“The Jew in the Gym: Judaism, Sports, and Athletics on Film”

Nathan Abrams, Bangor University, Wales

In the classic 1980 spoof Airplane, a passenger requests some light reading from a flight attendant.  "How about this leaflet, 'Famous Jewish Sports Legends'?" she responds.    The representations of Jewish sportsmen in cinema, with the exception of Chariots of Fire and early boxing films, have been few and far between.  While American cinema frequently depicts Jews playing basketball, this is often for fun and not in any seriously competitive and/or professional sense.  There have been exceptions, however, and key Jewish characters in recent film have been defined by their athleticism.  For example, sport has been used in many films as a means for Jews to assimilate, charting the clash between ethnic specificity and the mainstream culture and the struggle to pass from the former to the latter.  By exploring a series of recent films, this paper explores how these representations recycle, play with, and debunk the underlying previous stereotypes of the weak, intellectual, studious, and nonathletic Jew.  Films to be studied include Chariots of Fire, Juno, The Royal Tenebaums, School Ties, Sixty Six, Sunshine, Waterboy, and Wondrous  Oblivion, among others.


“Who Is That Masked Man? Buster Haywood and Black Baseball's Invisible Jews”

Rebecca Alpert, Temple University

In baseball the catcher crouches behind home plate, creating the target with his body for the pitcher to throw the ball.  Catchers wear special equipment to protect themselves:  shin guards, chest protectors, masks.  Those masks serve not only to protect, but also to conceal.  This article tells the story of one catcher, Albert Elliott "Buster" Haywood (1910-2000), whose mask hid a multitude of complex identities and concerns, including his connection to a community of Hebrew Israelites and his thoughts about the clowning tradition in the Negro leagues where he spent his career.  Haywood played professional baseball from 1932-1954, primarily for two Jewish owners:  H. Z. Plummer, whose team the Belleville Grays played a vital role in the Hebrew Israelite community, and Syd Pollock, who owned and operated the controversial  Ethiopian (later Indianapolis) Clowns team that played independently and also in the Negro American League.  At the end o his career, Haywood had strategic yet hidden connections to the storied tales of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Toni Stone (the first woman to play professional baseball) that accompanied the demise of segregated baseball in the 1950s.  Haywood's own story reveals much about black baseball and Jewish participation in it. 

“Jewish Women in the American Gym: Basketball, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Early Twentieth Century"

Linda J.  Borish, Western Michigan University

Basketball for Jewish women, generally neglected by historians of American sport and women, and Jewish sport history scholars, represents a topic of considerable importance in understanding historical experiences of Jews in the gym. My research suggests Jewish women played basketball at settlement houses; Young Men’s Hebrew Associations, with women as auxiliary members, where women faced gender constraints of access to the male spaces of the sporting facilities; Young Women’s Hebrew Associations, before YM-YWHAs merged; and later early JCCs.  In various regions of the United States, Jewish American women, as immigrants, played basketball as part of "Americanizing" and  gaining physical health, and some Jewish women competed  against other Jewish women for ethnic pride and charity fundraising; at some Jewish institutions, Jewish women played against intercity teams and Christian Ys for larger championships. As stated in 1916 by Mrs. Bella Unterberg, founder of the first YWHA in New York City and leader of the YWHA movement, “It is the finest thing a Young Women's Society can start with, with the gymnasium and the basket-ball teams for your recreational work."  

Gender and ethnicity shaped aspects of Jewish women’s involvement in basketball.  The founder of women's basketball, Senda Berenson, was a Jewish immigrant and maintained specific gender rules for the game to differentiate it from the men's basketball game. Yet some American Jewish women wanted to play basketball in a more vigorous competitive game in the early twentieth century and displayed their skills on teams of Jewish cultural institutions and other American teams.

This research material about the role of Jewish women in American basketball draws on archives of Jewish cultural and religious institutions.  It is also instructive to see how the American press and some American Jewish newspapers viewed women's basketball.

"American Jewry's Contemporary Scoreboard: Home and Away""

Jeffrey Gurock, Yeshiva University

The substance of this talk is how the Jewish athletic experience in this country from the late nineteenth century to the start of the twenty-first can be used as a metaphor for understanding and calibrating degrees of Jewish acceptance and integration as a minority group and as a religious community in a free and changing American society. The talk also highlights the emergence of the history of Jewish athleticism as a serious academic pursuit.

