JEWS IN THE WORLD OF SPORTS: A HISTORICAL VIEW By: 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 English masses. 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 of wits."

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 II.

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, Great 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 nation.

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 Copeland (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 athlete who captured 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 records 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 is tied for second as the recipient of most gold medals and is seventh for most medals overall.

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, and 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 helm of this sport in her country for many years. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hakoah-Vienna's "Wunderteam"of Austrian soccer was guided by the skillful hands of Hugo Meisl. And, sports for the handicapped, which developed on an international scale after World War II, 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 many.

"Muscular Judaism"
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 movement.

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 displays 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 were also 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 Jewish communities.

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.

Dr. Simri is 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.

 

 

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