My brothers and I together attended various Jewish day schools in France, then in Northern Virginia, and in Southern Maryland throughout our respective primary and secondary school years. The middle/high school we all attended, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (known as “JDS”), boasted a reasonably well-developed athletic program: They offered three seasons of sports, including soccer, basketball, track and cross-country, volleyball, softball, baseball, and briefly a lacrosse team. We competed against various other small schools, mostly parochial, in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference.
Our most heated rivalries (i.e., the ones wherein we’d actually have some spectators at the games) were against two other Jewish schools: Beth T’Filoh, in Baltimore, and Hebrew Academy, also in the Rockville/Silver Spring area. Whenever we played either of these teams, our gym would be plastered with signs saying, “Let the Jews win!” or “Jews are the best athletes!” The rivalries were traditional, but good humored, and lacking in ferocity. Losing a basketball game, even to one of our “rival” teams, was no biggie—everyone would be over it in a day. Getting a low grade in Talmud—then you had a problem!
Looking back, I recognize and very much appreciate our school’s healthy attitude towards athletics: It was implicitly understood that sports were fun, but not the be-all-end-all of existence. If you wanted to be on a really competitive team, you played outside of school. (A lot of kids were on teams outside of school, either to have access to a more challenging program and possible “scouting,” or because our school didn’t offer a particular sport, as was the case with my brothers and me, who all participated in a neighborhood swim team.)
Nevertheless, despite the lack an obsessive sports culture, students—even ones without natural athleticism—were very much encouraged to try new sports and join teams. “Try out for basketball! We need people, and you might like it,” one of our gym teachers once told me, after seeing me shoot baskets (poorly) in the gym during a free period. I was predictably awful; I have no eye-hand coordination, and spent most of my time during games warming the bench. But I learned a lot from basketball—not only about the sport, but about being part of a team, and the value of keeping in shape year-round. When spring track season came along, I was glad I’d been running laps of the gym all winter long.
Judaism has traditionally held an ambivalent view of sports, dating from Hellenic times, and the “heathen” worship of the body implied by building enormous gymnasiums and participating in nude Olympics. Up to the rise of Zionism and the Maccabiah games, which have gone far to legitimize athleticism within our ranks, Jews have been more comfortable identifying as brainy than brawny. I remain grateful to JDS for embracing a modern and enlightened approach to sports, both for girls and guys (which might have been an issue in some religious schools), and fostering—if not Olympic-level skills—an appreciation for exercising the body as well as the mind.