Jews & Sports on the International Scene

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From Emancipation Through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe, edited by Michael Brenner and Gideon Reuveni, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2006 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

Jews and sports? We all know how much Jews contributed to the cultural heritage of humankind, from Freud in the realm of psychology and Einstein in the natural sciences all the way to Marx in politics, Kafka in literature, and Schonberg in modern music. But Jews and sports? Do the two really go together? 

Just as one knows that all Jews are smart and businessminded, one is certain of the fact that they are inept in sports. Sure, there was Mark Spitz, who saved "Jewish pride" with seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics, or the famous left-handed baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, but they seem to be the famous exceptions to the rule.sports quiz

And then there were numerous Jewish sports world champions-in chess. But here again, we are back to the realm of mental, not physical exercise. Thus, when we announced a conference on the topic of Jews and sports in Munich, the usual response we encountered was: "Oh, this is certainly going to be a brief meeting."

Interwar Europe

If you were to ask a central European Jew around 1930 about Jews and sports, his response would have been very different from what we expect today.

A German Jew might have remembered Alfred and Felix Flatow, the first German Jewish athletes to win gold medals in the modern Olympic Games. An Austrian would have answered immediately that Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish, even a Zionist club, received the most prestigious national sport trophy, the Austrian soccer championship, in 1925. If that Austrian were really into Jewish sports, he might have added that in the same year Hakoah also became Austrian champions in field hockey, wrestling, and swimming.

A Hungarian would not have hesitated to name all the Jewish Olympic fencers who secured Hungarian medals, and a Czech would have recalled the water polo team of Hagibor Prague, which gained the Czechoslovak championship in 1928. One of its players was the well-known writer Friedrich Torberg, the author of what was likely the only water polo novel ever produced. Torberg became more famous for other parts of his literary oeuvre, but he later wrote about his success with the water polo team: "This was, I believe, the most beautiful day of my life."

A Polish Jew around 1930 probably would not have talked about the success of other teams but of his own involvement in one of the numerous Jewish sports clubs active between the two world wars. The club in which one played usually also stood for one's political orientation: the right-wing Zionists gathered around Betar, the mainstream Zionists assembled around Maccabi, Socialist-oriented Zionists founded the Hapoel sports movement, and the Socialist (anti-Zionist) Bundists were active in the Morgnshtern teams.

In the Europe between the world wars one knew that Jews could win Nobel Prizes--what was the big fuss about that? But that in 1925 a Jewish soccer team like Hakoah Vienna could beat the best European team, West Ham United, 5-0 on their London home grounds was a real source of honor and pride.

Thus, today it is perhaps the lack of interest in sports, and particularly European sports, among intellectuals, and mainly among American intellectuals, that has made this a non-topic of historiography so far.

Inclusion & Exclusion

Sports served both as a means of inclusion and as a way of exclusion, and Jews used sports as vehicles for emancipation at both the individual and collective level. Jews could show that they belonged to the surrounding society by participating in the sports associations of their neighborhood, while in other instances they were not allowed to join, either by being officially barred or prevented simply by a prevailing antisemitic atmosphere, as described for Austria and Britain by Michael John and Tony Collins. As a result they would often found their own sports associations.

In both instances--inclusion and exclusion--athletic activity was more than a marginal addition to their lives. The interwar period was not only a time of rising antisemitism, but also a high tide for sports enthusiasm. In his History of a German, Sebastian Haffner dedicated a whole chapter to "the sports craze that took possession of the youth in Germany."

Haffner emphasized the political dimension of sports and observed that during the 1920s and '30s the membership of sports clubs and the number of participants in sporting events increased tenfold: "It was the last German mass mania to which I myself succumbed," Haffner admitted. Like Haffner himself, millions of Germans took part in this craze, usually without noticing in it the pseudo war-play it often manifested. Even the political left,

"regarded sport as a splendid invitation by which we would henceforth be able to vent our warlike instincts harmlessly and peacefully. The peace of the world was, they felt, assured. It did not strike them that the 'German champions,' without exception, wore little black, white, and red ribbons in their buttonholes, the colors of the prewar Reich, while the colors of the republic were black, red, and gold. It did not occur to them that through sports, the lure of the war game, the old thrilling magic of national rivalry, was being exercised and maintained and that this was not some harmless venting of bellicose instinct."

Sports in Jewish Tradition

Were Jews part of this enthusiasm? Of course, the seeming contradiction between Judaism and sports is not entirely without ground. In Jewish tradition, learning always played a central role, and every other activity was considered a waste of time. Moreover, in Greek and Roman times, sports were associated with idol worship, and the gymnasium was a place to perform in the nude.

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, such as Rabbi Simeon b. Lakish ("Resh Lakish"), who was a professional gladiator.

In the Middle Ages, there are more reports of Jews in diverse sporting activities, including ball games. Thus, we also possess rabbinical responsa relating to the question of whether ball games were permitted in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century societies. In contrast to the strict objection expressed by the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Yosef Caro of Palestine, his colleague Moses Isserles of Cracow allowed ball games in public with reference to their enormous popularity.

We also know some details of how those games worked in early modern Europe. In a rabbinical responsum around 1560, Rabbi Moses Provenzal of Mantua explained two versions of a kind of premodern tennis game (one with racket, the other without), which included betting on the winner.

His responsum made clear that on Shabbat one was prohibited from playing for money and should distribute the gains in the form of food products. He also forbade the use of rackets, since they could break and one would be tempted to repair them on Shabbat. Of course, Rabbi Provenzal emphasized, one was not to play during the time of the synagogue sermon. Otherwise he did not object to the game.

In nineteenth-century Central Europe when enthusiasts gathered around the "father" of the gymnastics movement, Turnvater Jahn, Jews were rarely among its pioneers. It wasn't easy for them, either, to participate in a physical exercise closely tied with nationalist romantic notions, which often included a good dose of antisemitism.

By the end of the nineteenth century many gymnastics and sports associations made it clear that they would not welcome Jewish members, and thus they stood in line with student associations and parts of the youth movement. The image of the "Jewish body," which was not considered equal with the "Aryan body," began to play an ever-larger role in the minds of antisemites.

Zionism & the Jewish Body

It was the young Zionist movement, which around the turn of the century took up most fiercely the fight for the equalization of the Jewish body. Zionism not only rose in order to make Europe's Jews resettle in their old home of Palestine, but also to create a "new Jew." In Theodor Herzl's words that meant "aus Judenjungen junge Juden zu machen" (to form young Jews out of Jewish lads). In this respect, the Zionists demanded a completion of emancipation, not just in a mental, but also in a physical sense, thus responding to the earliest calls heard in the fight for emancipation.

Herzl's second man, the extremely popular writer Max Nordau, expressed the Zionist longing for the physical transformation of the Jew bluntly, when he stated in a committee meeting at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898: "We have to think of how to recreate a muscle Jewry [Muskeljudentum]."'

Two years later he returned to this thought in the Judische Turn-Zeitung, the journal of Jewish gymnasts: "In no other nation does gymnastics play such an important role as with us Jews. It is supposed to make our bodies and our character straight. It shall provide us with self-confidence." And during the Zionist Congress in 1901 Nordau integrated the demand for a Muskeljudentum into his often quoted speech to the congress. Thus, the motto of the Jewish sports movement, which makes one smile today, was born.

Jewish Opposition

Some Zionists derided the idea of muscle Jewry even back then. The later founder of the academic study of Jewish mysticism, Gershom (then still Gerhard) Scholem was a famous example. His father was a member of the athletic association Berliner Turnerschaft, which after 1890 became more and more open to antisemitic influences. Scholem pere was also the author of a booklet for gymnasts, which had appeared in 1887.

Gerhard felt a close relation to his uncle Theobald, a cofounder of the Zionist sports club Bar Kochba in Berlin, named after the heroic Jewish fighter against Roman rule in second-century Palestine. Scholem, however, had little sympathy for Jewish--or any other--sports activities. As much as he liked his uncle Theobald, he could not share the uncle's sports enthusiasm:

"In the gymnastics association, which was supposed to give concrete expression to the 'Judaism of muscles,' Max Nordau's dreadful formula for the physical regeneration of the Jews, this man, who represented nothing of the sort, found a relaxation that was rather incomprehensible to me. The formula bothered me from the beginning, and although my uncle kept inviting me to join once I had shown an interest in Zionism, I could never bring myself to satisfy my Jewish enthusiasm, which thirsted for knowledge and insight, with gymnastics."

At the time of Nordau's congress speech in 1901, Jewish sportsmen and sportswomen had already shown considerable success. They had received six gold medals at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. By 1901, there were thirteen Jewish gymnastics and sports clubs in Central Europe--a number that would rise quickly and soon include non-Zionist clubs as well. For many Jews, sports served on the one hand as an important element of strengthening their collective identity as a minority, and on the other hand as a means of integrating into society.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich.