Dr. Uriel Simri
The vicissitudes of fate experienced
by the Jewish People in the modern era have inevitably led to
too little attention being paid to many vital aspects of Jewish
life. One such aspect is sports. Involvement in sports is universal
throughout today's world. It serves as a bridge between nations
and peoples, between nations and Israel, and between Israel and
the Diaspora, as expressed by the Maccabiah Games. Physical culture
and involvement in sports are among the processes that the Jewish
People have undergone in the modern era.
The end of the eighteenth century is seen as the dawning of the era of modern
sport. Jews were already involved in athletic activities by that time. Among
the early top boxers who made their appearance in the English sports arena were
Jews such as Samuel Elias, Barney Aaron, the Belasco brothers, and Isaac Bitton.
The best known among them was Daniel Mendoza, of Portuguese origin, who held
the English boxing crown during the years 1792 to 1795. The boxing matches
of "Mendoza the Jew" - as he proudly called himself - received wide
acclaim. Numerous editorial cartoons and stories about Mendoza circulated in
the press during that time, and popular ditties were composed in his honor.
Mendoza, who was a source of pride to his people, became the favorite of the
The Prince of Wales was one of his fans.
Mendoza is considered the father of "scientific boxing." He transformed
the sport from one of pure violence and brawn into an art and a "battle
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Jews such as Lipman Pike, Lon Myers,
and Louis Rubinstein were prominent figures among the elite in the world of sport.
In 1866, Pike became America's first professional baseball player. Myers was
the fastest runner in the world during the 1880s. And, Canadian Rubinstein captured
the first World title in figure skating in 1890.
In the first half of the twentieth century, many Jewish athletes turned to sports
that demanded outstanding strength. Some explained this as an attempt to crush
the image of the Jew as a weakling. Professional boxing also brought young Jewish
athletes high income and prestige, especially in the years preceding World War
The list of World boxing champions in different weight classes includes 29 Jewish
boxers'23 from the United States, and 3 each from France (North Africa)
and Great Britain. The most outstanding among them are America's Benny
Leonard and Barney Ross. Leonard held the World Lightweight title from 1917 to
1925, retiring undefeated. His countryman, Barney Ross, held at least one or
the other of three World boxing titles between 1933 and 1938, and was both World
Lightweight and Welterweight Champion in 1934 and 1935 (the first boxer to ever
hold two World titles simultaneously). In the amateur ranks, Jewish boxers and
wrestlers representing eight countries have won 19 Olympic medals. And many of
those same athletes, as well as others, have captured numerous world titles.
Another sport in which Jews have excelled is fencing. Among the winners of
Olympic medals and world titles in this sport are Jews from Austria, Belgium,
Britain, Denmark, Hungary, France, and the United States. Fencing was considered
a "Jewish sport"in the Soviet Union as well. Olympic gold medalists
such as Mark Midler,
Mark Rakita, and Grigory Kriss have brought considerable honor to that
Jewish athletes have also enjoyed notable achievements in table tennis. The most
famous Jewish table tennis player is Hungary's Viktor Barna, winner of
23 World titles during the 1920s and 1930s. Second to Barna is Richard Bergmann,
of Austria and Great Britain, winner of seven World titles between 1936 and 1953.
The Hungarian table tennis team, which held the World championship eight times
between 1927 and 1935, was composed almost entirely of Jewish players'as
was the Austrian team that took the title from Hungary in 1936. In the years
following World War II, Romania's Angelica Roseanu was the most prominent
Jewish figure in table tennis. Beginning in 1950, she won 17 World titles. (She
currently resides in Israel.)
In track and field (athletics)- "the queen of sports" - Jews
also figure prominently. The list of Olympic champions includes athletes
such as Myer Prinstein (United States) in 1900 and 1904, Harold Abrahams (Great
Britain) 1924, Elias Katz (Finland) 1924,
Gerald Ash-worth (United States) 1964, Fanny Rosenfeld (Canada) 1928, Lillian
(United States) 1932, Irena Kirszenstein (Poland) 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, and
Faina Melnik (Soviet Union) 1972. In fact, there is almost no Olympic sport
that does not list among its champions outstanding Jewish athletes.
