Jack Kugelmass, director of Jewish studies at Arizona State University, has selected eleven essays, based on conference presentations, to illustrate the role of sports in determining cultural identity. The essays found in Jews, Sports and the Rites of Citizenship illuminate what seems to be a contradiction: why do we celebrate physical prowess, yet the Bible conveys that “Jewish lineage is traced through Jacob, not Esau”? We know that physicality was prized in Europe, as evinced by Jewish boxers, gymnasts, and football (i.e., soccer) players, and it also served as a response to anti-Semitism and exclusion. And this led to the modern Maccabiah Games, with its dual function: offering a sports competition and smuggling Jewish immigrants beyond the mandated quota into Palestine.
These essays are based on history and anthropology but they also offer a compelling analysis of modernity. For example, in his discussion of Arab attendance at soccer games in modern Israel, Tamir Sorek proposes that the bleachers encourage integration through “extensive use of Hebrew, the ungrudging attitude towards the Jewish players, and the exclusion of Palestinian symbols.” Using language and adopting the dominant culture’s symbols provide similarities with how Jewish children acculturated in America, and suggests why Abraham Cahan encouraged immigrant parents to let their children learn American games such as baseball, lest they become “foreigners in their own country.”
Sports serve as a vehicle for social mobility, and for integration vs. exclusion. Their role determines a people’s perception of itself, and how those outside the group regard them. Citizenship and nationhood cannot be divorced from both the physical and the intellectual attributes of a group, which these authors clearly convey.