The Jewish Bull Rider
By Josh Peter
In a 1995 interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, comedian Robert Klein mused, "There's nothing I want to break into that I haven't already. Maybe next I'll be the first Jewish bull rider."
Too late, Mr. Klein.
Jonathan Hochman, long removed from his bar mitzvah in Philadelphia but by all accounts still a nice Jewish boy at the age of 38, rides bulls. Mean, snot-slinging, hoof-stomping, cowboy-hating bucking bulls.
"It's a heckuva conversation starter,'' said Hochman, an Internet consultant. "What'd you do this weekend? Oh, I got stepped on by a 2,000-pound Brahma.''
It's impossible to confirm Hochman is the only Jewish bull rider on planet Earth, but here's a good bet: He's the only Jewish bull rider who wears an Israeli flag on his protective vest and carries a Mensa membership card in his wallet.
Just how smart do you have to be to qualify for Mensa? Well, that's debatable considering Hochman relishes sport's Dominatrix.
Bull riding dishes out pain, pain and more pain.
Last year, while trying to make the eight-second "whistle" for a qualified ride, he suffered a shoulder injury that has imperiled his riding career. His wife, Paula, has urged him to retire, even though she's partly responsible for the situation. She's the one who gave him bull riding lessons for Hanukkah.
Of course that beat the likely alternative --Hochman showing up at a rodeo unannounced, entering the bull riding under an assumed name and getting flattened like a latke.
The couple was living in Florida when Hochman was flipping through the TV channels and came across bull riding.
"I've got to try it, I've got to try it,'' he blurted out, and there was good reason to take him seriously.
This was the same guy who grew up trying Evel Knievel stunts on his bicycle and, like his motorcycle-riding hero, made frequent trips to the hospital when he failed to clear the trash cans that served as busses. The same guy who competed in full-contact kick boxing in his late 20s. The same guy who continued playing goalie on hockey teams into his 30s and took a sadistic pleasure in the eggplant-colored bruises the puck left on his body.
"I've always had a thing for slightly painful pastimes, so bull riding seemed like the next logical step,'' he said.
In 2000, Hochman and his wife left Florida for her home state of Texas, and he reiterated his plans to ride a bull. So she took matters into her own hands, paying his way to the Lyle Sankey Bull Riding School.
During the three-day school, Hochman learned how to set his spurs and bull rope, how to get settled on top of the bull and how to run for the side fence after getting bucked off. He also learned Christianity had a strong presence in rodeo.
One night, a preacher showed up to address the students, and before every bull riding session Sankey and the students bowed their heads in prayer.
"I'm probably the only Jew that Lyle Sankey has ever seen at his school,'' Hochman remembers thinking at the time.
Three days, nine bull rides and countless bruises later, Hochman left Sankey's school with plans to compete in open rodeos. He seemed less concerned about suffering injuries than suffering abuse if people found out he was Jewish.
At his first few open bull riding events, he entered under the name Johnny Lee. But the more he heard "Johnny Lee,'' over the loudspeaker, the more he felt like a fraud.
Hochman eventually entered under his real name. And instead of hiding his Jewish roots, he embraced them, affixing a sticker of an Israeli flag to his protective vest and explaining to anyone who asked that he was Jewish and what it meant.
As it turns out, the thing to fear was those damned bulls, which showed an equal aversion to Jews and Christians who attempted to ride them. Hochman soon became well acquainted with an orthopedist, as he regularly limped into the doctor's office with an assortment of cracked ribs, muscle tears and eggplant-colored bruises. Fortunately, his funny bone survived unscathed.
Once, when a colleague told her husband that Hochman rode bulls, the man said, "You ride live bulls?'' To which Hochman said he replied, "Yeah, the dead ones don't buck very hard.''
After competing in 40 to 45 bull ridings, Hochman has developed a giddy up in his walk and an affinity for cowboys. In fact, he said he feels more comfortable with Texans than Philadelphia city slickers.
During his trips home, he wears his cowboy hat as proudly as he ever wore a yarmulke.
"I'm not a complicated guy, for a Jewish, Mensa cowboy from Philly riding bulls,'' he said. "
My mother-in-law tells me I'm more Texan than most of the Texan she knows. I love this state. I love everything about this state. There's more pride here than anyplace I've seen.''
Eschewing the city life, he and Paula live on five acres of property in Wimberley, Texas, with their three dogs and two horses. Hochman is building a barn for the horses, and it looks like he'll be spending more time riding those animals than the bulls.
Last year at a rodeo in Liberty, Texas, Hochman was aboard a bull that lunged out of the chute and jerked his right arm forward. Hochman felt a rip. Suddenly on the ground with the bull loose in the arena, he called on the skills he learned at the Lyle Sankey Bull Riding School, scrambled to his feet and ran for the side fence.
Hochman pulled himself up and out of harm's way with his left arm. But then it was off to the orthopedist, and the doctor had bad news. Hochman had ripped muscle tissue that connected his bicep to his right shoulder. The injury wouldn't require surgery, but it was unlikely he'd regain full strength of his shoulder even with extensive rehabilitation.
"When are you going to give up riding those bulls?'' the doctor asked.
Hochman started to wonder himself.
Two weeks after the shoulder injury, his travel partner, Lonnie Hicks, suffered a groin injury that left him in the hospital for two weeks. Maybe it was time to walk away before he suffered a more serious injury, Hochman thought.
Then he thought again.
Against his wife's wishes, Hochman and his buddy committed to one more season in pursuit of a gold buckle, awarded to the winner of a bull riding event and a prize that had eluded them both. Soon he'll sling his rigging bag over his shoulder, pick up Lonnie and head for the next bull riding.
"It still scares the hell out of me,'' he said. "You face the fear, and that's part of the kick.''
A year from now, the Jewish community must face a troubling reality: A world without a Jewish bull rider. Hochman said he's willing to groom the next one, albeit it with some trepidation.
"If there's any way I could inspire another Jew to get into rodeo, I would be honored to get them on their first bull,'' he said. "I just don't need their mothers coming after me.''
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Josh Peter is the author of "Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies and Bull Riders: A Year Inside the Professional Bull Riders Tour.'' His website is www.friedtwinkies.com.
from the May 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine