Sports & Immigrant Jews

Immigrant Jews delved into sports to prove their mettle as Americans.

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The Jewish Sporting Scene

German Jews, already defensive about the possibility of increased anti-Semitism brought on by the arrival of their poor and working class immigrant brethren hoped that promoting athletic achievement would re flute the arguments that the Jews were a weak and alien race whose people historically eschewed physical endeavors in favor of religious and intellectual study.

In New York City, the center of immigrant Jewish culture, the YMHA established the Atlas Athletic Club in 1898 with the stated goal of cultivating elite Jewish athletes and helping them gain recognition at a time when other similar clubs were closed to them. William Mitchell, the YMHA superintendent, stressed that Atlas members should strive for the highest goals in sports, and he declared that he hoped "some day to see some of our own boys take a prominent part in athletic competition and thus disprove that our own people do not give proper attention to physical development."

Even more than the settlement houses or Jewish community centers, the YMHA--which moved to 92nd Street and became known as the 92nd Street Y in 1901--was successful in attracting young Jewish men from the Lower East Sid to its gymnasium programs. In its first year in the larger building, more people participated in the Y sports programs than any other single endeavor. In 1904, the Y added a varsity basketball squad to its burgeoning intramural sports programs, which competed against settlement house teams and against other YMHAs and YMCAs throughout the East Coast, and after 1912, within what became known as the Metropolitan YMHA league. A similar proliferation sports activity took place in other cities with significant but smaller Jewish communities, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, Detroit, Los Angeles, and, especially, Chicago.

Sports for Women

Although athletic pursuit was frequently framed as a male activity, settlement house workers also sought to promote physical exercise, recreation, and participation in sports for working-class Jewish immigrants in their girls clubs. Likewise, the establishment of the Young Women's Hebrew Association (YWHA) created athletic opportunities for Jewish girls. They held classes in gym­nastics, swimming, basketball, and dancing.

The ideology of sports and physical fitness for fe­male immigrants served to reinforce gender divisions in American society. Many Progressive Era reformers explicitly stated that these poor and working-class women needed physical exercise to fulfill domestic roles and to offset the negative influence of unsanitary urban conditions. At the Educational Alliance, female gender-appropriate physical fitness emphasized "health-building" sports rather than competition. At the same time, Jewish organizations promoted women's basketball in intramural and club leagues, with the YWHA's touting the sport as the greatest of indoor games, while at Chicago's Jewish Peoples' Institute, girls basketball teams won three championships.

During these pivotal early years of the 20th century, the Jewish press--catering to an Eastern Euro­pean immigrant population--stressed the importance of developing Jewish athletes. In 1909 the Chicago-based Yiddish language Jewish Messenger wrote that the Jew "has left behind... lands of oppression" and in the "free country" of America "desires to improve his phys­ical equipment to meet adequately the demands of the strenuous life." In the following decades, Jewish ath­letes would respond to this call by carving out an im­portant place for themselves in the American scene.

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