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New York Yankels: Jewish Sports Legends?

Elaine Dickinson: “Would you like something to read?”

Hanging Lady: “Do you have anything light?

Elaine Dickinson: “How about this leaflet; ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends?’”

(Airplane, 1980)


The satirical element of this line is clear: Jews are generally not as successful in professional athletics as they are in more academic pursuits. This rings very true in our own institution, where the Yeshiva Maccabeats are much more revered and renowned beyond the confines of Yeshiva University, while the Yeshiva Maccabees are an unsung entity outside of the Wilf and Beren Campuses. However, despite the statistics that could be used to support this statement (for example, nearly 200 of the Nobel Prize winners between 1901 and 2010 were of Jewish ancestry, accounting for twenty-two percent; the percentage of Jewish MVP winners is nowhere near as impressive), its legitimacy has many different angles from a historical standpoint. In this article, we will discuss three such angles.

It is quite ironic that in the past century, the term “Maccabee” has been synonymous with Jewish sports. Although their valor and persistent strength lends for a great athletic team name, the stress placed by the Hellenized Jews on organized sports is exactly what the High Priest Matityahu and his son Judah Maccabee condoned; interestingly, upon gaining control of Jerusalem, Judah abolished sporting events from taking place in the city of Jerusalem. One reason the Maccabees opposed sports was physical: usually, the athletes involved in these events were wearing very little or no clothing (going against the classic Jewish precepts of tzeniut). The other major point of contention was ethical in nature. Greek sporting events and competitions tended to glorify self-indulgence. Events such as gladiator fights encouraged the rampant murdering of underprivileged people, usually slaves, and constituted one of the three cardinal sins that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) says a person must die for. Above all, these spectator sports took Jews away from the settings of the Beit Midrash, causing bittul Torah [waste of time to be spent on Torah study]. If that is the case, how could the Maccabean struggle to preserve Judaism amidst Hellenized Jerusalem be commemorated through sporting teams and JCC leagues?

To answer this question, a bit of history must be relayed: the Maccabi World Union, which hosts the Maccabiah Games, was established in 1921, at the 12th World Jewish Congress in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. The purpose of this group, which was an amalgamation of various Jewish sport clubs across Central and Eastern Europe, was to increase Jewish physical education, and increase Jewish heroism and strength. These goals were especially reflected in the names of clubs, which commemorated the vigilant acts of such icons as Bar Kokhba. These games also heavily promoted Zionist sentiments, with the first games being held in Tel Aviv in 1932, marking the 1800th anniversary of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Despite the good intentions of the founders of Maccabiah, their ideal Jewish sporting event was tantamount to the very influences that the Maccabees were trying to obliterate! For that reason, many people within the Orthodox communities in pre-war Europe and Palestine were strongly opposed to participation in such events.

However, in the United States, the Maccabi World Union was not as powerful. Out of a total of one thousand athletes that participated in 1932 Maccabiah Games, only four Americans participated in the delegation. Jewish participation in sports was encouraged in order to integrate into American society, not to conform to the Zionist agendas of the Maccabi World Union. For the Jewish immigrants of the early 1900s, stickball and baseball took up the precious bits of time between school and household chores. The American public school system allowed these boys to practice their athletic abilities in a more formal manner, with organized teams and leagues. These schools sprouted such exalted Jewish ballplayers as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, who were revered by baseball aficionados for their outstanding showmanship. These ballplayers exemplified Jewish values in many situations, especially by refusing to play in major games on Yom Kippur. Although Greenberg, who sat out during the Penant Game of 1934, was nowhere close to being considered an observant Jew, his public display of his heritage time and time again tendered reverent and respectful reactions from the American broader public. The poet Edgar A. Guest, who was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, wrote a laudatory poem entitled “Speaking of Greenberg,” whose closing lines exclaimed:

“We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat /

But he’s true to his religion—and I honor him for that.”

(From Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One, 13)

Greenberg was regarded as a hero; it is recalled that when he stepped into synagogue after refusing to play, the congregation stopped the Yom Kippur service and gave him a standing ovation. Brooklyn Dodger Sandy Koufax did a similar thing in the first game of the 1965 World Series, when he decided not to pitch. Ironically, baseball, which was their ticket out of the greenhorn societies of the Jewish enclaves of the inner cities, served as a way to show their Jewish pride to the rest of the world.

So as Yeshiva University students, what can all of this information do for us? How can Jewish involvement in sports influence our successes in both areas of Torah and Madda that are so important to the moral fabric of this institution? In his famous eulogy for Joe Dimaggio, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff relays a story involving a YU faculty member that may shed light on this question:.

Rabbi Shlomo Poliatchek, known as the Iluy of Maitchet, was the first Talmudic scholar of eminent standing to lecture in our hallowed Yeshiva, which was then limited to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Once he chanced upon some youngsters playing stickball in the street before classes had begun at Talmudical Academy, and he turned to his students, saying: “Why didn’t we play ball in our youth? We would be the same Talmidei Chachamim [Torah scholars] today, but we would’ve had a youth.” Rakeffet, who grew up in the Bronx just minutes away from the sacred Yankee Stadium, says that a youth is crucially important towards developing into a Torah scholar. By taking these messages of youthful optimism and Jewish pride into account, we can all ultimately be better citizens of Yeshiva University and the rest of the world as well.

The legitimacy of whether or not many of our Jewish brethren have made it as “Jewish Sports Legends” is irrelevant to the destiny of our people. However, when we take into account all of the positive energy created by their Jewish pride, and use it to build ourselves and the world, we may not become “Jewish Sports Legends,” but perhaps Jewish Legends.