“Cutting Their Way to Success: Hungarian Jewish Sportsmen at the Olympic Games, 1928-1936”

Mihály Kálmán, Harvard University

The second half of the interwar era saw a high watermark of Hungarian Jewish sport, while antisemitism began to engulf the country. In fact, it is fair to say that on the level of the Olympics, Jewish sport was predominantly Hungarian, with 40% of Jewish medalists representing Hungary, and that Hungarian sport was predominantly Jewish, with 55% of the medalists being of Jewish origin. The triumph of Hungarian Jews was particularly conspicuous in the sport of fencing, previously an aristocratic pastime associated with knightly virtues and abilities, but Jews were also well represented in a number of other sports. In my paper I look at representations of Jewish participants in the Olympic Games in Jewish and non-Jewish periodicals, and examine how the Hungarian press reconciled the resounding success of Jewish sportsmen with the increasingly antisemitic attitude ruling in the country. Through this prism I also address larger questions regarding the self-image of Hungary in the interwar years, public perceptions of Jews, the role of the press in instigating or stifling antisemitism, and the role of these sportsmen in shaping public opinion.  

“Grappling with Ghosts: Jewish Wrestlers and Antisemitism”

William Kornblum, CUNY, Phillip Oberlander, and Erin Siodmak, CUNY

Our paper deals with the influence of Jewish wrestlers on their sport from the late 1920s to the present.  Using methods of memoir, historical reconstruction, oral history, and archival research, the paper focuses on the social influences on the careers of four Jewish wrestlers who gained notoriety in their sport in the twentieth century:  Fred Oberlander wrestled for the Hakoah in Vienna during the period of National Socialist takeover; Henry Wittenberg (who passed away on March 9, 2010) was the most accomplished amateur wrestler in American history (Olympic gold and silver medalist, and nine times United States heavyweight champion in freestyle); Phillip Oberlander represented Canada in two Olympic Games; and Stephen Friedman, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, was a champion collegiate wrestler, who recently donated a major wrestling facility to Cornell University, putting that institution once again at the center of the nation’s collegiate  wrestling scene.  Not all of these athletes confronted the direct antisemitism that Fred Oberlander experienced and that led him to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the career of each of these athletes is formed by the desire of Jewish athletes to prove themselves in a milieu where strength and agility count more than one’s religion. 

“A Global Game: Omri Casspi and the Future of Jewish Ballers”

David J. Leonard, Washington State University

One of the more hyped and media saturated stories of the 2009-2010 NBA seasons has been the arrival of Omri Casspi, a rookie with the Sacramento Kings.  Treated like a “rock star” and receiving tremendous fan support throughout the league, Casspi’s Jewish identity has been placed front and center. While not the first Jew to play or even excel in the NBA, Casspi is the first Israeli to play in the NBA and as such has received ample support from the Jewish-American community. According to Andy Altman-Ohr, “Fans in opposing arenas welcomed Casspi with banners and Israeli flags, and even Sports Illustrated

While this paper will examine Casspi’s emergence as an international phenomenon, focusing on the ways in which specific teams (through Jewish-theme nights) have commodified his Jewish identity as well as the ways in which media narratives have used his Jewishness as part of telling his unique story, this paper works to situate Casspi’s ascendance to the NBA within a broader history of the NBA’s globalization into Israel. The success of Maccabi Tel Aviv and the influx of former and future NBA players have made basketball a huge success in Israel, argues Jeremy Fine in his Blog post about basketball and Israel: “Young Israeli children are growing up watching these great athletes and wanting to play the game.” In other words, the emergence of Omri Casspi as both a symbol of Jewish athletic success and the media sensation that surrounds him is an outgrowth of not only the globalization of the NBA in terms of its international popularity, but is also a result of the influx of NBA-quality players who have been instrumental in transforming basketball in Israel.  This paper examines this phenomenon and offers insight into its broader cultural, social, and basketball implications.

“Is Life a Game? Judaism, Sports, and Athletics”

Steven Riekes, Omaha, Nebraska

In his book, The Gentleman and the Jew, the British and Jewish author and lecturer, Maurice Samuel, argues that at the heart of Western civilization is a pagan (Greco-Roman) philosophy, not a Jewish or Judeo-Christian one.  That philosophy maintains that life is a game.  Athletic competition is the symbolic essence of this view.

In what Samuel describes as the “sporting formulation of life,” the ideal man, while playing by the rules, strives to be the champion.  He is a winner, not a loser in this game.  The purpose of the game is not merely athletic, but to “keep alive the combative spirit.”

According to Samuel, Judaism (and also Christianity, as he understands it) is alien to this philosophy and completely rejects “the pagan glorification of life as a game and of man as a fighter.”

Samuel’s theory deserves to be explored.  If it has merit, its ramifications and implications would be highly significant.  Our culture is permeated with language of athletic competition.  Sports constitute a huge portion of our literature, our media, and our entertainment.  It is people’s daily conversation and preoccupation. 

