The Jew­ish Olympics: The His­to­ry of the Mac­cabi­ah Games

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

While as a whole the Jew­ish peo­ple are often type­cast as a cere­bral peo­ple, more inter­est­ed in aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits than in phys­i­cal prowess, Jews have at the same time held a deep love affair with sport. We take pride in the Jew­ish roots of major league play­ers or and cel­e­brate the moments when Jews have open­ly expressed their com­mit­ment to Judaism above the game. These celebri­ties allow us to think dif­fer­ent­ly about the bal­ance Judaism has set between the brain and the body, and to con­sid­er the his­to­ry of Jews in sports as more than just a cel­e­bra­tion of a great pas­time with a Jew­ish twist.

Ron Kaplan’s new book, The Jew­ish Olympics: A His­to­ry of the Mac­cabi­ah Games, has again sparked this con­ver­sa­tion for the avid sports read­er. At the same time, it may open anew this top­ic for those inter­est­ed in the use of sport to cel­e­brate Jew­ish peo­ple­hood, com­bat anti-Semi­tism, fos­ter Zion­ism, and build Jew­ish pride.

Kaplan, a sports and fea­tures edi­tor for the New Jer­sey Jew­ish News, offers us a his­to­ry of the Mac­cabi­ah Games from its incep­tion in 1932 to the cel­e­bra­tion of the nine­teenth games in 2013. Fol­low­ing an intro­duc­tion to the rise of Jew­ish sports clubs, the Mac­cabi Move­ment, and the real­i­ties of Jew­ish life in Europe in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, The Jew­ish Olympics ded­i­cates a chap­ter to each Mac­cabi­ah Games. To dif­fer­en­ti­ate one Mac­cabi­ah Games from the next, Kaplan focus­es on the sur­round­ing his­to­ry, ath­letes, and record of sports com­pe­ti­tion that makes each Mac­cabi­ah Games unique. At the same time, the author paus­es on occa­sion to share Mac­cabi­ah Pro­files,” vignettes about ath­letes whose sto­ries mer­it addi­tion­al atten­tion. It is a fun read for those who love anec­dotes on sports, sports his­to­ry, and the busi­ness of sports.

Each chap­ter opens with a quote that reflects on the impor­tance of the Mac­cabi­ah Games for the Jew­ish peo­ple and the State of Israel at that moment in his­to­ry. For exam­ple, the chap­ter on the ninth Mac­cabi­ah Games, held in July 1973, begins by quot­ing by Chaim Wein — then Mac­cabi­ah Games Orga­niz­ing Chair­man — reflect­ing on the impor­tance of an inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish sports event fol­low­ing the mas­sacre of eleven Israeli ath­letes at the Munich Olympics of 1972. By plac­ing each Mac­cabi­ah Games with­in the larg­er con­text of Jew­ish his­to­ry, the read­er appre­ci­ates how this com­pe­ti­tion brings the Jew­ish peo­ple togeth­er to both cel­e­brate and com­mem­o­rate a yearn­ing for glob­al peo­ple­hood and a love for Israel.

The Jew­ish Olympics con­cludes with a list­ing of Mac­cabi­ah ath­letes who have also won medals in the Olympics. While the top­ic of Jews in sports could be seen as a study for your next Jew­ish triv­ia game, Kaplan’s book does more than that. The Jew­ish Olympics pro­vides both the sports afi­ciona­do and those inter­est­ed more in Jew­ish his­to­ry a win­dow into how the Mac­cabi­ah Games has helped to trans­form Judaism and build the Jew­ish home­land. The Jew­ish Olympics is less con­cerned with get­ting the sports record straight than it is with con­firm­ing one’s appre­ci­a­tion for the Mac­cabi­ah Games as a vehi­cle for engag­ing Jews from all over the world in ways that oth­er aspects of Jew­ish life still strug­gle to do.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions