A 1935 quiz about the Maccabiah in our publication
A 1935 quiz about the Maccabiah in our publication

In our paper’s early decades, sports were a measure of ‘Jewish manhood’

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Why don’t more Jews play sports? In 1911, that question was on the mind of Rabbi Martin Meyer, who favored the moral and physical virtues of a nice outdoor game.

“While it may be sporadically noted that a Jew participates in athletic events, or [is] a participant in outdoor sports, we anticipate the day when it will be the rule and not the exception,” Martin wrote in an editorial in this paper.

Of course, Jews do play sports, and always have. They play in amateur leagues, in national championships and at the Olympics. They play baseball, they snowboard and they lift weights. We recently featured a group of athletes who are traveling to Israel from Northern California for the 2022 Maccabiah, the grand competition for Jewish athletes from around the world.

Throughout the decades, many articles about the relationship of Jews to sports have been published in this paper. Most point to examples of Jewish prowess on the field or in the ring, countering the image of Jews as bookish and feeble that is a core tenet of antisemitism. Others promote a muscular Judaism that combines a sharp mind with physical vigor.

“The cure for the card-playing propensities of our men is the substitution of a keen interest in outdoor life and athletic activities,” Meyer wrote in 1911. “It will be a good day for our young Jews when they shall have developed a wholesome physical manhood; they will be less the victims of assault either verbal or physical; they will carry themselves with new dignity and power because of their own increased value.”

In 1912, a lengthy article celebrated the fact that a bunch of the city’s Jews turned out for a track-and-field event sponsored by B’nai B’rith.

“There was also present very large number of non-members, their families and friends who came to see the sons of the covenant in the new role of athletes and gymnasts in which the rising generation of Israel can give as good an account of itself as the former generations excelled in religious fervor and spiritual enthusiasm,” wrote Bernard M. Kaplan, the editor of the paper at the time.

What was wrong with these early, non-sporty generations? Kaplan took the debate all the way back to the Torah. The Jews were priests and scholars, but did that mean they sat around all day? Not so, he wrote. “The Biblical records show that the men in ancient Israel were healthy and vigorous,” he noted.

But it wasn’t achieved through organized sports. “What is true is that athletic sports and exercises were neglected and even discouraged in ancient Israel,” Kaplan explained, “because the athletic sports among the pagans were usually accompanied by the most revolting vices.”

Only Hellenized Jews took part in the Olympic Games, which “were entirely under debasing and degrading Greek influences.”

According to the J. archives, this state of affairs lasted quite a while.

“Until the twentieth century physical prowess was generally despised among Jews, who since the Dispersion have found their sole recreation in the things of the mind and the spirit. This contempt for sports gave birth to the myth of the Jew’s physical inferiority,” this paper stated in 1934, summing up thousands of years of history in one sentence. “The physical effects of Ghetto environment on generations of Jewish youth, rabbinic opposition to sports, Jewish resignation to physical persecution, the Jew’s traditional occupation with pacific pursuits and centuries of social and political confinement contributed to the growth of this legend.”

Those statements were made in an article about the Maccabiah (sometimes known as the Maccabi Games or Maccabiad), the “Jewish Olympics,” founded in 1932. The first Maccabiah was held in Tel Aviv as an offshoot of the network of Maccabi athletic clubs in Europe.

“Organization of the Maccabiad was a herculean job,” the article noted. “Funds were lacking. Transportation of athletes from one country to another presented great difficulties. Athletic facilities in Palestine were lacking. Jewish public opinion was indifferent.”

Indifferent or not, public opinion apparently came around — in the U.S. anyway: “In the past year the Maccabi has become firmly established in this country and plans are being made to send a thoroughly representative American team of twenty-five to the second Maccabiad at Tel Aviv in April, 1935.”

In 2022, the Maccabiah team will be a bit bigger — over 1,300 Jews will travel to Israel with Team USA, nearly 70 of them from cities in Northern California. Is this representation a sign that sports have finally penetrated Jewish culture? Caricatures still paint Jews as feeble and unathletic, but even modern, rational Jews of 1912 understood that health was wealth and, moreover, it could be achieved in a Jewish fashion.

Kaplan, clearly not able to imagine a world where women were equals, let alone athletes, wrote, “We are particularly pleased to see our youth engage in athletic sports under the auspices of Jewish institutions and Jewish men aiming at the development of perfect Jewish manhood mentally, religiously and morally.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.