In Greek and Roman times, sports were associated with idol worship, and were performed in the nude. Thus, it is not surprising that Jewish texts from the post-biblical and talmudic periods are critical of sporting activities.
The Book of Maccabees describes the wicked Jewish Hellenizers as enthusiastic members of Greek gymnasiums. The Talmud condemns Roman sports, especially the sadism of gladiatorial combat. These texts express a common directive: nice Jewish boys should be in the study hall, not at the gym.
Still, physical activities were not absent from Jewish history even in premodern times. There are some reports of talmudic sages being active in physical activities–Resh Lakish, for example, was famous for his Torah scholarship as well as his strength as a gladiator. We also know from medieval rabbinic responsa that Jews inquired about the permissibility of ball games, and sometimes received permissive answers.
Jewish sporting became more institutional and public with the advent of modern professional sports. In the first part of the 20th century, Jews entered the ranks of American boxing in large numbers, and by the late 1920s were the dominant ethnicity in American prizefighting. Going to college and becoming a professional were not necessarily options for the majority of young Jews during this time, and boxing offered an opportunity to “make it” in America. The testimony of many Jewish boxers from this period manifests ethnic pride and identity in their roles as Jewish boxers.
In the 1930s, prior to the establishment of the NBA, professional basketball was also largely dominated by Jewish players. And though Jews never represented large numbers in professional baseball, some Jewish ballplayers like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax have been transformed into mythic heroes.
Ironically, as the number of professional Jewish athletes declined, interest in them has continued to grow.
There are no less than a dozen books with “Jews in Sports” in their title, and there are a host of web sites, such as JewsInSports.org and JewishSports.com, that track Jews on the court, in the field, and on the gridiron. Every time Jewish players accomplish something in their sport, great or small, the Jewish press is all over the story.
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