The American Jewish community is celebrating its 350th anniversary, but only in the last 100 years has this immigrant population sought acceptance as equals with their non-Jewish peers. One of the major arenas for seeking equality and respectability has been through sports, as Jeffrey S. Gurock recounts in Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports. Gurock sheds light on an aspect of the American Jewish experience that challenges preconceptions, transcends the role of entertainment and risks the loss of identity and continuity.
What is honored in athletics contrasts with traditional Jewish values. The ba’al guf, or the Jewish “tough guy,” may have been admired in the shtetl as someone who defended other Jews when they were under physical threat, but it was the intellectual and industrious Jewish immigrant who was lionized and who ultimately fit into American society. Zealous pursuit of sports was trivialized and regarded as mere time-wasting in a community populated by working-class souls. But then, after the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, a new Jewish hero emerged, one who displayed physical prowess and who, as reflected in a popular cartoon image of the time, refused to let sand be kicked in his face.
Gurock analyzes the inherent conflict in contrasting views of what constitutes appropriate Jewish behavior in a pluralistic society: assimilation vs. separation; strict adherence to religious law vs. accommodation; study vs. play. These choices created tension within the Jewish community, and then, in the latter part of the 20th century, a new element was introduced: inter-denominational competition pitting the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism against each other.
Set against the seductiveness of an open society, conflicts arose regarding the role of athletics and recreational facilities in Jewish community life. Initially, debate raged over whether recreational sports activities would be a useful vehicle for connecting children to their synagogue, bringing them into the building to play and to pray. Increasingly, the question became whether or not to offer interscholastic sports programs. Later, the issue of whether girls as well as boys ought to participate on teams arose, with questions regarding against whom they should compete, even who should be permitted as spectators. Influencing these discussions was the role of Yeshiva University’s sports program, particularly in basketball, which was admired by some and criticized by others.
Sports would seem to be an uncomplicated way to encourage the goal of a society of equals, except that in Judaism, athletics reveals basic social values and may conflict with traditional beliefs. Gurock frames the problem in a well-researched, provocative, balanced way. He conveys how sports provide a vehicle for understanding society’s changes and how these changes impact not only the Jewish community, internally, but its relations within the larger society, as well.