Theodore's World: Dallas Cowboys' Igor Olshansky Takes a Fierce Pride in His Jewish Faith

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October 02, 2009

Dallas Cowboys' Igor Olshansky Takes a Fierce Pride in His Jewish Faith

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


It is a good bet that in the 50 years Dallas Cowboys history has overlapped the 5,770 years of Jewish history, no player ever before uttered the word "Elokim" 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 Elokim.

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


"Elokim," Olshansky replied.

"Elokim" is the third Hebrew word in the Bible. It is repeated often throughout the Torah as well as Jewish prayer services. It means "G-d."

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.

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 G-d. 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 mentsh," 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 — tzitzis — 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."


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.

Olshansky 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."


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.

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 feel good about who you are, it helps with everything else in life. Igor feels good about himself."

Wild Thing's comment..........

What a great story about Olshansky.

....Thank you Mark for sending this to me.

3rd Mar.Div. 1st Battalion 9th Marine Regiment
1/9 Marines aka The Walking Dead
VN 66-67

Posted by Wild Thing at October 2, 2009 05:40 AM


Welcome to Dallas Igor. Glad to have you. I know of some other Russian immigrants who have settled in Dallas. They like it and are doing well. We have a good number of Jewish synogogues so you will have no trouble finding a place to worship. I hope you and the Cowboys play well this season.

This is the kind of sucess story I like to hear about. He and his family sacrificed and came here the LEGAL way. And they are not living off of the taxpayers. They all have work.

Posted by: TomR at October 2, 2009 10:27 AM

Wow, that's a great story. And he's not bad looking either. They did it the right way and they have made their way in the world. Kudos to the whole family.

Posted by: Lynn at October 2, 2009 01:34 PM

I found this on JWR, one time they were referencing how few Jews are in American Sports, especially the NFL. He is NOT the average "little Jewish Kid". The is huge, but a little heavy for a Defensive end, but he is quick on his feet. Unlike some players this guy goes at 110% all of the time.

One thing is puzzeling to me is the Tattoo's. I know he not Hshidic but he is a devoted Jew and Tattoo's are all but forbidden. So maybe someone can explain this.

Posted by: Mark at October 2, 2009 06:49 PM