Jewish figure skater, Jason Brown, was selected to represent the United States at the 2022 Winter Olympic games in Beijing. The games, which start in less than two weeks, will mark Brown’s second Olympic Appearance.
In 2014, Jason Brown took the ice at U.S. Nationals with his iconic ponytail, and blew everyone away with his “Riverdance” long program. Known for his remarkable performance quality, and ability to emote and connect with his audience, Brown had the crowd on their feet before his final pose. His performance then went viral, garnering over four million views. He went on to finish in second place, obtaining his first U.S. Championship medal. This earned him a spot on the United States 2014 Olympic team. Brown skated in the long program, and placed fourth, helping the U.S. win a bronze medal in the team event.
In figure skating, a skater’s score consists of a technical content score, based on the completion and execution of jumps, spins, and footwork, and is added together with a program component score. This subjective score measures the skater’s skating skills, transitions, composition and interpretation of the music. Although Jason does not compete with any “quad” jumps (rotating four times in the air before landing), he does have a unique set of skills that sets him apart from other skaters. His beautiful artistry, impressive flexibility and ability to perform is unmatched, making him a fan favorite despite the relative lack of technical content. In addition, with the jumps Brown can complete, he is impressively consistent. Quads are quickly becoming more and more prevalent in the sport, and while they are an unbelievable athletic feat, it has taken the focus of figure skating off the performance quality. Nevertheless, Jason Brown has stayed relevant, at the top of his game, and atop many podiums.
In the following season in 2015, Jason Brown won his first national title. He has won many different international competitions in the following seasons, but hasn’t won another U.S. championship since the rise of superstar Nathan Chen, who usually competes with 5 quad jumps. Notably, while Chen won the 2022 U.S. Nationals, for the 6th time in a row, Jason Brown had a higher program components score, of 96.06, 5 points higher than Chen’s.
Jason Brown has always been a proud Jewish Athlete. From going to Jewish summer camp, to having a Bar Mitzvah service, to going on Birthright in 2016, Brown has been open about being Jewish. Followers of Brown on social media have seen his menorah around Chanukah time and his matzah pizza he makes during Passover. Therefore, it was not surprising when, for the 2019-2020 season, Jason announced he would be skating to music by John Williams from the movie Schindler’s List. With the pandemic shortening the 2020 season, Brown decided to reuse that program and bring it back for this year’s Olympic season as well.
The now famous Holocaust movie, Schindler’s List, was released in the early nineties, and only a few months after its release were people already skating to its music. Schindler’s List takes place in Krakow, and is about a Nazi businessman and factory owner, Oskar Schindler, who plans to make a fortune off of World War II. As the war rages on, and Jews are being sent off to concentration camps, Oskar Schindler’s heart changes and he begins a secret operation of protecting and saving Jewish lives. His dangerous but heroic actions ended up saving over 1,100 Jews. While the movie contains themes of hope and salvation, it is important to remember the historical context, and that despite Schindler’s actions, the Holocaust was one of the world’s ugliest and most horrific tragedies.
Skating to music from Schindler’s List has understandably become controversial. There are some who say that it is blatant cultural appropriation. However, the music by John Williams was created for cinematic purposes and isn’t traditionally Jewish. Although it may not be fair to call it cultural appropriation, there is something about using such a heavy piece of music related to such a painful history, for a skater’s benefit. It seems inappropriate to use the music for an athletic competition. It feels uncomfortable to have thousands of people cheer throughout a performance to the music.
There have been some instances where the line between uncomfortable and wrong have been blurred at best. For example, Russian skater Anton Shulepov skated to the music in 2019 in a costume that was half Nazi uniform, half concentration camp uniform, featuring a yellow star on his chest. The costume was more than just distasteful. Query whether it is ever appropriate for a German figure skater, like Nichole Schott, to skate to Schindler’s List, which she did in 2018. Another example is when then-14-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya skated to Schindler’s list during the 2014 winter Olympics in a red coat-like dress (in the otherwise black-and-white movie, a young girl was shown alive wearing a red coat, and later the girl was shown dead, atop a pile of dead bodies; the red coat is considered highly symbolic and an emotional flashpoint in the movie). Considering the young age of Lipnitskaya and the significance of the red coat in the movie, was this an appropriate performance?
The music from Schindler’s List has become popular to skate to over the years, and even though there may not be anything inherently wrong with it, there is something awkward and uncomfortable about the heaviness of the music mixed with the excitement of a sports competition. If there is one person, however, who could do the music justice on the ice, it would be Jason Brown.
His Jewish heritage gives Brown a personal connection to the music and to the Holocaust, making his interpretation of the music far more genuine. Jason Brown said, “being Jewish and wanting to do the piece justice, knowing the weight of the piece and weight of the story, growing up with that understanding, until I felt capable of conveying that story and doing it in a mature and classy way, I don’t think I felt I could do it.” Brown is not using a piece of history to just benefit his own career, but rather cares about telling his story and using his talent to bring the emotion of the music to the audience. Brown said, “I think as performers a part of our job is to teach and to get people engaged in the story you’re trying to tell on the ice. The point is to have the passion and intensity with which I skate to it and get the story across.”
In an interview, Brown was asked if there was part of his interpretation of the program that best expresses his feelings towards the story the music represents. He responded saying, “At the beginning, it’s a cross between being terrified at what’s going to happen to me and my need to fight for what I believe in. I start with my eyes closed, slowly open them, and you’re kind of in this dazed state, almost a dream, but it’s reality.”
In the final seconds of his program, Brown falls onto the ice and, and faces downwards for his ending pose. After his moving performance at this year’s U.S. nationals, Brown broke down in tears.
Although skating to Schindler’s list is controversial, Jason Brown skates to it with an intense and thoughtful manner that should answer any criticism about disrespecting the subject matter, and ultimately, honors the millions of victims of the Holocaust. His performance at the 2022 Winter Olympic games will certainly be one to look out for.