Among the ranks of outstanding Jewish basketball players and coaches in the United
States are Nat Holman, "Red" Auerbach, Harry Litwack, "Red" Holzman,
Dolph Schayes, and Max Zaslofsky. Major League Baseball lore includes the
names Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and Al Rosen. And, prominent among American
football players, amateur and/or professional, are such Jewish stars as Sid Luckman,
Benny Friedman, Marshall Goldberg, and Ron Mix, as well as coaches Sid Gillman,
Marv Levy, and Al Davis.
The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. Three hundred eleven
athletes representing 13 countries, participated in 42 events (within nine different
sports) at these Games, and there was a respectable representation of Jews among
them. Five Jews won 10 medals (8 gold): German gymnast Alfred Flatow won 3 gold
medals and 1 silver; gymnast Gustav Felix Flatow (Alfred's cousin) won
2 gold medals; Hungarian swimmer Alfred Hajos-Guttmann won 2 gold medals; Austrian
swimmer Paul Neumann won 1 gold medal; and Otto Herschmann, another Austrian
swimmer, won a bronze medal.
In 1912, Herschmann won a second Olympic medal, a silver, in fencing. He thereby
became the first athlete to receive Olympic medals in two different sports. In
1924, 28 years after winning his gold medals in swimming, Hajos-Guttmann received
his third Olympic medal, a silver, for designing sports facilities. (Silver was
the highest honor presented in the design competition.)
Space does not permit enumeration of all the Jewish athletes who won medals
in the 26 Summer and 19 Winter Olympic Games. Suffice it to say that Jews have
been the recipients of more than 325 medals and more than 135 of them gold.
the greatest number of medals in one Olympiad is U. S. swimmer Mark Spitz.
Spitz won seven gold medals at the Munich Games in 1972, setting new world
in each of his events, including three relay races. Four years earlier, at
the Olympics in Mexico City, Spitz won "only" two gold medals, one
silver medal, and one bronze. Among all Olympians of the modern Games, Spitz
for second as the recipient of most gold medals and is seventh for most medals
The most successful Jewish woman athlete to participate in the Olympics is
Hungarian gymnast Agnes Keleti, a winner of 10 Olympic medals-5 gold, 3 silver,
2 bronze-in the Games of 1948, 1952, and 1956. Keleti's 11 Olympic
medals rank her second (tied) among all women athletes in overall medals won,
and fifth in gold medals won. She has lived in Israel since 1957.
Jews have not only been outstanding athletes. They have also figured prominently
among the leaders of the sports world. As early as the eve of World War I,
American Charlotte Epstein fought successfully for the introduction of
sanctioned women's swimming events in the United States, and she stood at the
of this sport in her country for many years. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hakoah-Vienna's
Austrian soccer was guided by the skillful hands of Hugo Meisl. And, sports
for the handicapped, which developed on an international scale after World
owes a debt of gratitude to its initiator, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a German Jewish
doctor who fled to Britain during the war. These leaders are just a few among
It was Max Nordau's call for the creation of a "new Jew"and
for "muscular Judaism"at the second World Zionist Congress in
1898 that marked the beginnings of a new awareness of physical culture among
Jews, particularly in Europe. At the turn of the century, Jewish gymnastics clubs
were established, encouraging thousands of Jewish youngsters to engage in physical
exercise and serving as a framework for nationalistic activity.
As early as 1895, German Jews living in Constantinople had established the first
Jewish gymnastics club after being expelled from the local nationalistic German
club. In 1897, a Jewish gymnastics club called Gibor (later changed to Samson)
was founded in Phillipople, Bulgaria. While the Jewish club in Constantinople
was created as a result of anti-Semitic activity, the one in Bulgaria was an
expression of newly aroused Jewish national consciousness-following the
example of "Sokol,"the national Slavic gymnastics movement. Anti-Semitism
and Jewish nationalism, then, were responsible for the spread of the Jewish gymnastics
Max Nordau's exhortation did not fall upon deaf ears. In 1898, the Bar
Kochba Club was organized in Berlin, and within a short time, dozens of other
Jewish gymnastics clubs sprang up, mainly in German-speaking countries. This
widespread activity resulted in the establishment in 1903 of the Juedische
Turnerschaft, an umbrella organization for Jewish gymnastics clubs. The gymnastics
that members of the Turnerschaft performed for delegates of the Seventh Zionist
Congress in Basel, and for subsequent Congresses, aroused emotion and pride.