Many look at athletic competition as a source of moral values.  The symbolism of sports competition may also relate to our views concerning other major components of our culture, such as our economy and legal system.  It may define our sense of masculinity.  It may even determine our personal relations, especially if we see others as either winners or losers.

It is possible that Samuel’s theory may enlighten our understanding of war, which Samuel claims to be the ultimate game.  Judaism’s opposition to this philosophy may explain, in part, the persistence and virulence of antisemitism.

The purpose of this presentation is to explore these issues.

“Antisemitism and Sport in Central Europe and the United States, c. 1870-1932”

Steven A. Riess, Northeastern Illinois University

This project is a comparative study of Jewish sport and antisemitism in Central Europe and the United States, where Jews participated in sport, seeking assimilation and acceptance.  Jews were actually more successful in sport in Germany, Hungary, and Austria than in the United States, yet their achievements failed to gain them acceptance or protect them from the Holocaust (vividly depicted in the film Sunshine).

In Central Europe, sport was a vehicle for exhibiting nationalistic sentiments, and Jewish athletes came up against volkish requirements for citizenship and acceptance. Jews nonetheless joined the main gymnastic movements and participated in aristocratic sports such as fencing,  middle class table tennis, and lower class boxing and soccer to gain recognition and counter negative stereotypes.  Jews wanted to be   involved in the host countries’ national priorities and goals.  They participated disproportionately in gymnastics clubs and won far more than their share of Olympic medals, and world fencing and table tennis championships. Instead of hastening integration, emancipation accelerated Jewish exclusion and ironically led to a greater sense of ethnic identification as they formed Zionist sports organizations like Vienna’s Hakoah.

The American experience was somewhat different because sport was more successful in promoting acculturation and social mobility in a more democratic society. On the other hand, Jewish Americans did not achieve the renown of European Jews, who won a disproportionate share of Olympic medals and sports awards, but did not pave the way for complete assimilation.  German Jews participated in the Turner movement and mainstream sports, and became sports entrepreneurs. Yet when they encountered overt antisemitism in elite sports clubs by the 1880s, they also responded by creating Jewish voluntary organizations (YMHAs, track clubs, and country clubs). 

The arrival of two million Eastern Europeans, unfamiliar with sport and stereotyped as physically unfit and unaccustomed to "manly" labor, complicates the narrative.  Their sons hoped to become “real Americans,” despite parental opposition, by following baseball and participating in sports that fit in with their inner city neighborhoods, notably boxing, basketball, and track, which they hoped would earn them personal acceptance and respect from the broader society for their ethnic group. However, they had little success in baseball because of their limited access to baseball diamonds, and those who made the major leagues encountered so much antisemitism that they frequently played under pseudonyms.   Antisemitism expanded due to perceived Jewish involvement in the 1919 World Series fix that nearly destroyed the national pastime.

“The Jewish Athlete of Faith: On the Limits of Sport”

Danny Rosenberg, Brock University, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada 

This presentation explores two personality types that evoke an existential struggle for the person of faith generally, and one who participates in sport specifically. Based on the book The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most important Talmudist and Jewish thinker of the twentieth century who bridged strict Orthodox Jewish law and practice together with the conditions of modernity, the two personae emerge from the two accounts of the creation of man in Genesis. As such, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s message has a universal appeal.

In Genesis 1:28, Adam I is commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it.” His nature is to strive for dignity by mastering his environment. He assumes a pragmatic and utilitarian approach and exemplifies creativity and majesty in fulfilling this task. In Genesis II, Adam II seeks redemption by trying to control himself. He is submissive and humble, seeking an intimate relationship with God and other human beings to overcome his inadequacies and incompleteness. While Adam I creates and operates within a natural work community, Adam II is part of a covenantal faith community.

Both personality types are divinely mandated and exist not only on communal levels, but also within each human being. It is our nature to quest for both dignity and redemption. However, in doing so, we oscillate between these two dimensions of our character and modes of existence, knowing that we can never realize completely the aspirations of Adam I and Adam II. The result of this constant dialectic for Adam I is unproblematic as long as a functional, utilitarian community is sustained. Adam II or the person of faith, on the other hand, is tormented by this oscillation, whose outcome is a deep and profound experience of loneliness.

Contemporary people of faith (Adam II) feel an acute sense of loneliness because modern society (Adam I) is so successful and relentless in achieving its majestic secular goals in creatively advancing knowledge, technology, and cultural institutions, including sport. Their alienation is compounded because most people in modern society are unable or unwilling to speak the language of those in the faith community and have mostly forgotten or abandoned the faith element of their dual character.

