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.
Sports In the 20th Century: From Boxing to Basketball to Baseball
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 websites, 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.
So, why the obsession?
Jews enjoy taking pride in the accomplishments of fellow “members of the tribe” in a variety of spheres —science, politics, and theater. Sports, arguably, are no different. This is the nature of a minority group still trying to gain acceptance in the mainstream. Another explanation is that publicizing the image of the strong Jewish athlete breaks the long held stereotype of the bookish or weak Jew.
The organized Jewish community has even embraced Super Bowl Sunday, making it Super Sunday, a day of phone-a-thons and fundraising for Jewish federations (umbrella philanthropies) across the country. Super Sunday is no longer a major fundraising day in all cities, but the original assumption was that everyone was at home watching the game, available to answer the phone and ready to donate money to the Jewish community.
In recent years, new expressions of Judaism in sports include the wide availability of kosher food at sporting events and annual Jewish Heritage Days at ballparks.
Outside America, Zionism played a central role in merging sports with Judaism. At the Zionist Congress in 1898, Theodor Herzl‘s right-hand man, the popular writer Max Nordau, expressed the Zionist longing for the creation of a “muscle Jewry.” Subsequently, Jews across Europe established sporting clubs, which served a double function– strengthening European Jews’ collective identity as a minority, while offering a means of integrating into mainstream society. A number of the European sporting clubs that were associated with Zionist youth groups were later transplanted to Israel, where they formed the first teams in the states’ professional sporting leagues.
Sports in Israel represent a variety of influences from abroad. Soccer, Israel’s oldest national pastime, came to Israel via European immigrants around the establishment of the state. As more and more Americans and Russians move to Israel, other sports, such as basketball, baseball and figure skating, are gaining popularity.
Israel has also gained recognition in international sporting competitions. The Olympics evoke complicated memories for Jews and Israel — in 1936 Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship camouflaged its racist, militaristic character while hosting the Berlin Olympics, and in one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall an international sporting competition, Palestinian terrorists killed 11 members of the Israeli delegation at the Munich Olympics in 1972.