Sports & Religion Today
Religion and sports make good teammates.
On October 11th, 2007, nearly 20,000 people gathered at Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Knicks play their first pre-season home game. The game itself had little at stake for the Knicks. So why were there so many fans in attendance? They could have been there for the first look at a hopefully improved Knick franchise that had only made the playoffs once in the past six seasons. It was also the first game after head coach and general manager Isaiah Thomas had been found guilty of sexually harassing a former team executive.
The coach of the Maccabi Tel Aviv
team speaks with players during
their 2008 game versus the Knicks.
However on this night, the almost 20,000 strong hooted and hollered their support for the visiting team, Maccabi Elite of Tel Aviv. The Knicks had given control of all 19,763 tickets to the Israeli franchise, and New York's strong Jewish population responded accordingly, filling every seat in the Garden.
Three days later, in a city known more for its cheese than its Jews, an equally unusual event was taking place. In a parking lot outside of Lambeau Field, home of the NFL's Green Bay Packers, a group of Orthodox men stood davening shaharit. When the service broke, the group noshed on a stereotypical pre-football tailgate feast of bratwurst, chicken, and hot dogs--all kosher of course. The group was led by Rabbi Shais Taub of the Chabad Lubavitch of Wisconsin who knew that Jews needed an opportunity to experience a football game like everyone else.
Who's Joking Now?
The 1980 classic comedy Airplane!, still sets the gold standard for Jews and sports jokes:
"Would you like something to read?" asks the stewardess.
"Do you have anything light?"
"How about this leaflet, 'Famous Jewish Sports Legends?'"
For many years, this was the end of the discussion when it came to Jews and sports. There were the occasional legends of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, but beyond that was nothing. Recently though, the conversations have begun to change from Jews in sports to Jews and sports.
In attendance at the Knicks-Maccabi game was Maiya Chard-Yaron, a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. "It was one of the biggest Jewish scenes I've ever seen," she said, noting not only the sheer number of Jews at the game, but also the spread of Jews from different denominations and backgrounds. In Israel, Maccabi has traditionally been the team of the liberal Kibutzniks, so seeing the ultra-Orthodox cheer them on seemed ironic. "On that night," Chard-Yaron says, "Israel and Jews had a central piece of New York culture, in sports."