Being Jewish has never been easy. Pogroms, the Diaspora, and the Holocaust present ample evidence of the persecution of Jews throughout history. But in America, a land founded on the ideals of freedom and democracy, many Jews believed that they had found the new Jerusalem. Although their lifestyle differed from that of most settlers, Jews found freedom to practice their religion and enough economic opportunity to attain a degree of success in Sports. Jews were historically stereotyped as physically weak, unfit, and intellectual. They were considered the people of the book, rather than men and women of the bat (Howe 283).
The conventional wisdom was that Jews were not very much involved in sports. Furthermore, there have been very few prominent Jewish athletes over the past few years, and there were several years in the 1980s when there seemed to be not more than a dozen Jews playing in the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and major league baseball combined. Yet contemporary Jews are making notable contributions to sport, which has long been a significant institution in Jewish American life. Jews were among the very first professional baseball players and among the most outstanding early American track stars.
They dominated inner city sports such as basketball and boxing during the 1920s and 1930s, and produced star performers in virtually all sports. Furthermore, throughout the twentieth century, American Jews have fulfilled major roles in the business, communications, and literary aspects of sport (Solomon 56-60). Today, the relationship between Jewish religion and sport is evident. In many cases, sport was as a growth industry within the university and was a driving force in upgrading the academic reputation of the school as well. Jewish institutions utilized football and basketball as vehicles for upgrading the status of the school.
Athletics is a part of Jewish witness. Nearly every Jew reads the sports pages. What effect does all this emphasis on winning, in the name of the God, have on individuals who are entrenched in the sports establishment? In the first place, if winning is the result of hard work, discipline, and dedication, as most coaches and athletes suppose, then such an emphasis is certainly consistent with the traditional Jewish work ethic that is so much a shaping force in their culture. Some sport sociologists even argue that sport values mirror the core values of Judaism.
The sporting experience Jewish immigrants brought to America was more a product of their regional cultures than of their religious beliefs. The Jews of the Bible admired physical strength, speed, and stamina, and the Bible mentions long-distance runners (who carried information between communities), ball playing, belt wrestling, weight lifting, and such martial skills as archery, horseback riding, fencing, and javelin throwing. In the talmudic era, useful sports such as swimming were encouraged, and several positive references to ball playing and other nonviolent sports are in the Talmud.
Yet physical violence was considered “un-Jewish” in a community that placed spiritual values over sensual and physical values. There was also, though, a recognition that mind and body were indivisible and affected each other. Maimonides, the great eleventh-century philosopher and physician, promoted ball playing, calisthenics, and moderate exercise to promote good health. In the Middle Ages rabbis often permitted ball playing, even on the Sabbath, although they were opposed to gambling sports and hunting for pleasure.
Jews inside the ghetto walls raced pigeons, ice-skated, and enjoyed other sports. German Jewish athletes made notable contributions in sports, including track and football. Daniel Stern, the fourth member of the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) won the first American amateur walking championship in 1876, while Lon Meyers of Richmond was the preeminent nineteenth-century American runner. Lipman Pike, a Brooklynite of Dutch descent, became one of the first professional baseball players in 1866 when he was compensated to play second baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics.
There were even German Jewish football players, including Lucius Littauer, the first Jewish coach, who played (1875, 1877) and coached ( 1881) at Harvard (Riess 89). The first important Jewish sports organization was the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA). The YMHA’s origin dated to 1854 when a club was formed in Baltimore primarily to encourage moral recreation, sociability, and literature for young German Jewish men. The club also supported physical fitness and spirituality on the model of the YMCA. By the mid-1870s there were more than twenty YMHAs, including New York’s preeminent 92d Street YMHA, established in 1874.
The YMHAs were generally in German Jewish neighborhoods and were equipped with gymnasiums and other athletic facilities. By 1900 there were a hundred Y’s, with twenty thousand members. Beginning in 1880, the Y’s hired experienced turners to supervise their fitness programs that became one of their cornerstones. Night classes were organized to teach English, civics, and home economics. After the turn of the century, competitive sports, particularly basketball, were added to their programs, and they also provided meeting space for various athletic clubs (Riess 90-100).
Second-generation eastern European Jews were historically most successful in the sports that did not require much space, provided fame and recognition, and held out the promise of a better life. They took advantage of whatever opportunities were available to take part in athletics, often under the auspices of settlement houses or Jewish organizations that catered to their interests. The best athletes envisioned sport as a means to escape the slums through professional athletics, a college scholarship, or a good job achieved because of their renown.
