We’re Obsessed with Katie Ledecky’s Jewish Grandma

The Olympic swimmer just might have Berta Ledecky to thank for her grit and resilience.

Katie Ledecky, one of the most dominant swimmers in the world, isn’t Jewish. Trust me, I’ve googled it. “My Catholic faith is very important to me,” Ledecky told The Catholic Standard in 2016. “It always has been and it always will be. It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith.”

However, that’s not to say the six-time Olympic medalist and one of the fastest swimmers in the world has no connection to Judaism. In fact, I recently discovered she has one very important connection: her 87-year-old grandma, Berta.

Berta Ledecky (née Greenwald) was born to a Czech Jewish family in 1933. Though Berta isn’t a public figure in her own right, from what little I can gather on her, it’s my opinion that the Jewish woman absolutely should be. Berta worked as a translator for Albert Einstein at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. She wrote and published short stories, and there’s a writing fellowship in her name at Harvard. And, in her early years, she smuggled manuscripts out of Communist Czechoslovakia.

As if Berta couldn’t get any cooler, educating her non-Jewish grandchildren about their Jewish ancestry is clearly important to her. In 2007, the Ledecky family took a trip to Prague where, among other activities, Berta took young Katie and her brother to a Jewish cemetery. There, she pointed out the names of their relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Poignantly, this family history is a “fuel” behind Katie’s passion for swimming.

Berta herself has said so. Speaking of Katie’s maternal grandparents in a profile for Sports Illustrated, Berta said, “Bud and Kathleen were rooted in that part of America, had land given to them, and they could be secure in their Catholic faith.” She went on, “Now you come to Jerry and me, always having to rub against to get where we needed to get.”

Inheriting this grit and resilience from her grandparents clearly paid off. Looking towards Tokyo, Katie is slated to compete in every individual women’s freestyle event (200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m). Some expected highlights of her Olympic competition will be the 1500m, which is being introduced into the women’s events for the first time in Tokyo (even though men have been swimming the 1500m at the Olympics since 1904). Katie is expected to take home the gold in this inaugural event.

It’s not going to be completely smooth sailing, however. Though Katie is the defending Olympic champion in the 200m and 400m, she is currently ranked second in the world in these events behind Australian swimmer Arirane Titmus. Suffice to say, these events will shape up to be an entertaining clash of athletic titans — regardless of the outcome.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions at this year’s Olympic Games, Berta will not be able to see Katie compete in-person. Even so, I hope that Katie feels the support of her entire family, past and present, in Tokyo. I’ll certainly be rooting for both Katie and, of course, her badass Jewish grandma.

Read More

Movie Made Jews

What Makes a Movie Jewish?

Alma chats with author and professor Helene Meyers about the profound impact Jewish movies can have on our identities.