Jews, Sports, and the Rites of Citizenship

Jack Kugel­mass, ed.
  • Review
By – March 26, 2012

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.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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