Judais­m’s Encounter with Amer­i­can Sports

Jef­frey S. Gurock
  • Review
By – August 10, 2012

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.

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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