In this presentation, I describe in more detail Rabbi Soloveitchik’s phenomenology of the faith personality and demonstrate that contemporary sport is a distinctive modern project of Adam I, where victory, success, beauty, records, and overcoming the environment and the challenges of competitors are accomplished through crass commercialism, political machinations, secular cultural categories, and scientific and technological endeavors. I will also provide examples of Jewish athletes of faith (Adam II), who have expressed the experience of loneliness as members of the sport community and the redemptive-seeking covenantal community. Perhaps by addressing these aspects of modern sport, those who are dedicated to the best sport has to offer can forge a much-needed line of communication and understanding.

“From Benny Leonard to Abi Olajuwon: Jews, Muslims, Evangelicals and the Evolving Challenges of Being an American Athlete”

Ori Z. Soltes, Georgetown University

This paper begins by noting that for early twentieth century Jewish immigrants, sports offered both a way out of the ghetto and a way into the American mainstream. Dominating boxers like Benny Leonard—the “Ghetto Wizard”—in the 1920s exemplify the first aspect of this issue, and baseball star Hank Greenberg, in the 1930s, the second. The paper observes, next, that the importance of baseball in particular is reflected in the iconization of Hank Greenberg, expressed in different ways in literature and visual art by Jews. So, too, from Leonard to Greenberg and beyond, being a Jew and an athlete offered challenges regarding how to be both in a Christian cultural context: how does one manage to observe the Sabbath, the Jewish holidays and Kashrut when game schedules ignore Jewish needs and kosher food is unavailable?

Interestingly, conundra parallel to these present themselves to members of other religious minorities in America, most obviously in recent decades, Muslims. Hakeem Olajuwon arrived from Nigeria as an immigrant-basketball player for University of Houston and went on to a Hall-of-Fame career in the NBA. Sports offered a way out of Africa and into the American mainstream. His daughter, Abu, is now a college star. For both of them the questions arise: how to fast all day for a month when Ramadan falls during the basketball season—and how to find hallal food to eat. For her, the further question is how to accommodate Islam’s prescriptions for women to the skimpy garments worn by basketball players.

Finally, how has the growing presence of evangelicals in American sports added a further layer to this: how does an evangelical resist evangelizing, and how do Jewish or Muslim athletes respond to prayer pressures from Christian coaches and teammates?

"Sporting a Nation: The Origins of the Maccabiah Games"

Nina Spiegel, American University

This talk investigates the first Maccabiah in Tel Aviv in 1932.  Seen as a "Jewish Olympics," the Maccabiah included the usual diversity of Olympic sports competitions for men and women.  Jewish athletes from approximately twenty-seven nations participated in the Games.  The Games were connected to the urban growth of Tel Aviv and viewed as an opportunity to represent the new Hebrew city. 

The Maccabiah offered a new standard for Jewish bodies, with an emphasis on the male physique.  Although women participated actively in the Games, only men were featured in advertisements and posters.  Based on the ancient Greek model, there were almost no discussions on women and there were no disputes or questions over how the ideal man should appear: he was supposed to be strong, tough, and muscular.

At their conclusion, the Games were viewed as a great achievement and as a testimony to the regeneration of the Jewish body.  However, in the months preceding the event, there were a series of debates as to whether the Maccabiah should take place at all.  This talk examines how the Maccabiah was established, focusing on its goals to reconfigure the Jewish body.

“Playing Roman in Jerusalem”

Loren R. Spielman, Portland State University

This paper investigates Jewish attitudes toward Greek and Roman athletics during the Second Temple period, particularly during the reign of Herod the Great (40 BCE-4 BCE).  Concentrating on Herod’s establishment of festival games in Jerusalem in the later part of the first century BCE, I argue against the widely held view that Jews were predominantly resistant to athletic competition and other forms of spectacle entertainment during the Herodian period. 

A conventional narrative views the Jerusalem games as one of Herod’s rare and uncharacteristic blunders. Motivated by his zeal for Hellenism and his personal involvement with the Roman Imperial elite, Herod attempted to force Roman culture on a predictably resistant Jewish audience.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Jews were outraged that Herod built a theater and amphitheater in Jerusalem.  Herod was able to calm his more moderate opponents, but the Jerusalem games seem to fade into obscurity.  Jewish resistance to these games and their apparent failure serve, in the scholarship of the last century, as the most convincing evidence for Jewish acrimony or ambivalence towards athletics during antiquity.  

This paper re-evaluates Herod’s possible motives for hosting games in Jerusalem and re-assesses the inevitability of their failure.  Despite Josephus’ statements to the contrary, a broad survey of the evidence from the Second Temple period demonstrates that Jewish attitudes toward Greek and Roman games during this era were complex and variegated.  Some Jews, including but not exclusively from the Diaspora, were interested in, if not fanatic about, sports and spectacle.   I argue that Herod planned his games with these Jews in mind, in order to attract their interest in Jerusalem not only as his capital, but also as the center of the Jewish world.