By Jenny Powers
She blocks. She passes. She scores.
She also speaks Hebrew, went on Birthright Israel and sports a Star of David painted over her eye during exhibition derby games, a less-than-subtle nod to her Conservative Jewish upbringing.
Born Dara Fineman and blessed Dorit Chanah at her baby-naming, these days the 28-year-old West Coast transplant is mostly known by her derby name, Hebrew Ham Lincoln (“Hammy” for short). In fact, even her parents have taken to calling her Hammy on occasion.
If you’ve been wondering where all the nice Jewish girls are, you may be looking in the wrong places, as more and more of them can be found on roller derby tracks across the globe. According to the official women’s derby name registry, Hebrew Ham Lincoln is in good company; the league is also home to Fatal Dreidel, Matza Ball Breaker, Mazel Tov Cocktail and Matza Brawl. Referees include Jew’d Law and Manny Schevitz.
There is even a private Facebook group exclusively for Jewish Derby players, both male and female, which, according to its founder, is “a safe space for us to gather in a tumultuous political climate and share our love of derby and how it intersects with our Jewish identities.”
Fineman, who lives in New York, plays blocker for the Gotham Girls, five-time champions of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association, which launched in 2003.
What initially led her to the track six years ago was twofold. She was seriously lacking in two critical areas of her life—fitness and community.
“I was getting unhealthy and having trouble moving my body. As an overweight, uncomfortable, unfit 22-year-old, I needed some type of exercise but I couldn’t just jump into a sport,” Fineman explained. “Then one day I was listening to the radio and I heard a commercial for women’s roller derby saying, ‘We will teach you how to skate’ and I was like, ‘OK, why not?’”
“But when I heard the ad, I decided to show up to a practice. They lent me skates and I pretty much fell down for two hours straight,” she confessed.
The first time Fineman laced up a pair of roller skates she was six years old. It didn’t go exactly as planned. After falling down a lot, she wound up not being able to walk for a few days, which was enough to turn her off to skating for the remainder of her childhood and adolescence.
This time, though, she wasn’t scared off. She went back again and again, learning to skate and eventually to play the fast-paced sport of women’s roller derby.
In addition to getting into shape, the California native who was miles from home also gained a built-in community from roller derby.
“As I got older and moved, I wasn’t so close to the chavurah anymore. I remember thinking if something happened to me, who would I call? Who would bring me food if I was sick? Normally I would call my parents, but they live in Florida now and I’m here in New York. Becoming part of the derby community gave me the support I needed. I can go anywhere in the world and find somebody who plays derby that’s willing to give me a couch to sleep on.”
So while Jewish girls may seem an unlikely fit for roller derby, Fineman claims it makes perfect sense in her head.
“Jewish women are taught to be independent, to say what we want and to be strong, and derby is all of those things. Jewish women, at least the ones I grew up with, were a bit of a bunch of bruisers. So just put those strong Jewish ladies on roller skates and you’ve got yourself a derby,” she laughed.
“If you’re Jewish, you can go to services in another country and even though people may be speaking another language, you can walk into a synagogue and the Kaddish still sounds the same and it makes you feel at home in a faraway place. Derby has that ability too. Anywhere you go where Derby is played, no matter the language spoken, you just put on roller skates and play. At the end of the day, the concept is pretty much the same,” Fineman said enthusiastically.
“People say, ‘Roller derby saved my soul,’ and for me, it really did. It gave me a place to be healthy and proud of every curve I have,” she said, referencing her 13-plus hours of training a week. “I just ran a 10K. I lift weights, run, skate and crosstrain like crazy now. I definitely don’t need to worry about the fitness portion any more,” she said.
“The downside of coming from such a strong Jewish community is that it sets the bar pretty high. You need community to survive and thrive and community building is something you have to do; it doesn’t just happen. I still miss the cultural part of being Jewish, but derby gave me an outlet to show my Jewish pride and create strong ties to strong women. Derby is a DIY sport, done completely out of love for the sport. I love it; we all love it. That’s why we do it. The sea of differentness makes it so special. Everybody has something to bring to the plate—all of us, the players, the officiating crew and the referees,” Fineman shared.
“I can’t even imagine how different my life would be if I’d started earlier,” said Fineman. If I could have started when I was 8 or 10 and been surrounded by this culture, it would have been amazing. My brother and I never played sports as kids but now that I play derby, my dad is out there screaming and yelling on the sidelines and he says, ‘I never thought I was going to be like those soccer dads, but then I watched you play and I was like, “I get it now.”’”
The 2017 NYC Women’s Roller Derby Championship is the evening of Saturday, Aug. 26, in Manhattan. For more information, visit http://www.gothamgirlsrollerderby.com/events/