There has been for some time a persisting stereotype of the un-athletic and weak Jew. But a recent exhibit at the Beit Hatfutsot museum in Tel Aviv aimed to correct that misconception.
“The Game of Their Lives” portrayed the stories of people and teams driven to excel at any cost, with stories of 19 Jewish athletes prior to Israeli statehood in 1948. Although Israel has not delivered a considerable amount of Jewish athletes, the exhibit raiseed awareness on the strength, willpower and above all, athletic ability of the Jewish people.
Barney Ross was a Jew, war hero and one of the greatest boxers of all time. Born in New York in 1909 as Beryl David Rosofsky, Ross grew up in the heart of the Jewish ghetto in Chicago. Ross’s father was a rabbi and local shopkeeper and, accordingly, Ross had always planned on becoming a Talmudic scholar.
But when he was a teen, Ross witnessed his father’s murder, the nervous breakdown of his mother and his three younger siblings being sent to an orphanage. He was left to take care of himself and so he took to the streets, where he found he could make money as an amateur boxer. He fought nearly 200 amateur fights before receiving his first big break in 1933, when he fought Tony Canzoneri. Ross holds the exceptional position of being a triple-division champion boxer, and is one of the 19 athletes whose stories are told.
The careers and achievements of some of these athletes were characterized by their Jewishness, but above all by their athleticism. Talent, devotion and determination has distinguished these individuals in the sports arena, and their impressive accomplishments have helped to shape the representation of the athletic Jew. Although the stereotype of the physically weak Jew still prevails, Jews have been among the most prominent athletes in world sports. They have dominated world boxing, given technique to the game of soccer and won Olympic medals.
Adi Rubinstein, the exhibit’s curator, studied history as an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University. After deciding to specialize in sports history, he found that research in the discipline was not as developed in Israel as it was in other countries. “[Sports are] not a part of our culture,” Rubinstein explained. “In Europe for example, in England and Germany, sports are a huge part of society and history.”
Rubinstein worked with Yael Zeevi, the exhibit designer, for three years viewing archives, meeting with museum directors and accumulating testimonials, photographs and other supporting documents. After compiling a list of 200 exceptional athletes, Rubinstein eventually narrowed it down to 19. This exhibit displayed the product of his extensive research.
Selecting athletes for this exhibit was not easy. “All of them were so amazing to me because I am a sports addict,” said Rubinstein. The exhibit presented athletes who excelled in all fields, including bullfighting, boxing, soccer, baseball and fencing. Those selected were Jewish sports figures who were internationally known, whose Judaism played a considerable role in their lives and whose success surpassed the world of sports.
Rubinstein discussed the main message of his work in relation to the Zionist movement: “Early Zionist ideas painted a reality that we are weak and suffering; that we needed a country because we were beaten everywhere else. As you can see, this was not true – Jews made significant contributions. American athletes saw themselves as Americans first and Zionists second. Before 1948, people [who] came to Israel did not see sports as big in their homelands. ” People like Barney Ross serve as appropriate examples to Rubinstein’s thought. “Barney Ross loved Israel, did everything he could to help the country, but he never made Aliyah. The Zionist idea gave the impression that European and American Jews are weak, but Barney Ross was a world champion.”
The life of Hank Greenberg is another story that goes against the traditional Zionist description of the weak Jew. Henry Benjamin Greenberg was born to Orthodox Romanian immigrants in the Bronx in 1911. In 1929 Greenberg was just another kid looking for a big shot at the major leagues. After being scouted by three Major League teams, including the New York Yankees, Greenberg signed with the Detroit Tigers and became the youngest player in the majors at the age of 19.
Greenberg was the first Jew to be internationally known in major league baseball. Although he holds several statistics, Greenberg’s significance in sports history is not simply measured in numbers. In 1934, the Detroit Tigers were lined up to play the second-place New York Yankees for the World Series, but he game fell on the same day as Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Although Greenberg was not an observant Jew, he sat out the game. His determination for success and his embrace of Jewish tradition makes him an admirable role model for all Jewish athletes.
All of the athletes included in the exhibit made remarkable achievements in their respective sport. However, some of these athletes were included for their intellectual accomplishments as well. The Bohr brothers were known to be exceptional soccer players on the Danish national team but also had notable achievements in the field of science. Harald Bohr was a silver-medal winner at the 1908 Olympic Games, representing the Danish team. He then went on to become a professor of mathematics. His older brother Niel, goalkeeper on the Denmark team, made a significant development in science and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Today he is acknowledged as one of the fathers of quantum physics.
One story that could not be excluded from the exhibit was that of Helene Mayer, born in Offenbach am Main, Germany, in 1910. Mayer began fencing at a young age and went on to become an Olympic champion in the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics. In 1933 she was coerced into giving up her membership at her fencing club, despite her skill and dexterity, because her father was Jewish. Three years later, Germany invited her to represent the country in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in order to mask world opinions that Germany was persecuting the Jews. Although American-Jewish athletes and other Jewish communities were opposed to the Olympics, Mayer decided to compete anyway. This decision was not only controversial at the time, but the inclusion of her story in the current exhibition is also attracting substantial criticism. However, Rubinstein aimed to show her story from a different point of view. “Helene Mayer was a strong and independent woman, without knowing she was an independent woman.”