Jews & Sports on the International Scene

Emancipation Through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe
, edited by Michael Brenner and Gideon Reuveni, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2006 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

Jews and sports? We all know how much Jews contributed to the cultural heritage of humankind, from Freud in the realm of psychology and Einstein in the natural sciences all the way to Marx in politics, Kafka in literature, and Schonberg in modern music. But Jews and sports? Do the two really go together? 

Just as one knows that all Jews are smart and businessminded, one is certain of the fact that they are inept in sports. Sure, there was Mark Spitz, who saved “Jewish pride” with seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics, or the famous left-handed baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, but they seem to be the famous exceptions to the rule.sports quiz

And then there were numerous Jewish sports world champions-in chess. But here again, we are back to the realm of mental, not physical exercise. Thus, when we announced a conference on the topic of Jews and sports in Munich, the usual response we encountered was: “Oh, this is certainly going to be a brief meeting.”

Interwar Europe

If you were to ask a central European Jew around 1930 about Jews and sports, his response would have been very different from what we expect today.

A German Jew might have remembered Alfred and Felix Flatow, the first German Jewish athletes to win gold medals in the modern Olympic Games. An Austrian would have answered immediately that Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish, even a Zionist club, received the most prestigious national sport trophy, the Austrian soccer championship, in 1925. If that Austrian were really into Jewish sports, he might have added that in the same year Hakoah also became Austrian champions in field hockey, wrestling, and swimming.

A Hungarian would not have hesitated to name all the Jewish Olympic fencers who secured Hungarian medals, and a Czech would have recalled the water polo team of Hagibor Prague, which gained the Czechoslovak championship in 1928. One of its players was the well-known writer Friedrich Torberg, the author of what was likely the only water polo novel ever produced. Torberg became more famous for other parts of his literary oeuvre, but he later wrote about his success with the water polo team: “This was, I believe, the most beautiful day of my life.”

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Michael Brenner is Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich.

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