They are tangible evidence of the connection between Jewish physical culture
and the Jewish national movement.
Following the German tradition, the first Jewish sports clubs were devoted
solely to gymnastics. Beginning in 1906, however, broader-based sports clubs
established. Hungarian Jews were pioneers in the field, establishing the
VAC Club, the Hungarian fencing and athletic club Vivó és Athletikai
Club in Budapest that year, and in 1909, the Hakoah Club of Vienna.
By the beginning of World War I, the Jewish athletic movement had spread to other
European and Middle Eastern countries as well. Though the war closed many clubs,
it also provided the impetus for the creation of new ones. A case in point is
the Warsaw club. The Russian regime had forbidden the organization of a Jewish
athletic club, but German occupation authorities, in 1915, allowed Jews
to form a Maccabi club. This was to be the largest Jewish athletic club in Europe
during the period between the two world wars.
The political changes wrought by World War I led to the establishment of dozens
of new Jewish sports clubs, and a new umbrella organization was created in 1921-the
Maccabi World Union (MWU). The MWU united most of the Jewish athletic clubs.
The regulations of the organization stated: "The goal of the Union is the
physical and moral rejuvenation of Jews for the sake of restoration and existence
of the Jewish land and people."
In the period between the two world wars, the activities of the MWU spread throughout
the Jewish world, reaching as far as Australia, South America, and South Africa.
The center of activity, nonetheless, remained in Europe in the form of hundreds
of Maccabi clubs. Most prominent were the previously mentioned Hakoah Club of
Vienna and Hagibor Club of Prague, whose notable achievements in national and
international track and field and swimming competitions aroused pride and identification
among European Jewry. The greatest of them all was the Hakoah soccer team, which
captured the Austrian championship in 1925. The best Jewish soccer players in
Central Europe joined its ranks, bringing the team worldwide acclaim. Everywhere
the club went-Europe, the United States, and Eretz Israel-it aroused
enthusiasm and pride among fellow Jews.
In addition to athletic activities, the Maccabi clubs became the center of extensive
cultural and social activities. They were more than just sports organizations
that promoted physical fitness; they also wielded considerable influence among
The Maccabi World Union was not the only organization concerned with physical
culture. During the 1930s, the Hapoel organization in Eretz Israel operated dozens
of athletic clubs in the Diaspora, mainly in Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Despite
prevailing political and financial limitations, they carried out numerous athletic
and social activities. Betar was also active in promoting sports for Jewish youth.
The Betar clubs in China and Manchuria were outstanding both in the scope of
their activities and in the quality of their athletic achievements.
In addition to these avowedly Zionist frameworks, other Jewish athletic clubs
should be mentioned-the clubs of the Bund in Poland, the United States,
and Canada and the network of sports facilities established in the magnificent
Jewish community centers built by North American Jewry. These centers continue
to flourish today.
Max Nordau's exhortation to rejuvenate "muscular Judaism"has
fallen on fertile ground indeed. Today in Israel, as well as in the Diaspora,
sports have become an accepted endeavor for Jews of all classes and all ages.
For athletes and fans alike, sports have become a focus of identification-and
an integral part of our lives.
one of the world's foremost educators and authorities on physical culture.
Executive Director of the International Jewish
Sports Hall of Fame from its inception in 1981 through 1989, Simri
was associated with Wingate Institute in various positions
since 1966. He served as its deputy director, scientific director,
director of the Instructional Media Division, and director of the
Department of Social Sciences. An international lecturer and governmental
advisor, he is a past president of the Society for the History
of Physical Education and Sport in Asia and was secretary/treasurer
of the International Society for Comparative Physical Education
and Sport. Simri was the first Israeli selected to officiate at
Olympic Games competition, named in 1956 as a basketball referee
for the Melbourne Olympics. From 1954 to 1961, he served as an
international basketball referee under F.I.B.A.