Inner city Jews, along with other impoverished ethnic groups, did less well in expensive amateur sports that provided no tangible rewards. The history of Jewish American women in sports reveals that as athletes, advocates and administrators, these women shaped the sporting landscape in international contexts. From the early efforts for physical culture and healthful exercise for women at Jewish settlements, to sport programmes at Jewish YM/YWHAs, and to contests at the Maccabiah Games and even in the Olympic Games, Jewish women have played a significant role.
Moreover, Jewish institutions, seeking to conserve religious traditions and ethnic culture, influenced the access to sport of Jewish female youth; as young Jewish women interacted with Jewish and non-Jewish women in situations in sport they gained access to American cultural traditions. Their Jewish identity remained a component of their participation in sport in American life. Sporting activities, therefore, held a considerable place in the lives of numerous Jewish women.
The ideology of sport and physical culture for Jewish women immigrants expresses gender, class, and ethnic concerns of Progressive era middle-class reformers. Female social reformers sought to offer an alternative and inculcate youth into middle-class cultural roles and values. Progressive reformers who believed that women needed physical stamina to fulfill domestic roles and to offset the negative influence of urban conditions on women’s health thought that some kinds of physical training and sports belonged in women’s sphere, as well as men’s (Judith 234).
Jewish women and girls participated in sport and physical education activities various contexts, such as Jewish settlement houses, Young Women’s Hebrew Associations, Jewish youth and social clubs, high schools, colleges and universities, summer camps, and elite country clubs. The goals of organizations sponsoring sports for Jewish women and girls might differ; whether to foster Americanization for eastern European immigrant females, increase physical health, provide social activities in a wholesome atmosphere for working-class young women.
Therefore, in response to “How We Serve the Community” in 1922, the New York Young Women’s Hebrew Association identified their aim of “Physical Education” along with “Dormitory,” “Religious Work,” “Education,” “Commercial School,” and “Trade and Domestic Arts. ” The association’s “Swimming-Tournaments and Contests, Gymnastics, Athletics” presented sports to Jewish women and girls as one element of American culture (YWHA, Twentieth Anniversary Luncheon and Annual Meeting, 5). Religious groups, regardless of their specific affiliation, sought to cultivate sport as a means of keeping their clientele firmly in the fold.
The holy alliance between religion and sport could be witnessed in the large number of church- or synagogue sponsored athletic leagues, usually carrying the title YMCA, YWCA, CYO, JCC, or some similar identifying designation. Needless to say, it was acknowledged by the religious group that participation in sport was healthy for its congregants and unifying for the congregation. Underlying the effort, however, was the conviction that it was more beneficial to the religious institution to have Billy in the YMCA baseball league than its secular counterpart.
Equally, JCC basketball was better than its public recreation rival, and CYO boxing was superior to Golden Gloves competition. In other words, churches and synagogues went into the sport business with a fury and passion that advertised a big-time investment. And it wasn’t just for the kids, either. Leagues were formed for virtually all sports, for both genders, and for every age group imaginable, including post-pubescents, mid-lifers, and golden-oldies. For those who were too immobile, infirm, or corpulent to engage in the traditional sports, bridge and chess were counted as sports (Slater 145).
By the 1970s, religion was learning a valuable lesson from its secular counterpart. It was time for professional religion to imitate professional sport. In so doing, television evangelism was to become a hot franchise. The point here is twofold. First, religion was seeking new avenues of reaching the public that rivaled those of its successful sport adversary. Second, it sought to affirm sport, even to champion its fundamental emphases, in order to align itself with a proven winner.
Or, as Frank Deford says, “The increased interest by religion in sport suggests that sport is now more important in our culture than it has been. Traditionally, religion has moved to where the action is, and in that sense athletics is to be complimented by these ecclesiastical attentions. These are certainly most agreeable times for religion to find a niche in sport” (60). Professional football has emerged as a new religion which supplements – and in some case even supplants – the older religious expressions of Judaism. . .
A few examples clearly illustrate that pro football is indeed Jewish new religion. The players, both rookies (novices) and veterans (ordained clergy), often train in secluded areas. The coaches (the hierarchy) demand total commitment from their charges, including abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Pro football has its distinctive uniform (religious garb) and its weekly ritual of emotional and violent confrontation with the opposing team (sin). And of course there are hundreds of thousands of devout followers who witness and participate in these rituals by invoking traditional and hallowed chants.
