Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Jewish Olympics

The 18th Maccabiah begins on July 12 (see the promotional video below). The idea of a worldwide "Jewish Olympics" predates even the birth of Israel going back to 1932. It is held quadrennially and has included many future Olympians, like Mark Spitz and Yael Arad.

This year's event will draw more than 5,300 athletes from around the world, and a couple of thousand from Israel, according to organizers. In recent games, we've seen a number of our own congregants taking part, including Brian Kriftcher and Rob Zabronsky (who are going this year), Daniel Madwed and Larry Holzman..

Israel 21c reports: Swimming, basketball, soccer - with 184 games of soccer scheduled - will be the most popular events, and would you believe it, the Maccabiah Games will also include a chess tournament, a highlight of the event. Michaeli was unfazed when asked why there is a chess tournament in a sporting event. "Chess? We don't have only Olympic [sports], we have chess and bowling and other events," he says. A nice angle of the games is that the Israeli participants also include Israeli Arab citizens - both Muslim and Christian. In the swimming team, for instance, Israeli Arab Dea Mafroua is participating in the breaststroke competition.

The Maccabiah official website features full schedules and video highlights.

As a long-time Maccabiah watcher (I attended the opening ceremonies in 1973), I've always loved the idea of a Jewish Olympics. It might seem anachronistic now, but in 1932, with fascism on the rise and anti-Semitism a worldwide pandemic (even in the US), the Zionist movement sought to remake the image of the Jew. No longer the eternal victim having sand kicked in his face or his beard pulled, the Jew was now an athlete, a farmer, a fighter. No longer the eternal wanderer, the Jew was, at long last, home.

Read this account of the first Maccabiah in 1932 to understand the great pride Jews felt in being able to shed that old image and burst forth onto the world stage in their new, futuristic city of Tel Aviv. The Maccabiah was Herzl's vision come to fruition. "Everyone felt the surge of Jewish history in these Games, from the 1800th anniversary of Bar Kochba’s revolt against the Romans to the 50th anniversary of the Zionist aliya to Eretz Yisrael of the Biluim, the Old and the New combining through the modern Maccabees into Herzl’s Jewish State in-the-making."

And today, we have a plethora of Jewish athletic role models for our kids. Now the question isn't simply how can we instill Jewish pride in our children, but how can we fill them with Jewish values. It's not enough that Jews can run faster and jump higher, we also need to be kinder, more visionary, more compassionate. If there were an ethical Olympics, I would hope we could sweep all the golds - and then donate them to those in need.

Still, I love the Maccabiah and can't wait for the opening ceremonies on July 13. Live broadcasts will available on the Maccabiah website and on JLTV (which is an interesting site to explore in its own right).

And by the way, although it is not connected to the Maccabiah, the JCC Maccabi games are always fun, and this year's will be in our own backyard, in Westchester. Read about it at

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