow, Igor, growing bigger and stronger by the day, went through almost two years at St. Ignatius before the football coaches could persuade the 6-5, 250-pound sophomore to come out for spring football.

Playing offensive line in his very first scrimmage, Igor grabbed a defender trying to get through him, lifted him by his jersey and tossed him to the ground. It was highly illegal but thoroughly impressive.

"We explained to Igor that was not allowed and moved him to defense, where he would need less technique and could better use his aggressiveness the next day," said Joe Vollart, a St. Ignatius administrator who was then the school's head football coach.

As much as Igor seemed to like football, he appeared to love the weight room. Vollart said school lore has it that Friday night was boxing night for school athletes. "I think the idea was to see if anyone could go one round with Igor," Vollart said. "I don't think too many did."

Vollart said his fondest memories of Olshansky are not of him as an athlete but rather as a student.

"He is a very interesting man," the former coach said. "His knowledge of history was excellent. He was the type of kid you could always have a conversation with. Maybe it was because of all the places he had been and all the things he had experienced before he got here."

From St. Ignatius, Igor, good enough to earn a scholarship but hardly a prized prospect, headed to the University of Oregon. He continued to add size and strength. He gained his first smidge of national attention with a stellar performance in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl against Colorado.

By the end of the 2003 season, Olshansky deemed himself ready for the NFL draft. His 4.9-second speed in the 40-yard dash combined with the ability to bench-press

505 pounds made him an intriguing candidate. When the scouts visited Oregon for the school's "Pro Day," Olshansky wowed them by bench-pressing the standard 225 pounds 43 times. No one had done that before.

The San Diego Chargers made Olshansky, who had a grand total of six years of experience, the third player selected in the second round, the 35th pick in the draft. Five springs and 70 NFL starts later, he signed a free-agent contract with the Cowboys.

Asked for a story about his athletic career, Olshansky relished talking about the struggle to set the bench-press record.

"I am an immigrant from the Soviet Union who has always worked hard," he said. "I have a no-quit attitude in everything I do. I put a lot of effort into that record. I thought I had something to prove."

Family life

Liya Rubinshteyn Olshansky scrambled around a local supermarket one day last week, hoping to make it home before her 20-month-old son, Lorance Lev, woke from his nap. He is the spitting image of Olshansky men, she said, "big and strong."

Liya, whose family emigrated from Latvia to San Francisco, guesses she has known her husband since they met at the Hebrew Academy when she was 8 or 9 years old. She knows they began dating when Igor asked her to be his girlfriend. She was 14 and he was 15.

They were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony in 2005. The video of friends struggling to lift the massive Olshansky overhead in a chair to meet his similarly raised wife at the center of a traditional dance is interesting.

"We have a lot of history together," said Liya, 26.

"I feel so blessed to be with him. He was then like he is now. He's very intelligent, cultured and very spiritual in his own way."

One item she knows she will never bring home from the supermarket is pork, a biblically forbidden food for Jews. She began an explanation of what observant Jews will and will not eat.

The Olshanskys, as the two pounds of shrimp in her shopping cart could attest, eat non-Kosher foods. But her husband draws the line at pork. "It's just something he wants to do," she said. "It's symbolic."

Back in San Francisco, Rabbi Lipner, who 40 years ago founded what he says remains the only Orthodox Jewish school in Northern California, added a final blessing

"An orthodox Jew, Igor is not," he said. "But I have to tell you, I have tremendous respect for him and the way he carries himself. You know, if you feelgood about who you are, it helps with everything else in life. Igor feels good about himself."


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