It is not unusual for these pilgrims to travel hundreds of miles to witness a game, sometimes braving the bitter cold with the zeal and ardor of ancient martyrs. Moreover, in performing their acts the players intone mysterious incantations and employ a specialized nomenclature that few laymen can comprehend. The games are usually opened with a prayer by a clergyman, who offers prayer before the hushed thousands in the stadium, shamelessly linking God, country and good sportsmanship in his intercessions.
The players as well as the spectators stand in respectful and reverent silence. To be sure, before leaving the dressing room, most teams have already had their “devotions,” led by one of the players. As sport has become an institution which embodies an orientation toward a primary value, it has functioned as religious institutions have with respect to the shaping of Jewish culture, life styles, and personality systems. Regular participation in organized sports helps to fashion a total life perspective by establishing roles, expectations, and norms which apply to everyday world.
Concepts which apply to the ritual (games) filter through into everyday perception. A dominant social sentiment is revived by each game. Roles for everyday encounters are structured as competitive. Games are rehearsals for life. The rightness of competitive roles is reaffirmed in the cultic celebrations of organized sports. Second, just as various religious organizations call on members to provide “testimony” as to the benefits derived from devout faith and commitment to the tradition, sport employs the same technique in promoting its own cause.
Hardly a former or present athlete can be found who is unwilling to extol the virtues of sport as a means for bringing fullness and satisfaction to one’s life. It must not be forgotten that God incarnated himself in a man of the Jewish race. The Aryans and the Gentiles – even the most anti-Semitic – worship their God in a Jewish body. But this Jewish body was not white enough for them. The entire history of Western painting bears witness to the deliberate whitening or bleaching effort that changed Christ from a Semitic to an Aryan person.
The dark hair that Christ was thought to have came to be rendered as very light-colored, and his big dark eyes as blue. It was necessary that this man, the incarnation of God, be as far removed as possible from everything that could suggest darkness or blackness, even indirectly. Needless to say, to a large extent, the sport world has mirrored traditional religion in this respect. Whiteness is applauded and rewarded; blackness rejected. There is no justification that might defend such practices, but, then, none is offered either (Prebish 67-89).
For Jewish religion, there is sacred center: synagogue. If sport religion parallels its traditional religious counterpart, then sacred center in sport becomes monumentally important. Further, the sacred centers of sport are plentiful. They represent, potentially, all the stadiums, arenas, gymnasiums, and other sport structures that dot the cities and countryside. The fact that there is a multiplicity of sacred centers, rather than one single center, is no problem at all, for it is existential and not geometric space that is being considered (Slater 89).
The interior of each sacred center is a symbolic universe, with heavens above and the netherworld below. The various cosmological levels are generally connected by vertical symbols. The sport structure, like the traditional house of worship, is set apart from the ordinary, profane world. Consequently, a series of rituals is required as one crosses the threshold; the boundary between chaos and cosmos, for purification is required of all entrants to the consecrated place.
Since church and stadium alike are places of renewal, recreation, and sanctity, they must be defended at all costs from the various ghosts and demons that populate hostile territories. The sport structure in Jews, no less than the traditional religious edifice, is infused with sacredness as a result of its location as the meeting point between earth and heaven. From the above pages, we can see that religion and sport have been more than extensively related during the last generation of Jewish history.
It is clear, then, that the more closely we analyze the mystique of sports, psychologically and functionally, the more we tend to use religious language to describe it. And no wonder: from its beginning, athletics was regarded as a religious cult Instead of salvation and redemption, the goal is now collective victory. In a manner comparable to the classical period of the Olympic games, the public festivals of Jews are often held in the midst of massive sporting events. What seems certain from the above is that while a number of participants are really not sure whether prayer helps, they simply cannot afford the risk of omission.
On the other hand, an overwhelming number of athletes claim that religious conviction has been a profound factor in enhancing the development of their sport skills. Of course, this means the current close relationship between religion and sport. Every Jew who is interested in both sports and religion can not overlook the unmistakable link between them – and that link is by no means limited to the fact that the lessons of sports lend themselves readily to analogies concerning godly living.
Frank Deford, “Reaching for the Stars,” Sports Illustrated, May 3, 1976. Howe Irving L. World of Our Fathers. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976. Judith R. Baskin. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representations of Women. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1995. Prebish, Charles S. Religion and Sport: The Meeting of Sacred and Profane. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 1993.