Jews & Sports on the International Scene

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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.